Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Is Development the Best Contraceptive-- or Are Contraceptives?

Dr. Devendra Kothari
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

World Population Day[1]   is an occasion to engage people, spur commitment and spark actions related to the opportunities and challenges presented by the growing population. On this day, I call for urgent, concerted action by the Government of India to rethink its stand on population issue which, if not handle urgently, may create serious obstacles for achieving “inclusive growth” and sustainable development.

From Adam Smith onward, economists have recognized important linkages between population and socio-economic development. Yet, the attention given to these linkages in current development thinking in India is not very clear. This is because one can argue that it is not rapid population growth but rather weak government, corruption and social injustices that are preventing economic and social development. The counter argument is that rapid population growth exacerbates the problems of weak government including governance, corruption and social injustice (See my posts at link: “What ails India – galloping population growth or corruption?” dated August 29, 2011). However, 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 such as education, health, sanitation, provision of safe drinking water and for control of environmental degradation.  

With 1.2 billion people and still growing, India is getting dangerously overcrowded. It appears that the India is in the midst of its most rapid population growth in the history. Today, India is adding the largest numbers to its population than any other country in the world as well as in any time in history. Despite the fact that the annual population growth rate has declined from 2.4% in the late eighties to 1.6% per year in 2011, India’s population is currently growing by about 17-18 million annually. 

India is currently the second most populous nation in the world. It will surpass China as the most populous within 8-10 years. Its population is projected to peak at 1.7 billion in 2060. China at its peak in 2025 will have 1.4 billion people. In fact, when China peaks, India will have already surpassed it in population. Many Indians including policy makers see these emerging demographics as a critical advantage in competition with the nation it regards   as its chief rival – China. They argue that China will get old before it gets rich, and India will reach middle income status while it is still young. With around 70% of the population under 35, India can afford to dream to become economic power in the world before the middle of this century. 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.

Current population growth in India is mainly fueled by unwanted fertility. Around 26 million children are born in India every year and out of this about 6 million births have been classified as unplanned/unintended. 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.

Latest reports 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 conditionSimilarly, per capita availability of food grains and pulses has declined significantly in the last few years. Further, 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, posing the risk of eroding the long-term competitiveness of World’s fourth largest economy. First, the Quality Education Survey (QES) by Wipro found high-end schools in metros lacked quality parameters and largely depended on rote learning. Their learning levels are not on par with international standards.  Then, a study by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), whose findings were first reported by Mint on 20 December,2012 found that out of 74 countries, Indian school students at the higher secondary level ranked almost at the bottom, with only Kyrgyzstan faring worse than India. In yet another wake-up call for policymakers, the 2011 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) compiled by Pratham recoded sharp decline in  reading and mathematical abilities of children in the 6 to 14 years age category studying in rural India. Today, more children are going to school but what they are learning is not clear. Can they get any job in the market if they continue such education? Can industry get the professionals it is looking for? Can India’s growth continue if the quality of education does not improve? (See my posts at link: kotharionindia.blogspot.com: How India is managing its “Demographic Dividend”? dated June 25, 2012).

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 to improve the quality of life have partially been neutralized by the rapid growth of population.

A popularly held belief by India’s policy makers 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 fasted growing major economies 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 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)[2].

The Human Development Index (HDI) is a comparative measure of life expectancy at birth, education, standards, and quality of life for countries  worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being or quality of life. It is used to measure the impact of economic policies on quality of life.The table indicates that countries, which are able to reduce population growth or number of children per woman, are generally doing better as far as quality of life is concerned.

Table: Population growth and Human Development Index (HDI) and percent of population below international  poverty line, selected countries
No. children/ woman
% Population growth
HDI Rank
% below poverty line
Shri Lanka
Source: UN Population Division and Population Reference Bureau

It appears that the population and related human development issues have not been given due importance in the development debate of India. The major emphasis has so far been on economic parameters as how to raise GDP.  Indian economy has to grow faster no one can deny this. But only faster growth will not be able to address issues like illiteracy, lack of healthcare, regional imbalance, unemployment, gender equity, poverty, etc. India’s economic policies, in real sense, should be   directed towards social inclusiveness of vast section of our marginalized population. Ultimately, social mobility is the key to more inclusive growth.

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. We have to meet the needs of the 16 million women who want to delay or avoid pregnancy but have no access to effective family planning. As a result, 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 growth3. This means population growth would slow and then end through something women want and need: the capacity to decide for them when to become pregnant. If all women had this capacity, available data affirm that level of unplanned/unwanted fertility would fall significantly and consequently average Indian childbearing would immediately fall below the replacement fertility value required to initiate 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.

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.

In short, only higher GDP growth rate is not the key to more inclusive growth. One has to give priority to some basic issues like population stabilization and quality education.  All we need now are resources and well managed accelerated and sustained actions.

[1] An annual event that marks the date when the world's population reached 5 billion that is on 11 July 1987.
[2] 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.
[3] Around half of these pregnancies are being aborted in India. 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.  


  1. Dear Sir,
    visit Your published Article
    Is Development The Best Contraceptive– Or Are Contraceptives?
    Shashank Singh