India’s population stabilising, fertility rate falls below replacement level

The fifth series of the Union Health Ministry’s National Family Health Survey shows a fertility rate of 1.6 in urban India and 2.1 in rural areas. (Representative image)

India’s Total Fertility Rate has declined to 2.0 from 2.2 in 2015-16, according to the latest National Family Health Survey data, on the back of decades-long family planning programme.

Countries with below-replacement fertility or lower than 2.1 children per woman, according to the United Nations’ population division, indicate that a single generation is not producing enough children to replace itself. This will eventually lead to lowering the population outright.

The fifth series of the Union Health Ministry’s National Family Health Survey shows a fertility rate of 1.6 in urban India and 2.1 in rural areas.

International Institute for Population Sciences Director Dr KS James told The Indian Express that a Total fertility rate of 2 was a definite indicator of long-term population stability in the country. The institute was the designated nodal agency that conducted the survey.

The number means two parents replacing two children, Dr James said, adding that the potential growth rate would be zero in the long run.

A Total Fertility Rate of 2.1 is something a country aspires to because of maternal and child health improvement, Dr James, the principal investigator, said.

Public Health Foundation of India President Professor K Srinath Reddy pointed to three key pointers from the decline in Total Fertility Rate: a reduced challenge to development, importance of investing in public health and education, and the need to prioritise environmental protection.

Reddy, one of India’s top public health experts, told The Indian Express that the country had been aiming for a Total Fertility Rate of 2.1. A decline to 2 means India has achieved the goal of population stabilisation.

This means India is still likely to become the most populous country — initially expected between 2024-2028 — but that process will possibly be delayed. It means India need not worry about a very large population challenging the country’s development, Reddy said.

The number indicates that India had stabilised the growth of human resources. The profile of the younger population over the next two-three decades will offer the opportunity to accelerate economic growth, Reddy added.

He told The Indian Express that a young population, along with population stabilisation, for two-three decades should give India a great opportunity to accelerate development — provided the country invested in public health and education with skills.

Reddy also said that India can no longer say there was a strain on natural resources due to population growth. If the population is stabilising, there is no excuse for neglecting the environment.

The survey showed five states with Total Fertility Rate above 2 — Bihar (3), Meghalaya (2.9), Uttar Pradesh (2.4), Jharkhand (2.3), and Manipur (2.2).

Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan reported the same Total Fertility Rate as the national average. West Bengal and Punjab have a Total Fertility Rate of 1.6.

Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Tripura, and Nagaland have a Total Fertility Rate of 1.7, while that for Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh is 1.8. Assam, Haryana, Gujarat, Mizoram, and Uttarakhand have a Total Fertility Rate of 1.9.

The fourth round of the survey was conducted in 2015-16. The Union Health Ministry released the fact sheet covering 14 states and Union Territories under Phase-II of the survey on Wednesday. The Phase-I findings that covered 22 states and Union Territories were released last December.

The latest data shows significant progress on indicators related to family planning, fertility, age of marriage and women’s empowerment — contributing significantly to the decrease in the Total Fertility Rate.

There has been a significant increase in use of modern contraceptive methods — 56.5% in 2019-21 against 47.8% in 2015-16. The share of condoms rose to 9.5% against 5.6% in 2015-16.

Female sterilisation uptake has gone up to 38% from 36% in 2015-16. However, the uptake of injectable contraceptives, first introduced in 2017, remains abysmal at 0.6%.

Population Foundation of India Executive Director Poonam Muttreja said the increase in female sterilisation showed that the onus of family planning remained with women, with men shrugging responsibility and not taking part in the process.

She said the government needed to adopt a communication strategy targeted at social and behaviour-change to ensure that men also take up the responsibility of family planning.

The increased use of modern contraceptive methods means that the total unmet need for family planning, a major issue, has dropped to 9.4% from 12.9% in 2015-16. The figure is below 10% for all states apart from Jharkhand (12%), Arunachal Pradesh (13%) and Uttar Pradesh (13%).

There has also been significant improvement in quality of care in family planning with 62% of users reporting that service providers offered them information on side effects. This figure was 46% in the last survey. The number of women operating their bank accounts themselves has increased to 79% from 53% in the fourth survey.

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