Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Beat the gloom, India needs to focus on real issues

Devendra Kothari
Professor, Population Program Management

Wishing you a New Year filled with New Hope and New Beginnings!

Often, in the hype over economic growth, we forget to recognize the harsh reality of India – extreme poverty, hunger, low status of women and deteriorating quality of education. These stewing issues cannot be allowed to fester since they will deepen an environment of pessimism that will ultimately risk India’s growth story. The post argues as to how to beat emerging gloominess.
Latest data indicate that things are not improving in India at all. In fact, things are going from bad to worse. India’s rank in the latest UN’s Human Development Report has fallen from 119 in 2010 to 134 out of 187 countries and territories in 2011. In addition, the 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report places India amongst the three countries where the GHI between 1996 and 2011 went up from 22.9 to 23.7, while 78 out of the 81 developing countries studied succeeded in improving hunger condition[1]The HUNGaMA (Hunger and Malnutrition) survey carried in 2011 and released by the Prime Minister of India on January 10, 2012 reconfirms that malnutrition among children in India has taken ominous proportions, and the situation in many districts of the country has worsened when compared to what it was about a decade back. The report reveals that over 40% of children are underweight and almost 60% are stunted[2]. Similarly, per capita availability of food grains and pulses has declined significantly in the last few years.

India is simply not doing enough for its women either. The country has fallen from 112 out of 134 countries in 2010 to 113 out of 135 countries in 2011 according to the Gender Gap Index 2011 released by the World Economic Forum. In addition, three recent studies paint a grim picture of school education in India -  OECD’s Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) study ranked Indian higher secondary students only better than those from Kyrgyzstan, which ranked last  among 74 participating countries; NGO Pratham`s  Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2011, assessing schools in rural India, found sharp declining reading and mathematical abilities of children in the six to 14 years age category; and lastly  Wipro’s EL Quality Education  Study 2011 of India’s elite schools, shows that learning levels are not on par with international standards.  http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/images/pixel.gifTaken together, these three reports make it amply clear that despite a welcome high enrolment rate - around 97% - at the primary and upper primary levels, the quality of school learning is simply not up to the mark. Though India’s children are attending schools, but a large number are not learning even basics, since teaching standards are poor, with high teacher absenteeism. It is little wonder then that only 48% of class V students surveyed under ASER were able to read class II-level texts, among other depressing statistics.

All this is a rather   shameful reflection of the prevailing conditions in a country that is said to be on a growth song, and indicate that India is heading towards an unstable situation of extreme danger or difficulty that could lead to despair, social instability, political strife, policymaking paralysis and capital flight as well as a rapid collapse in growth rates. It appears that efforts made over the years for improving socio-economic standards have partially been neutralized by the rapid growth of population. One has to recognize that population is an important factor in development, especially when it is growing seemingly out of control since it leads to a significant diversion of national investable resources to consumption which could otherwise be used for increasing investment and productivity and for improving the quality of public services. India’s population has grown from 361 million in 1951 to 1210 million in 2011,  and is still growing by around 17 to 18 million every year. India’s population is projected to peak at 1.7 billion in 2060.

By all accounts, population growth in India has been rapid; however, relatively high population growth mainly due to unwanted fertility makes it more difficult to lift large numbers of people out of poverty. More than 75% of India’s population lives in poverty on less than the equivalent of US$2 per day, according to the World Bank. Around 26 million children are born in India every year and out of this about 5.5 million births have been classified as unplanned/unintended. Further, based on the National Family Health Survey[3], it is estimated that   about 30 per cent or around 224 million people in the age group 0-35 years in India was the product of unwanted childbearing. The level of unwanted fertility in this age group has increased from 23 per cent in 1992-93 to 30 percent in 2005-06.

Based on findings of the National Family Health Surveys 1, 2 and 3, it is estimated that currently there are around 450 million people out of 1200 million in India who are product of unintended/unplanned pregnancies, and most of them are from the lower economic strata. The consequences of unintended pregnancy are serious, slowing down the process of socio-economic development. It is because unwanted childbearing results in poor physical growth, reduced school performance, diminished   concentration in daily tasks thus impacting work capacity and work output resulting in diminished earning capacity. The impact of unwanted childbearing is reflected in widespread hunger, poverty, unemployment as well as increasing scarcity of basic resources like food, water and space in several parts of India despite concerted developmental efforts since 1991. India’s large unwanted fertility, a threat to sustainable development, demands immediate attention.

