India is the second most populated country in the world with a sixth of the world’s population and is set to surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2027, according to recent United Nations projections. According to the 2019 revision of the World Population Prospects, the population stood at 1,352,642,280 and is expected to add another 230 million by 2050, many of whom will be among the world’s poorest. While these statistics sound alarming, they hide a more complex reality and some positive trends behind them – as pointed out by experts.

India, being the host to around 16% of the world’s population, has been facing several challenges. There is constant pressure on resources, which has led to a major chunk of the population suffering from unemployment, illiteracy, low living standards, and unequal distribution of income. There are several reasons behind the high population growth in India, the main one being low socio-economic development and literacy. Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state of India, has a literacy rate of 67.68% (Census 2011); and less than 25% of the women receive complete antenatal care. Uttar Pradesh records an average of four children per couple. In contrast, in Kerala almost every person is literate and almost every woman receives antenatal care. Kerala records an average of two children per couple.

Another reason is the culture of getting women married at an early age. Nearly 27% of women were married before attaining 18 years of age. Early marriage increases the likelihood of more children, but it also puts the woman’s health at risk. Apart from that, nearly 75.4% of married men in India currently use no method of contraception, as per the National Family Health Survey. Only 18% of women have a final say in family planning decisions. There are also other socio-economic factors like the desire for larger families, particularly the preference for a male child, which also leads to higher birth rates. It is estimated that preference for a male child and high Infant Mortality Rates together account for 20% of the total births in the country. Families that have suffered as a result of poverty, natural disasters, or are simply in need of more hands to work are a major factor in overpopulation. 

As discussed earlier, overpopulation has been leading to major problems that are being faced by the people of India on a day-to-day basis including food scarcity, lack of clothing and proper housing facilities, which are basic needs of human life. This affects the lives of millions of people resulting in the formation of slum areas and a huge population suffering from starvation and malnutrition. Overpopulation also aggravates unemployment and creates large families living on low incomes, reducing the standard of living of people living therein. For example, the low income of large families unable to afford education for their children contributes to the spread of illiteracy. Not only this, but overpopulation also leads to environmental degradation by increasing air, water, soil and noise pollution, unhygienic conditions and deforestation leading to floods and soil erosion.

There is also pressure on the government to improve the country’s infrastructure as it is unfortunately not keeping pace with the growth of the population. The result is a lack of transportation, communication, housing, education, and healthcare. In the face of an increasing population, unequal distribution of income and inequalities within the country have been widening.

The Indian government has been taking steps to overcome the issues related to the population by introducing various policies. India was the first country in the world to have launched a National Programme for Family Planning in 1952 and the National Commission on Population was formed in the year 2000. The Commission, chaired by the Prime Minister, has the mandate to review, monitor and give directions for the implementation of the National Population Policy. In recent times, some of the states in India have applied a two-child norm. In Rajasthan, those having more than two children are not eligible for appointments in government jobs. In Maharashtra, candidates are disqualified from contesting local body elections for having more than two children.

There is, however, an argument quite popular nowadays amongst experts against the Population Control Policy. The Total Fertility Rate of India has already started dipping. 28 out of 36 States/UTs have already achieved the replacement level fertility of 2.1 or less. Demographers, after studying China’s One-Child Policy, warned that strict population control measures would have negative consequences which include accelerating population ageing, a skewed sex ratio and a decline in the working-age population, which would threaten economic growth. The Population Control Policies have also been touted as being discriminatory against women as India has one of the world’s highest rates of female sterilizations, with about 37% of women having the operations. Only a tiny fraction of men chooses to have vasectomies. Experts suggest that the Policy may also lead to a worrying trend of gender discrimination as a desire for male children could lead to higher rates of abortions and infanticide. In such a situation, de-incentivization, such as taking away subsidies, will only affect a very small proportion of people. Sometimes, it is due to extreme poverty, lack of awareness or the inability to afford contraceptives or abortion that people have more children. These policies can also turn out to be counterproductive as studies have found that men divorced their wives to run for local body elections and families gave up children for adoption to avoid disqualification in states that had adopted a two-child policy.

Thus, focusing mainly on the Population Control Policy is not enough. It is more important to focus on areas such as women’s empowerment, better health care and investment in education. India is on its way to completing its demographic transition, where the population in the younger age groups has begun to decline. It should stop fretting about the population problem. People should voluntarily decide to have fewer children because of access to education or maybe by giving them positive incentives.

Studies have shown that if India manages to lift the poorest 20% out of poverty, the fertility rate would be about 1.9. The answer, hence, lies in a higher and more inclusive economic growth of the country. This will automatically reduce the reproductive rate and is a better proposition than hoping to raise economic growth by limiting population growth.

– Sonal Himanshu

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