India's population growth is down. But why aren't we celebrating?

Last year, India achieved replacement reproduction rate

As a Generation X desi, who spent her childhood being bombarded by the family planning initiatives of the government of India (Hum Do, Hamare Do, Mala-D, Nirodh, Ek-ya-do-hi-bachhe-ho-sakte-hain-acche, small family, happy family, etc) I was pleasantly surprised to learn that last year, India, very casually, achieved replacement reproduction rate. We have bought down the national rate of reproduction to 1.6 in urban areas and 2.1 in rural areas—and, thus, have done what seemed like an impossible pipe dream in the 1970s and 1980s—we have officially become Hum Do, Hamare Do! So, why aren’t we celebrating this feat? I mean, c’mon, how many targets do we actually achieve as a nation? Surely, this is as big as being open-defecation-free or being polio free. So, where’s the party?

Why isn’t a GoI commissioned rah-rah film running on all popular TV channels already? Maybe it is because our politicians, cutting across party lines, find it convenient to blame all sorts of policy failures on our unbridled population growth—like shame on you, amorous aam aadmi and aurat, we are breaking our backs trying to make India a modern marvel, but it is all going tits-up because you can’t keep it in your pants. Even right now, there is a lot of talk about the United Nation’s projection that by the end of this month, India, at a population of around 142 crore, will overtake China to become the most populous country in the world.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

The way the news is being presented, it is like we are still being shamed for not keeping it in our pants, even though we totally are. Our population is continuing to increase, inspite of reaching replacement level fertility, only because of demographic momentum. We’re a massive steam engine travelling at breakneck speed. Even after the brakes are applied, it will take it quite a bit of time to stop. The brakes (education for women, employment for women, free contraception) have been applied, and the massive engine is grinding to a slow halt. There is no need for alarm. (All the alarm was created by a gent called Paul Ehrlich and his panicky 1969 book Population Bomb, which has since been proved to have gotten quite a few things wrong.)

Encouragingly, population growth is down right across India, in all communities and faiths. It hasn’t reached replacement rates only in rural Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. Similarly, if we look at the data on the basis of religion, all groups have achieved replacement rates, except Muslims, who are almost there, and showing a rate that is remarkably lower than the one they had previously.

But, WhatsApp university and some leaders continue to whip the bogey of population explosion. They insist that Muslims are multiplying at an explosive rate and it is the duty of all good Hindus to keep this growth in check. The measures they are suggesting to get this done are neither practical, nor implementable, nor nice.When, actually, what needs to be done in these lagging areas is really simple. Educate women, employ women, give them access to contraceptive services.

And now that our policy makers and leaders can no longer glibly blame population explosion for swallowing up all our economic successes, let them please tackle the real issue. How to milk the demographic advantage of having the maximum number of young people in the world into a massive win for India?