PRB Discuss Online: Will India's Population Reach 2 Billion?

(October 2007) Fertility in India has fallen from an average of about six children per woman in the 1960s to about three today, a remarkable achievement for the country’s efforts to slow population growth. India’s population passed the 1 billion mark in 2000—will it pass 2 billion, even with these lower fertility rates?

During a PRB Discuss Online, Carl Haub, senior demographer at PRB, answered participants’ questions about what is likely to happen with India’s population as it becomes the world’s most populous country.

Thank you for taking part in this PRB online discussion. The number of questions submitted exceeded our ability to answer them in the allotted time. If you have a question for Mr. Haub, please e-mail him at The Future Population of India, by Carl Haub and O.P. Sharma, may be downloaded at www.prb.org

October 17, 2007 1 PM EST

Transcript of Questions and Answers

Carl Haub: In fact, India’s population growth really isn’t uncontrolled although the potential for increase to 2 billion certainly makes it seem that way. In most states women average less than three children. If the government had not declared its population policy in 1952, we can only imagine how big the country would have become. But significant population concern remains in the populous northern states, as you know. There is global cooperation as many international aid agencies and international organizations have committed large sums and expertise—USAID, DIFD, UNFPA, UNICEF, and many others.

Richard Cincotta: Besides the fertility differences between north and south India, some demographers have posited that India’s economically-booming urban areas are also at replacement level or below. Are there data that indicate large differentials, particularly in northern cities, that are larger than the usual urban-rural fertility gap?
Carl Haub: Actually, there are entire states below replacement, e.g., Keralal and Tamil Nadu. Addressing your notion of low fertility in urban areas, there are district-level data from the 2002-2004 Reproductive and Child Health Survey (RCHS) that measure fertility by the percent of births that are third order or higher. The picture from that survey is a little muddled but it can’t really show differences between higher and lower income groups. In Delhi, where the total fertility rate is 2.1 children, fertility in generally wealthier South Delhi is actually slightly higher than the city average but, again, we can’t separate out richer and poorer neighborhoods. Another issue, I think, is that son preference remains among higher income groups and that would help keep fertility a bit higher.

Mr. Cafiero’s AP Human Geography Class: How can India best promote a bottom-up family planning population policy? Is it possible that India could have the relative success that neighboring Bangladesh has seen in the past generation?
Carl Haub: Today, India and Bangladesh have about the same fertility level, three children per woman although the period of India’s decline was more protracted, while it was more sudden in Bangladesh. You’re certainly right that bottom-up programs can work well as they did with Bangladesh’s home visitors. India is trying that route again, and quite seriously, with its new National Rural Health Mission. Despite the difficulties of serving such a huge rural population, we can hope that it succeeds.

Rahat Bari Tooheen: If India’s population does exceed the 2 million benchmark, it will have unique population pressures. What might some of those pressures be, and how can they be addressed by the Indian policy makers?
Carl Haub: The first thing that comes to mind is the almost certainly increased pressure for rural-urban migration. One tactic to cope would be the establishment of new employment centers throughout the country, something that is being done with new “industrial estates” and special economic zones. Expanding that program would be quite helpful. But, that will also require a better educated and trained labor force. India has fallen short on that thus far.

C.S.Radhakrishnan: In examining the prospects of a nation like India exceeding others in Population, we ought to be taking into account the following factors, inter alia: Whether the country has the capacity to support such a projected growth? Whether the experience of other countries which witnessed Population decline after they achieved economic proserity will not apply to India? Whether the Experience of China which went for drastic measures to cut growth rate should not be borne in mind in such calculations? May I hpe to hear how these concerns have been addressed in the present exercize?
Carl Haub: Those concerns are not addressed in the exercise itself but we can address them here. The capacity to cope is certainly unknown but one would think that truly excessive population growth could act as a brake, particularly as rural land can no longer be subdivided. That is one of those things that purely demographic projections cannot predeict, at least not easily. I don’t think a China-like policy is appropriate for India, as the period of the 1970s Emergency showed but that bringing reproductive health services and information to the village level in a voluntary program certainly is. Population decline would be an interesting new issue in India, but it is actually in the future of states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu and I have noticed articles about aging. For the forseeable future, I imagine those states could solve any labor shortages by attracting migrants.

Rachna Maheshwari: India is one of the rapidly growing large developing economies. How do you think the Indian government’s failure to tackle the population explosion successfully will hinder India’s future potential for growth and development?
Carl Haub: Well, I wouldn’t call it a failure, at least not everywhere since many states have much lower fertility than in the past. It has been far less successful in the north, as we all know. Your question is certainly a difficult one to answer, but I think we can reasonably expect economic growth to continue with the help of foreign investment and India’s own large corporations such as Reliance and Tata, etc. My concern is the very large number of people who may be left out. But this also seems to be a concern of the current government and I hope all future ones.