A popularly held belief is that as a country becomes economically more prosperous, its fertility declines significantly and leads to a stable population. However, this is a simplistic view of a complex phenomenon.  Since the introduction of market-based economic reforms in 1991, India has become one of the fastest growing major ecinomies in the world. The economic reforms completed 20 years in the last  July (2011), however, during this period, India’s population increased by 365 million, much more than the population of USA - the third most populous country in the world.  This raises the question: Is Development the Best Contraceptive or Are Contraceptives?  It is argued that there is a need to go beyond the prevailing notion that socio-economic development is an essential precondition for fertility transition, since it provided only a partial explanation for the monumental changes taking place in fertility behavior, especially in low-income economies (Kothari 2011)[4].

Some experts predict population growth could turn out to be a bloom to the economy since more than half of the population of India is younger than 25 years, it gives the country a potential edge over China, where an aging population could slow its economy by 3030.  However underneath, this rosy outlook for India epitomizing the country’s ability to surpass China on the back of a younger population lies some difficulties, especially deteriorating level of education. “Whether India can benefit from its young population will depend on economic development and equitable social development”, argued by AR Nanda, Former Executive Director of Population Foundation of India.

Now question arises as how to forge ahead. For this, India needs to focus on some real issues. The most important and positive steps are still largely unrecognized by policymakers as well as by the bilateral and philanthropic organizations. More than four in ten pregnancies are unintended by the women who experience them, and half or more of these pregnancies result in births that spur continued population growth[5]. This means population growth would slow and then end through something women want and need: the capacity to decide for themselves when to become pregnant, as noted by Robert Engelman, who authored the highly acclaimed book: More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want.  If all women had this capacity, available  data affirm, level of unplanned fertility would fall significantly and consequently average Indian childbearing would immediately fall below the replacement fertility value of slightly more than two children per woman required initiating the process of population stabilization. And population would immediately move onto a path leading to a peak followed by a gradual decline, possibly well before 2045, as targeted by the National Population Policy 2000.

The central issues before of the 12th Five Yea Plan should be reinvigorating interest and repositioning Family Planning in India.  The population of India is expected to increase from 1210 million in 2011 to 1380 million in 2021, as per Population Reference Bureau. As a consequence, the population density will increase from 382 to 418 persons per sq. kilometre in 2021, creating more demand for additional resources like water, food, education, health, housing, etc.  Of the net addition of 170 million people during 2011-21, around 46 million will be the result of unwanted/unplanned childbearing. This sort of population and development pattern has already created and will create several internal conflicts in India.  Addressing this issue of population is the antidote to the various concerns plaguing the nation, as noted earlier. As such, the population issue should not be allowed to become a “stumbling block” to socio-economic progress as well as the unity of the country.  It is argued that towards faster and more “inclusive growth”, the Indian economic road map especially during the 12th Five Year Plan must give due importance in reducing the incidence of unwanted fertility. The Planning Commission in collaboration with Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, GoI have to put together a position paper outlining its “Road Map” to repositioning Family Planning and come up with strategies that outline concrete actions to be carried out successfully.

Another issue which needs equal attention is quality of education. Unless education is rescued from quagmire of mediocrity, all talk about developing a skilled human resource pool and realizing the country`s demographic dividend will be without substance; and the country would be inching closer to demographic disaster. As such, 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.

The writing is on the wall. The question is not whether we act or not, but whether we act now or later and deal with much more dire and expensive consequences. What we do in the next few years especially during the period of Twelve Five Year Plan (2012-17) will determine India’s future. If we do not take required steps however, there will be lack of decision-making, inefficiency and a stalling of progress and growth. Hope policy makers are listening!

The findings of the Census of India 2011 clearly reinforce that two contrasting demographic "nations" are emerging in the country. The next post aims in this direction.    

[3]India: National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), 2005-06, IIPS, Mumbai, 2007.
[4] Devendra Kothari, “Implications of Emerging Demographic Scenario: Based on the Provisional Results of Census of India 2011”,  A Brief,  a publication of Management Institute of Population and Development – A Unit of Parivar Seva Sanstha, New Delhi, 2011.   
[5] Around half of these pregnancies are being aborted. According to the World Health Organization and Guttmacher Institute, New York, India recorded 6.5 million abortions in 2008 of which 66% were deemed unsafe.