India, the second most populous country in the world, has reached a key demographic milestone as birth rates fall below replacement level, according to a government survey. This means that while India’s population is still on track to overtake China’s during this decade, its growth has started to slow.
This is good news for a country where a burgeoning population of around 1.38 billion today has long been seen as a hindrance to development and a huge strain on resources.
India’s National Family Health Survey, released this week, shows the country’s fertility rate from 2019 to 2021 has fallen to 2.0. This is seen as a key threshold for the decline in numbers – countries where fewer than 2.1 children are born per woman indicate that a generation is not producing enough children to replace itself and marks the key first step in a possible future. population reduction.
“This has put an end to the misconception that the Indian population is exploding and we need a two child standard policy as proposed by some decision makers,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India. . “We are on the right track to stabilize our population, so instead of blaming the population for our ills, we need to accelerate the gains made and focus on investing in the health, education and skills of young people. ”
Significant progress has been made in recent years in reducing fertility rates, according to researchers, it stood at 2.2 in 2015. They indicate declining levels of poverty and improved family health services which have helped. to increase the use of contraceptives in the country, including in its vast rural areas.
Experts say the main contributors have been an improvement in socio-economic conditions for millions of people over the past two decades, a higher marriage age for many women, and a move towards urbanization – the fertility rate. urban at 1.6 shows that women living in cities seem to opt for small families.
“This is a very good sign for a populous country like India,” said Sanjay Kumar Mohanty, head of population policies at the Mumbai-based International Institute for Demographic Studies. “This means that we no longer need to go the extra mile to bring down the population, except in states where it is still relatively high. It doesn’t have to be a priority concern.
India’s rapid population growth has long posed a challenge – it has almost quadrupled since gaining independence in 1947, when it was home to around 350 million people.
Much of the population was added by less developed and poorer northern states with lower levels of education, while southern states, where literacy levels improved faster, slowed their rate. population growth faster.
Although three populated states in northern India, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh, and two states in the northeast, Meghalaya and Manipur, still have higher birth rates than the rest of the country , they are also progressing, according to public health experts.
“Seven years ago the government began to focus on high fertility districts in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and worked with women. It really had an impact, ”says Muttreja. “Also, I think girls and women have become much more ambitious and want to have fewer children. They want to invest in themselves and in their children. The key to the future will be the education of women because it is without a doubt the best contraceptive pill.
India has run a voluntary family protection program for decades, but coercive methods to reduce the population were briefly used in the 1970s when the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi implemented a controversial sterilization program massive.
In recent years, demographics have become a polarizing issue, with Hindu groups reporting a higher birth rate among Muslims, the country’s largest minority.
Earlier this year, India’s largest states, Uttar Pradesh and Assam, both led by the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata, unveiled controversial bills aimed at curbing population growth. The proposed legislation would deny government jobs, promotions, grants and the right to participate in local elections to anyone with more than two children. Other states led by the BJP have said they are also considering similar legislation to lobby for smaller families.
In an editorial, the Indian Express newspaper said the recent findings of the inquiry “were a resounding repudiation from politicians and policymakers who in recent times have been screaming harshly about the population explosion.”
There have been other positive results. India, where a deep preference for boys has skewed the gender ratio at birth and raised concerns about its “missing daughters,” now has 929 girls born for every 1,000 boys, up from 919 five years ago.
The United Nations has predicted that India will overtake China by 2027, but if the decline in fertility rates persists, the date on which India becomes the most populous nation in the world could be delayed, demographers say.