John Bermingham: Hi, Carl – I’m always in need of a map. Is there one that could be posted to show fertility rates in the various Indian states?
Carl Haub: Hi, John. We don’t have one at present in a form to post on our website but certainly can and will. Good idea!

J Kishore: Indian Bureaucracy and politician has always given emphasis on population control whereas it has been proven for many decades that primary education and health are the prime drivers to control population. Till today these are neglected sectors. Disparity is increasing day by day as far as type of schools and institutions, are concerned. Who will convince the government that there is need to develop infrastructure in education and health?
Carl Haub: Absolutely true, but I see change and committment in that regard, do you agree? The new National Rural Health Mission is one example. The problem as I see it, is ensuring full cooperation of the state governments in implementing village-level programmes, especially where that has been lacking.

Carl Haub: In part, I’d think but also its rural nature and deeply-rooted traditions. And, sadly, many women in rural areas have little say on their own childbearing.

Oswell Rusinga: Isn’t it that the population growth problem is based on doomsayers? China is improving very fast in terms of human development with a large population. Is the problem is rapid population growth or regional inequalities?
Carl Haub: China also greatly lowered its fertility rate via an involuntary program that has been shown not to work well in India. Virtuallty all areas of China, both rich and poor have low fertility. The problem in India is its vast rural population and its comparatively rapid growth. Different situation, I think.

Rachna Maheshwari: Obviously, a successful population control policy for India should have several dimensions to it. Spreading awareness about family planning and birth control and increased female literacy, education and labor force participation will reduce birth rates. There are definitely other measures that could help. Can you suggest a comprehensive set of measures that you think should be taken by India and other developing countries with high population densities?
Carl Haub: First, I would suggest ensuring that reproductive health information and supplies be delivered to all villages, not just urban centres. But also very important is involving men in discussions on the need for intelligent reproductive health choices. This was, e.g., done well in Indonesia. Education of women is obvious lacking in many parts of the country but this solution does take time. Even uneducated women can be quickly informed about their choices.

Dilip Kumar: Population of North Part of India will be affected by the natural calamities for the control of population apart from the other efforts of the Government. Due to the social and economic pressure they will delay or avoid the marriage and avoid to produce a baby due to the high cost of rearing and shelter etc.
Carl Haub: Yes, I think I was alluding to this when I referred earlier to rural population outstripping available land.

Mr. Cafiero’s AP Human Geography Class: To what extent is India attempting to correct any gender imbalances that may arise over the next 50 years? If so, does this mean that India must wrestle itself internally regarding cultural and moral issues?
Carl Haub: India has a large, well-publicized campaign against sex-selective abortion, which I believe is what you’re referring to. There even appears to be some success in Punjab, where the practice is most widespread. The practice has been made illegal and practitioners arrested. I’ll continue in my answer to the next question.

Marion Hughes: To what extent is son preference a factor in India’s fertility?
Carl Haub: Son preference is deeply-rooted for reason of support in one’s old age and to officiate at one’s funeral. It almost certainly helps to keep fertility somewhat higher. In National Health Survey-2 (1998-99) only 17% of women with one living daughter wanted to cease childbearing while 83 percent with 2 living sons did. There is often a preference for more than one son, to ensure survival of at least one. The 2005-2006 version of the above survey should appear on the Web soon and we can see how that has changed.

Priscilla Campbell: What kinds of grassroots programs are planned to help educate India’s poor to the advantages of family planning? Programs that show the benefits of family planning (such as family economic stability, better education for their children, better futures for their children, etc) are vital.
Carl Haub: I did mention this in earlier responses that new programs such as the National Rural Health Mission is designed to do just that and a major effort funded by USAID in Uttar Pradesh has been working towards the same goal. Just two examples. But the task is quite large in many ways.

Rahat Bari Tooheen: When India’s population surpasses the 2 billion mark, it will face unique population pressures. What might some of those pressures be in your opinion, and what steps should Indian policy makers take to address them?
Carl Haub: One thing I should say is that it might not reach 2 billion, particularly if fertility decline accelerates in the north. Earlier, I mentioned that stemming the tide of rural-urban migration by spreading employment centers across the country (which is being done to a degree) would help.

Anil Kumar Swayampakula: With increasing population being the root cause of many issues in India, do you think its time to implement a new policy mandating family planning with ‘ONLY ONE’or ‘ONLY TWO’ slogans?
Carl Haub: Well, India does have such a slogan “We Two, Us Two,” (Hum Do, Dare Do, if I remember that correctly) and, really, India’s family planning programme has had considerable success. But several states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, and Rajasthan have policies to limit all elected officials to two children. Other states, such as Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have withdrawn such policies. Such rigid policies would encourage abortion of female fetuses. I think that reproductive health education is the way for India, not coercive-type policies.

