Poles apart: India's demographic divide

October 20, 2011

Open Knowledge: India conducted its decadal census in 2011. What are the most important findings?

K.S. James: The first major finding is that the population growth rate is declining but it is still high enough to indicate that the Indian population is likely to grow substantially for the coming few decades. The Indian population will touch 1.7 or 1.8 billion. Stabilization will come only after 2050-2070.

Second, there are also large variations in the growth rate across regions. While southern states are actually recording substantial dips in fertility and growth rates we still have high growth rates in northern parts of the country.


So there is a demographic divide within India?

That’s right. The southern states now have negative growth in the 0-14 age group which is spreading slowly into the 15-24 group as well. The age profile of these states is bulging in the working adult age group.

This is different from the picture we get for the northern states, especially the high population states Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar which constitute nearly 40 percent of the Indian population. Here some change is occurring but far less compared to other states.


Can India provide enough jobs for the ‘bulge’ of working age Indians?

Currently the 15-64 age group is around 65 per cent of the population—India's baby boom generation. One view says that this growing young population means we will have a demographic dividend leading to economic growth.

But unlike in the West socio-economic development didn’t precede demographic changes. So those people born 20-30 years back did not get adequate education. Their productivity levels and earning capacity are low. This is an unavoidable transition phase of Indian history.

However, these people will likely have smaller families and so have strong intentions to educate their children and do the best for them.


Overall, what does India’s demographic profile look like?

India is in the last but one stage of the demographic transition from high fertility and mortality to low fertility and mortality. We are nearing replacement level fertility of 2.1 children per couple. Now India’s fertility rate is something like 2.6 children. It will take another 10 years or more to achieve 2.1 children.

Prof. K.S. James, Head of Population Research Centre, Institute for Social and Economic Change: "The decline in the population growth rate in southern states has led to labor scarcity...leading to substantial migration to cities in southern states from the northern states."
Prof. K.S. James, Head of Population Research Centre, Institute for Social and Economic Change: "The decline in the population growth rate in southern states has led to labor scarcity...leading to substantial migration to cities in southern states from the northern states."

Why are Indians having fewer children?

In western countries education and income increased and then fertility started declining. But in most Indian states fertility started declining before education and development. The fertility transition mainly occurred when large numbers of illiterate women started accepting contraception. Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are classic examples.


So if education and wealth were not decisive, what other factors were important?

India’s strong family planning policies helped to promote the small family norm. The federal government has had a strong family planning program since independence and state governments have adopted strong policies thereafter.

The policies remain the same today. Governments still emphasize family planning programs that are mainly driven by female sterilization.

But from the 1980s onwards there has been a drastic fertility decline in many states not because of government pressure but maybe because of TV and other communications.


Why is the pace of change slower in the north?

One major reason is that the state machinery in these states has always been inefficient compared to other states, not just in terms of family planning programs but many development programs. Another reason is that communication channels such as TV have spread much slower.


Are there any cultural or religious factors that are important?

Although there has been considerable discussion on religious fertility differentials it is not really that important in India. Muslim fertility is also declining as fast as Hindu fertility although the level of fertility among Muslims is slightly higher.


What are the effects of the demographic divide between north and south?

The decline in the population growth rate in southern states has led to labor scarcity, particularly in the unskilled labor sector, and this is leading to substantial migration to cities in southern states from the northern states.

Because of large inflows of migrants southern cities such as Bangalore and Chennai have grown much faster than the countryside. This migration from demographically and economically poor states to advanced states could mean more tensions and conflict.


How rapidly is rural-urban migration happening?

Actually the proportion of the population that is urban has not been growing that rapidly, about two percent per decade over the 1981, 1991 and 2001 censuses.

But my feeling is the latest census will give a much higher figure for two reasons: the agricultural crisis in the country making people migrate to cities and more educated people moving to urban areas for better jobs. The next census will see much more rapid urbanization.


What other big demographic challenges does India face?

One is the worsening gender imbalance in the sex ratio, especially in the younger ages, a reflection of women's position in a society that has a strong son preference.

In some states like the Punjab the gender imbalance is creating a serious scarcity of women at marriageable age. This will create tensions in the marriage market and may even lower the marriageable age of women.

We will also have sections of society with very different values, for example with regard to women getting education and into the labor force, marriage and divorce. This can lead to conflict: in Karnataka there have been many instances of women being beaten for going to the pub to drink.


What else do you expect to see in the 2021 census?

With the fertility transition accelerating even in the north, I'm afraid there may be a scarcity of labor, particularly for many unskilled activities. For the West, this scarcity was filled in by migration from developing countries but what will India do?

James Tulloch

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