At first glance, provisional results from the Census of India 2011 seem encouraging for the State of West Bengal. However, the resultant demographic scenario has long term implications for WB’s socio-economic development including maternal and child health. Three important policy issues emerged from my article entitled: “West Bengal: Implications of findings of the Census of India 2011” in the last blog:
1. Increasing density of population,
2 2. An ageing population, and
3. Slow progress towards women empowerment.
West Bengal is the most densely populated State in India. The population density in 2011 is 1029 persons per square kilometer, which means that now 126 more people live in a square kilometer area in the State than the number that lived a decade ago. If the current trends continue, the population of WB is expected to increase from 91.3 million in 2011 to 104 million in 2021; that is in the next ten years – an increase of 14 per cent or by 12.7 million during the decade. As a consequence, the population density will increase from 1029 to 1172 persons per sq. km. in 2021, creating more demand for additional resources like water, food, education, health, housing, etc. This has already created lots of problems including hurdles towards the way to development (see Newspaper comments on my presentation in Kolkata on May 4, 2011. (See link: http://www.hindustantimes.com/Density-spurt-in-dense-Bengal/Article1-693275.aspx.)
Further, over the next few years, WB will undergo a huge demographic shift. According to the Registrar General of India’s projections, the number of aged 60 and above in the State will rise from 5.3 million in 2001 and 7.6 million in 2011 to 14.2 million in 2026. In other words, while the total population is projected to increase by 26 percent over the 25-year period, the number of the aged is likely to grow by 170 percent during the corresponding period. The relatively faster increase in the elderly population will contribute to a higher dependency ratio. Therefore, responsibility for caring for the elderly will fall either on young wage earners or on the Government.
Lastly, although the level of female literacy in WB is much above the national average (71% versus 65%) and there was a significant jump in female literacy in last decade, as noted in the last blog, its impact has not been seen in the meaningful improvement in women’s autonomy measured in terms of decision-making roles within the family and community, as noted by the National Family Health Survey (2005-06). This is mainly due to large number of unwanted pregnancies taking place in the state. Twenty-three percent of all pregnancies that resulted in live births in the State in the year 2005-6 were unplanned (that is, unwanted at the time the woman became pregnant). In other words, around 1.6 million children were born in West Bengal in the year 2005-06 and out of this about 0.4 million (or 4 lac) births could be classified as unplanned. This is mainly due to the use of traditional family planning methods. West Bengal is one of the few States in India, where the use of traditional methods of family planning is over 21 per cent of all method use. Because traditional methods are often difficult to use, less effective than most modern methods of contraception, its widespread practice in WB could indicate why the State recorded relatively high level of unwanted pregnancies and that might have adversely impacted the process of women empowerment in the State in spite of higher level of female literacy. It is because high level of unwanted pregnancy leads to powerlessness and this, in turn, engenders lack of empowerment and autonomy.
In conclusion, the population issue should not be allowed to become a “stumbling block” to socio-economic progress of the State. It is argued that towards faster and more “inclusive growth”, the economic road map of West Bengal especially during the 12th Five Year Plan must give due importance to the issue of women and child health. For this some innovative measures are needed. A user friendly service delivery system can help address the causes that lie at the root of unwanted fertility. As such, WB’s total attention should be directed to improve the use of RCH and FP services by adopting a pragmatic but time bound action plan. At the same time, investment in education has to be increased to improve the quality of education especially at the government schools and colleges where most of the students are from poor and rural families.
I am sure that the Mamta Banerjee Government will give importance to the population issue in the overall development of the State.