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BJP MP sets afloat 'fresh misconceptions' around population explosion

By Srinivas Goli* 

On 4 February 2022, a motion was moved for the consideration of the Population Regulation Bill, 2019. The stated purpose of the bill is to control the growth of the population in India. The proposed private member bill was signed by as many as 125 Members of Parliament, thus assuming a greater significance.
Compared to earlier private member bills for population control, the latest proposed bill received a considerable political and academic debate. The reason is simple when the previous bills were proposed India’s fertility was high, while today, the country achieved its replacement level fertility or the desired fertility level (i.e. two parents replacing with two children) at the national level and in the majority of its states and districts.
Thus, several population scientists believe that we don't need a population control bill at a time when the country needs to focus on reaping the demographic dividend arising out of the demographic change by inserting better socio-economic and health policies.
However, notwithstanding a large scientific opinion that emerged in academic and media platforms, a fresh motion was moved by BJP MP Professor Rakesh Sinha for the deliberation of the population control bill, 2019 in the Rajya Sabha. In the course of the introduction of the motion, several arguments have been made in support of the population control bill.
There is a need to decode some of those claims by inserting a scientific understanding of the concepts and measures stated in Professor Sinha’s speech.

High fertility claim using TMFR instead of TFR

The high fertility claim using TMFR (average number of children per married woman) over TFR (average of the number of children per woman) is a false argument. To understand this, we need to understand how TMFR is measured and the difference between TFR and TMFR.
TFR is a measure of the anticipated level of completed fertility per woman if she passes through the reproductive years for bearing children according to the current age-specific fertility schedule. And the TMFR is nothing but TFR measured assuming that all women married at the age of 15 and remain in the marital union until age 49.
So, TMFR is a hypothetical measure of the number of children that a woman can bear if she marries at the age of 15 and be in the union until 49. However, in the real situation, all women are not marrying at age 15 and all will not be in the marital union until 49. On average women in India today marry nearly 5 years later than what it used to be in the early 1990s.
Several scientific studies from India have demonstrated that the rise in age at marriage is one of the major reasons for fertility decline. In fact, the difference in TMFR and TFR is considered to be the contribution of the rise in age at marriage of women in the population.
The ratio of TFR to TMFR (i.e. TFR/TMFR) is considered as the index of marriage¾a proximate determinant of fertility decline. Therefore, TMFR can be used only to understand how much rise in age at marriage contributes to fertility rather than a measure of current fertility levels in the population.

Half-baked argument about the ratio of population to natural resources

For a long-time now, there has been a consensus that the optimum population is important for sustainable development and economic growth. However, except for a few districts, India already achieved desired fertility levels. Current population growth is due to population momentum until the population size of women in the reproductive age bracket stabilizes -- which eventually follows after replacement level fertility with a certain lag-time.
Not just size, huge unequal distribution of resources, consumption, and wastage across the populations also contributes to resource depletion
The carrying capacity of the earth (i.e. a maximum population size that can be sustained by a specific environment, given the land, food, habitat, water, and other resources available), is not a static concept. It changes with changing science and technology. Human technological resources help maximize the utility of a given space which proved across the different geographical spaces with the agricultural revolution.
Moreover, population size alone is not a contribution to the depletion of natural resources when there is a huge unequal distribution of resources, consumption, and wastage across the populations. Therefore, economic inequalities and wastage of resources need to be factored into the debate of population and sustainable development. Roughly the richest quintile person consumes 16 times more resources than a person in the poorest quintile.

Deceptive assertion about demographic dividend

In the course of his speech the speaker nullified arguments about the anticipated demographic dividend for India due to window opportunity created by demographic change. This is in contradiction to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and Former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s references to India’s potential demographic opportunities on several occasions.
The growing working-age population and the declining child (dependent) population are giving a window of opportunity to India to reap demographic dividends for the country. However, replacement level fertility is key for maintaining balance in support ratios (is the number of people aged 15–64 per one older person aged 65 or older).
Therefore, no country wants to decline in fertility below the replacement level (i.e. two children per woman). This is the key reason why a majority of the countries in the world today encourage having children rather than curtail them.

Conclusion

In India today, the bulk of the current population growth deliberation advanced by the ruling regime is attributing population size as a sole or a major reason for the problems that the country is facing. To me, this is an ill-informed and unscientific argument. 
The existing evidence does not warrant to say population size in India is the major reason for the lack of basic resources in the hands of the poor. The problem lies in the decades of unequal distribution of resources and their misgovernance.
The wrong conclusions arrived out of misconceptions and improper understanding of the demographic concepts, population growth facts, and also mechanism behind high fertility and population growth in a few states and districts. 
India should focus more on enhancing its human development indicators that help reduce fertility in the district where there is above replacement level fertility and also contribute in reap the demographic dividend and push economic growth.
---
*Australia India Institute New Generation Network scholar, UWA Public Policy Institute, University of Western Australia, Perth; assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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