India's current population is estimated at 1.3 billion. Nearly 17.7 per cent of the world's population lives in India. We are catching up with China whose population is 1.4 billion and has 18.47 per cent of the global population. India is expected to surpass China as the world's most populous nation by 2024.
The current population growth rate is 1 per cent, which means India will add over 13 million people this year. In contrast, the death rate is 7.21 per thousand. The Indian birth rate is much higher than the death rate, although the fertility rate has been falling. But it is still a lot more compared to other countries. And the life expectancy is 69.42 years.
In a country where 50 million people live on less than USD 2 a day and nearly 200 million people are undernourished, the growing population will only make the food security situation worse. Our ambition to transform into a world power will remain only an aspiration if we have such a large population living in poverty. Any photograph of India is full of teeming crowds tightly packed together in a small space or a narrow street or a railway station. This is the image of India in the world.
In the early post-Independence years, family planning was big. Wherever we went, we would see the inverted triangle and messages like "hum do humare do" or "a small family is a happy family". Advertisements for Nirodh were everywhere. I was a child in the 1950s, but the message was very clear. Family planning was the main thrust of India's domestic policy. There was no coyness or subtlety. India was the first country in the world to have a government family planning programme.
And then came the Emergency of the 1970s and the sterilisations. Sanjay Gandhi made this his primary policy, earning public anger and hatred. When the Emergency was lifted and Indira Gandhi lost the elections, India went back on family planning with a vengeance. No more ads were seen. The Congress party wanted to disassociate itself from all taint of population control, especially since Muslims believed they were the main target. All family planning ads disappeared overnight. The Ministry of Family Planning became the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the government unit responsible for formulating and executing family planning in India. The Indian government's official approach moved away from contraceptive methods towards enhancing reproductive health and empowering women and families. But this approach was only suitable for educated families. Thus, while education levels went up in the southern states and the population remained stable, the "Bimaru" northern states with their low educational levels saw their populations rising fast.
India does not have a national child policy today. Many local laws in India apply penalties for having more than two children. Local two-child laws in India have been criticised for being unnecessary, violating women's rights and discriminating against minorities. Since no family planning law mentions any caste or religious group, I do not understand why any community should feel they are the target.
Now Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has unveiled a new population policy for Uttar Pradesh, which, with more than 166 million people, holds the dubious distinction of being India's most populous state. If any state needs a population policy, it is UP and Bihar, the most populous and backward states. The proposed policy aims to increase the accessibility of contraceptive measures. More importantly, it promotes a two-child policy. People who violate it will be debarred from contesting local body elections, applying for government jobs or receiving government subsidies. Arrangements will be made for digital tracking of newborns, adolescents and senior citizens. The CM has promised better care of the elderly and better management of education, health and nutrition of adolescents. However, while every government makes these promises, we will have to see them in action.
Sections of our society, which admired China's one child policy, have suddenly discovered that India's population growth is under control and does not need any disincentives since, they believe, these are aimed at the Muslims. Since the Yogi has not mentioned any caste or community, I wonder how they reached this conclusion. Both Hindus and Muslims are contributing to overpopulation in UP. Till the state's CM came out with his plan, not many believed India's population was under control.
There is no doubt that better educational levels and increasing the marriage age will reduce the number of children in a family. The southern states have proven that. But that is not going to be achieved quickly. By the time the present schoolchildren grow up and start families, it will be too late. Six states - UP, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh - have roughly 40 per cent of India's population and fertility rates higher than the replacement level of 2.1. The Census department has projected the population growth at 12.6 per cent between 2011 and 2021. In the same period, UP's population has grown at 15.6 per cent and Bihar at 18.2 per cent. While it may have come down from the previous decades, it is still unaffordable for a poor country like India. Meanwhile, India will have new problems during delimitation, whereby the states successful in controlling their population will be punished with fewer Parliament seats.
There is no doubt India needs some drastic efforts to control the population. While women in most states have been producing fewer children than before, the growth curve has yet to flatten: reducing it is not enough. China's fertility rate had dropped to 1.3 in 2020, while India's was 2.22 in 2018.
Incentives and disincentives are the only way the population can be controlled. Kudos to Yogi Adityanath for this measure. May many other states follow in Uttar Pradesh's footsteps and control their populations too.
(The writer is a historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai and can be reached at email@example.com)