India’s Population Breakthrough

The Cairo population conference is a good occasion to announce some good news. India is currently enjoying a major breakthrough in curbing population.

Most Indians will find this incredible. Despite many decades of family planning, the country’s population has been growing steadily by around 2 per cent per year since independence, and cynics believe that all the effort and money has gone down the drain.

In fact the days of 2 per cent population growth are over. The rate fell to 1.9 per cent in 1991 and could decline to anything between 1.3 per cent and 1.6 per cent by the end of this decade, curbing population growth by perhaps 50 million by the year 2000.

Many people will refuse to believe this. How is such a breakthrough possible, they will ask, when we all know that the government’s health and family planning programmes are as lethargic and mismanaged as ever? The answer is instructive. The birth rate has been falling for decades, from 45.2 per thousand in 1941 to 29.6 per thousand in 1991. But simultaneously, the death rate has declined from 31.2 per thousand to 9.8 per thousand. The positive impact of literacy, higher incomes and contraception on the birth rate has been negated by the impact of improved health on the death rate.

END OF TREND: But this trend is about to end, says Dr Vasant Gowariker, former Scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, in his book ‘The Inevitable Billion Plus.’ India’s death rate was 9.8 per thousand in 1991, already lower than in many European countries, and cannot drop much further-perhaps to 8 per thousand by the year 2000. Meanwhile, the birth rate should keep dropping. It fell from 37.2 per thousand in 1981 to 29.8 in 1991, and a continuation of this trend will lower the rate to 21 per thousand by the year 2000.

Population growth is the birth rate minus the death rate. So, Dr Gowariker calculates, population growth in 2000 will fall to just 13 per thousand, or 1.3 per cent. This implies a dramatic deceleration after four decades of population growth of 2 per cent.

His calculations do not assume any improvement in the efficiency of services. They rest simply on the fact that the falling death rate will bottom out while the birth rate will keep falling. Health programmes in earlier decades, despite many sins of commission and omission, have lowered infant mortality and the overall death rate, a precondition for population control, in every single state. So the birth rate has also fallen in every state, even the four laggards called the BIMARU states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh).

TOO SIMPLIFIED: Other population experts are not so optimistic. They say Dr Gowariker is not a demographer, and is making some simplistic assumptions. Consider, for instance, his assumption that the birth rate will continue falling as rapidly as before. In the 1980s, some progressive states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu reduced their fertility rates dramatically, to the point of virtually zero population growth. But having hit rock bottom, their birth rate cannot decline further. So the national birth rate will now fall only if other states, especially the BIMARU states, improve their performance. And some demographers are skeptical about this happening. Dr Gowariker thinks population growth will be down to 1.3 per cent by the year 2000, but others think 1.5 or 1.6 may be more realistic.

I must make two points. First, even a decline to 1.6 per cent will represent a major breakthrough by any standards. Second, it is not altogether fanciful to think that the poor performers of past decades will improve substantially in the 1990s. The birth rate is correlated with factors like urbanisation, literacy, and income levels. and all three are likely to improve in the 1990s. Even in wretched Bihar, life expectancy now exceeds 60, more than double the national life expectancy of 27 at independence. The total fertility rate (number of children per woman) remains as high as 5.1 in Uttar Pradesh, but Orissa’s rate is down to 3.3. Nobody expects the BIMARU states to become as progressive as Kerala, but surely they could, by the year 2000, reach Orissa’s current level. That alone would have a huge impact on population growth.

Finally, I suspect the death rate may not decline at all in the coming decade, despite improved health. Let me share with readers a fact that will surprise most of them. India’s death rate of 9.8 per thousand in 1991 was below the 11 per thousand recorded by Germany, Britain, Belgium, Austria and Sweden. These European countries have far better health facilities than India. But the percentage of aged folk is high in these countries, and so death from old age is much higher. In India too the proportion of the aged is beginning to rise, especially in progressive states. Kerala’s current death rate of 6.3 per thousand looks unsustainably low-as its people age, its death rate will rise closer to Britain’s I I per thousand.

What do you think?