Bashir Ahmad Bhat: Fertility among Muslims in India is somewhat higher than among Hindus probably because of their low socio economic status. However the third round of National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3)has shown that Muslims fertility among Muslims has declined sharply during the last 6 years than among Hindus. But some people still have the notion that Muslims will outnumber Hindus by the time it completes its demographic transition. Do you forsee any such possibility?
Carl Haub: No, that seems quite impossible. In addition, I would expect the fertility rate of both groups to converge over time and the new survey appears to support that notion.

Ravi Gangadharaiah Nayaka: with medium fertility rate india is to reach 1.66 billion with high fertility rate it might reach 1.9 billion. 2 billion is under ideal sustainable living condition i like to verify my understanding .
Carl Haub: Sorry, to which years are you referring?

Bashir Ahmad Bhat: Fertility in urban areas has declined to less than 2.1. In one of our states (Jammu and Kashmir), it has declined to as low as 1.63. What will the consequences of this declining fertility on different sectors of economy, society, polity, health education etc. Is this the tie when the states have to do something to keep the fertility at around 2.1.
Carl Haub: Well, even in India’s low fertility states, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where fertility is 1.7, no state is as low as some European and East Asian countries where it is 1.1 – 1.3. Still, aging will become more of a concern. but, rather than encourage 2.1, I had mentioned earlier attracting migrants from other states.

Jagdish Tummala: Few southern states in India have fertility rates that are lower than that of USA? Do you think this will be a cue to the rest of India to act in the same path?
Carl Haub: That certainly is THE big question. Most analysts I talk to in India feel that societies in the south are so different from the north that the southern states don’t really serve as a model. I think just reaching 2.1 may be quite difficult in north in some states, let alone below that.

Joseph: Since India’s growth rate can reduce from 6 children to 3 children per woman. Is it posible for there to be a situation were it will be 1 child per woman?
Carl Haub: Today, it is very difficult to foresee such a situation. Son preference alone, if continued, would mitigate against it.

Kamal Kishor: The Hindi belt is like Midwest in the USA. This region in the USA is contributing in the stabalization of the USA population but that part of India is just contributing in the growth of India’s population. The majority of population in the Hindi belt consists of Hindu and Muslim both very conservatives, socially feudalistics and fundamentalists. The only way,India would not reach a two billion mark is for this belt’s state governments to priorities on population issues and take serious measures to address negative social issues such as caste, traditional feudal cultures and etc. Without addressing social issues and incorporating into population dynamism, are there other factors that can seriously reduce the present high fertility pattern among Hindi belts?
Carl Haub: Well, several things, I think. Providing really effective reproductive health information and services in the villages, trying to involve men, and providing non-agricultural jobs in those states might help. One question we could ask is: just how large an agricultural population could, say, Uttar Pradesh support before it becomes “excess” and then some other means of livelihood would have to be provided.

Jagdish Tummala: with the economic boom that is being predicted for India, it is pretty obvious that poverty is going to decline in the upcoming years, more people will get educated and the myths and norms in the society will have to give way to a more radical thinking. This is already happening in India. The vicious cycle will ultimately see a rapid decline in the growth rates in the country. Will this not happen in the next forty years with the economic boom?
Carl Haub: It certainly could but we must ask just how many people will actually benefit from the boom and to what degree? I think I’m a little pessimistic on that. I would see a relatively small elite benefit greatly with not very much “trickle down” to the population in general. Is that too pessimistic?

Kamal Kishor: Without directly confronting the feudalistics cultures (both Hindu and Muslims), traditions of Northern India, is it possible to reduce the birth and death rates considerably to reduce it at Country level?
Carl Haub: I think that it is quite possible but will require a concerted and sustained effort. E.g., birth rate data collected by the Registrar General of India suggest no decline currently in Bihar. One thing to remember about the projections that are the subject of this discussion is that the projections assume that a smooth decline will, in fact, take place and also decline to near the two child family. If that does not happen, or if it takes much longer than we assumed, the resulting population would be even larger.

Rachna Maheshwari: Given the high level of disparity among states in population control, isn’t it better for the center to further decentralize tackling of population control policies? Do you notice any measures towards decentralizing population control policies and measures?
Carl Haub: Yes, in fact, many efforts have been directed by state governments for many years and, in some cases, that has actually contributed to failure, or partial failure. While efforts to the village level are definitely needed, perhaps more effective monitoring from the Centre is needed as well.

Sid: Why is not India’s fertility rate falling, and why is that girls are married at an earlier age
Carl Haub: Actually, India’s fertility rate is declining although slowly. It might seem that it isn’t if one of our projections shows it reaching 2 billion. Incidentally, even that projection assumes that it continue a smooth decline, not necessarily guaranteed. The legal age for marriage is now 18 for females and 21 for males, but the tradition of early marraige continues, particularly in the vast rural village areas. Why is a very good question and the only answer I have is “tradition.”