The right numbers

Fertility rate going below replacement level is an achievement of family planning programme.

The results of the latest National Family Health Survey (NHFS-5), released on Wednesday, affirm the heartening tendency, noticed since the 1980s, of a decline in the rate of population growth across the country. On an average, a woman in India was likely to bear 2.7 children in her lifetime according to the NHFS 2005-2006. The number fell to 2.2 in 2015-2016. NHFS-5 shows that this average has come down to 2. This means that the country has attained a major demographic milestone. India’s total fertility rate (TFR) has dropped below what the United Nations Population Council deems the “replacement level”. An average of less than 2.1 children per woman indicates that a generation is not producing enough children to replace itself. In other words, the NHFS-5 indicates that the country has taken the first step towards an outright reduction in population. This is a notable achievement for the country’s family planning programme and a resounding repudiation of politicians and policymakers who have, of late, been crying hoarse about population explosion.

A 9 per cent increase in the use of modern contraception, compared to the last survey, indicates the family planning programme’s increased reach. This is also attested by the fact that 62 per cent of the respondents reported that they had received information on side effects of contraceptives from grass roots-level officials, especially those working with the Mission Parivar Vikas. Launched in 2016, the programme’s stated objective is to give special attention to 146 high fertility districts in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Jharkhand. It’s unfortunate, however, that the bogey of population explosion has found takers amongst sections of the government in at least four of these states. Despite their varying political affiliation, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Rajasthan’s former Health Minister Raghu Sharma seem to believe that a growing population is putting the “country’s resources under strain”. UP Chief Minister Adityanath has also described “rising population as a hurdle in development”. The Madhya Pradesh government has also lent its voice to this clamour.

There is much that is sobering about the NHFS survey, especially the fact that 57 per cent of women of reproductive age in the country are anaemic — up from the 53 per cent in 2015-2016. The percentage of anaemic children has also risen. In recent months, other studies have indicated that the pandemic period has taken a disproportionately high toll on the well-being of women and children, and aggravated nutritional and educational deficiencies. The experience of the Southern states shows that declining fertility rates are not just the function of family planning programmes but also have direct links with empowering women. It’s this development deficit that planners and policymakers must plug.

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