Politicising population - India’s population boom deepens demographic divides
By DEVINA SINGH
India has been long set to become the world’s most populous country, finally surpassing China in 2023. However, a baby boom does not come without its vices.
Growing up near the Indian capital of New Delhi, we were told that India was a “melting pot” of cultures and religions that must all be celebrated. I was privileged enough to have my upbringing largely reflect that. The bubble burst when I was a teenager and started paying more attention to my country and its turbulent religious past and present. One particularly noticeable thing is that Indian politics has a tendency to be about othering. Regardless of the situation, there is always an “other” that can be blamed.
The population boom is no stranger to this. Comparative to Britain’s north-south divide, India has one as well. Two states in northern India, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, lead the increase in population; they are the only two states in India where women have more than three children on an average. Meanwhile, states in the south of the country have mostly stabilised their populations. This divergence in population growth can be attributed to levels of wealth, where UP and Bihar have high rates of people living in poverty, whilst southern states tend to be richer. Total fertility rate also declines when women’s literacy rates are higher, with only 57% of the female population in UP considered literate compared to 92% in Kerala (a southern state).
This is where othering comes in. Uttar Pradesh has a notably high population of Muslims (owed to its past as a Mughal and Sufi hub), however, it is “ruled” by a right-wing Hindu government (the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP). A proposed act to limit the number of children to two children per couple in UP is being seen as targeted towards the Muslim population amidst a growing Hindu fear that Muslims aim to “convert” India into a Muslim majority state by outpacing the Hindu population. According to S. Y. Quraishi (former Chief Election Commissioner of India and author of “The Population Myth”), whilst Muslims in India do have a higher fertility rate than Hindus, it is because of poorer access to education, health and family planning services.
Another common trend in othering is the position of India’s elites on population control. India’s heavily hierarchical society results in plenty of blame that crosses caste, economic and religious barriers. Many “elites” (or people at the top of these hierarchies) blame those at the bottom of the ladder for the population explosion, without realising that there is a cyclical system in place here: people don’t have access to education and family planning services when in poverty, but lack of access to these services keeps them in poverty. This also continuously results in very large families that live below the poverty line.
Population and poverty are then inherently tied and continue on this path, as evidenced by the “youth bulge”. The median age in India is 29 years old, resulting in a massive youth population. A large majority of this population is unskilled in a country that has a shortage of good quality schools, universities, training programmes, and most importantly, jobs.
There have been discussions by governments, both state and central, on how the population should be managed. Leaders disagree on what measures to take; while the country is mostly rural, most Indian cities are densely populated. India’s capital New Delhi has a population of 20 million people and is already dangerously over-polluted. This population explosion poses not only a healthcare problem, but also an environmental one, putting serious constraints on state and natural resources.
Some leaders have looked at China’s population control policies as a tool for population management. However, stringent control is bound to fail in the long run as China today is facing a major labour shortage and an ageing population. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath emphasised “stabilising the population through awareness or enforcement” that should be “uniform for everyone and above caste, religion, language or region”, while warning “an adverse impact on religious demography”. Meanwhile AIMIM chief (a member of the opposition) Asaduddin Owaisi has said that the fertility rate is already below replacement levels and that the “worry is to ensure a healthier and productive young population”.
Like many other things, population has become a politicised issue that will not be fixed by othering, and certainly won’t be resolved by population control measures. The best way to manage the population effectively is working towards removing religious and cultural taboos surrounding family planning and ensuring comprehensive sex education at a secondary school level, as well as raising awareness about short term contraceptives such as condoms and birth control pills. This is where the north can look at the south as an example.
Image: Unsplash/ Shashank Hudkar