The voices demanding population control are growing louder by the day in India, the most recent being Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat, who argued for a population control law to correct “the religion-based population imbalance” in the country, on October 5 in his annual Dusshera speech.
From environmental concerns to religious bigotry, many Indians over the years have given numerous reasons to support a population control law. But as data and evidence show, a law like this is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive for a country like India.
India’s political establishment has simultaneously romanticised and worried about the country’s rapid population growth and resource constraints and has long argued for population control, even if by force. In the past, this has also received support from international agencies like the World Bank. This was the backdrop of population control in the 20th century, whose darkest moment was the forced sterilisations at the height of the Emergency.
Since then, India’s population control regime has largely moved away from coercion to a system based on incentives and information dissemination. This, along with increased prosperity and education in the country, has steadily brought down the country’s population growth rate to less ‘scary’ levels. At the current rates, demographers estimate that India’s population will peak at 1.6 billion by 2047 and decline after that, which is a far cry from the population apocalypse often fantasised by many.
Therefore, the recent wave of increased demands for population control is surprising, especially considering that India’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) fell below replacement levels earlier this year (which means that India’s population will start to decline at some point in the future). Two motley groups raise the demands for population control in India; one believes that India has too many people and will face a resource crunch in the future due to its large population. They make the same arguments as the old Indian regime for population control.
But, in the present, the second group is louder and more powerful. They argue that certain communities (almost always Muslims) are growing disproportionately more than others, sometimes with an explicit aim to outnumber other communities through a “population jihad”, and this calls for a population control law to stop their hitherto unchecked expansion. A much smaller group uses the same reasoning, except they blame North Indian states instead. This points to the conclusion that development indicators like education and income better determine population growth rates than religion, as seen in the case of Uttar Pradesh’s Hindus who have a higher TFR than Kerala’s Muslims.
Neither of the above two claims hold up to evidence or scrutiny. The world is very far from facing a resource crunch and can support billions of more people. The demographic transition theory suggests that as countries develop, their populations will peak and go down on their own (corroborated by evidence worldwide). This is one reason why international organisations don’t give much support for population control anymore (especially coercive measures).
There isn’t much evidence to support the second claim either. No credible modelling suggests that the Muslim population will surpass 17% of the Indian population. Moreover, the community’s TFR has been falling faster than India’s TFR, which makes Muslims becoming the majority community impossible. As former Election Commissioner S.Y. Qureshi’s hard-hitting book proves, there has been no evidence apart from imaginative theories on any organised “population jihad” plot to increase India’s population, even considering the insane logistics and resources required to do anything close to it.
One might still support a population control law, partly because of its perceived success in countries like China (or in Bhagwat’s case, East Timor, Kosovo and South Sudan). China’s iconic One Child Policy restricted every Han Chinese couple to just one child from 1979 to avoid overpopulation and a resource crunch. In the past, this policy has been widely cited as a success story.
Except that recent research suggests that this is not the case. Most of China’s slowing down in population growth can be attributed to its economic development, increased education, and (usually voluntary) population control measures taken before 1979. Anything solely attributed to the law itself is unnecessary, as even the Chinese government has admitted that the population has slowed too rapidly.
But it would be wrong to argue that it did not have any impact. It’s just that any impact it had was negative; it dramatically worsened the sex ratio in the country, leading to a generation of missing women and mail order brides. India also faces a similar issue of missing women, as stated by academics like Amartya Sen, even though we did not have a cap on the number of children. Nobody would want to guess how much more missing women India would have if we were to implement anything similar to China’s policy.
Enacting a population control law, especially a coercive law, is not a need of the hour for us. It is an excessive response to an overblown problem that is unnecessary, coercive, sexist, communal and based on ignorant or malicious arguments. For a country that has been successful in voluntary family planning and whose take-off depends on its reserves of human capital, there is no need to cut our wings off.
Nidan Ali Basheer studies developmental studies at IIT Madras and is a Writing Fellow at Fellowship for Freedom in India.
Featured image: Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat addresses at a Vijayadashami function, in Nagpur, Wednesday, October 5, 2022. Photo: PTI