The misdirected debate on population changes

India has the potential to reap extraordinary benefits by making the most of the gender dividend.
The misdirected debate on population changes
Photo | PTI

Some recent reports have alarmingly misinterpreted findings from the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (PM-EAC) working paper titled ‘Share of Religious Minorities: A Cross-Country Analysis (1950-2015)’. These sensationalised narratives suggest a demographic takeover by the Muslim population in India, a notion that fuels Islamophobic fears and diverts attention from meaningful policy discussions. Such interpretations also ignore broader demographic trends and socio-economic factors influencing population growth.

The PM-EAC working paper does not conclude that Muslims will outnumber Hindus in India. Instead, it points out the reasons for a change in religious demography are “multivariate” and “complex”, and “beyond the scope” of the paper’s analysis. However, the paper’s assertion that population growth reflects minority well-being does not consider complex interplay of factors contributing to demographic change, adding to preexisting misconceptions.

The PM-EAC study highlighted change in the individual shares of religious groups, which caused significant misunderstanding. It says, between 1950 and 2015, the share of the Hindu population declined 7.8 percent, while that of Muslims increased 43.2 percent. This presentation is often misunderstood. The percentage changes concern their own shares and not a share of the total population. The rate of change in shares does not reflect actual population growth numbers. By the same metric, the Buddhist population’s share increased 1519.6 percent and the Sikhs 49.2 percent, but this does not imply a dramatic increase in their absolute numbers. Similarly, the decline in the Parsi population by 86.7 percent does not suggest targeted persecution. Such figures can be misleading without proper context.

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center report, the proportion of India’s six largest religious groups has been relatively stable since partition. A study by demographers P N Mari Bhat and Francis Zavier projected Muslims’ proportion to India’s total population would peak at around 18.8 percent by 2101. Recent declines in fertility rates among Muslims suggest this peak may be even smaller. This further invalidates the fear of a demographic takeover.

As the Population Foundation has repeatedly pointed out, based on evidence from the last few Censuses, the decadal decline in growth rate for Muslims over the past three decades from 32.9 percent in 1981-91 to 24.6 percent in 2001-11 was more pronounced than the decline for Hindus.

The decline in total fertility rates among Hindus and Muslims has been quite similar since 2005-06. The total fertility rate (TFR) among Hindus dropped from 2.65 in 2005-06 to 1.94 in 2019-20; and the TFR among Muslims fell from 3.09 in 2005-06 to 2.36 in the same period. Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where women enjoy greater freedoms including better access to education, employment and healthcare, exhibit lower fertility rates across religious groups. This convergence highlights that population growth is more closely linked to an enhancement of women’s capabilities, especially education and income, than to religious affiliation.

The number of children a family chooses to have is influenced more by socioeconomic conditions and economic opportunities than by religion. Communities with better access to economic and family planning resources tend to have lower fertility rates. The higher growth rate of India’s Muslims reflects not a thriving minority, but a community that lags on most human development indicators. Rather than succumbing to divisive narratives, India should focus on harnessing three critical dividends—the demographic dividend, gender dividend and silver dividend—to effectively address India’s diverse needs.

According to Census 2011, the median age of Indians is 28 years. India can reap a demographic dividend by harnessing the potential of its young population. Ensuring equitable and affordable access to quality healthcare, including reproductive health services, is essential for maximising this dividend. However, this window of opportunity is for a limited period.

India has the potential to reap extraordinary benefits by making the most of the gender dividend. Bridging gender disparities, as highlighted in the Global Gender Gap report, can yield substantial social and economic benefits. Investing in women’s education, vocational training, healthcare and employment can significantly enhance productivity. Promoting gender equality across all aspects of life, including property rights and leadership, is vital. Ending workplace gender biases and championing equal career opportunities are imperative for harvesting the benefits of gender equality.

India needs to prepare itself to reap the silver dividend. According to a UN report, by 2050, 20 percent of India’s population will be over 60 years. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. Promoting lifelong learning, tailored employment options and community involvement is crucial for tapping the potential of elderly to contribute to society. Healthcare services must address needs of older adults and age-friendly infrastructure should be developed to foster independence and inclusion. Social services such as affordable housing and caregiver support are necessary. Labour market policies should be adapted to accommodate older workers, enhancing economic security and taking advantage of the silver dividend.

India ought to enhance the capabilities of all individuals irrespective of their religion. Policies should be directed towards expanding women’s freedoms, widening choices, improving education, ensuring universal healthcare, and broadening opportunities for communities. The mantra is simple: take care of people, and the population will take care of itself.

(Views are personal)

Poonam Muttreja | Executive Director, Population Foundation of India

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