by Balwant Singh Mehta, Simi Mehta and Arjun Kumar (IMPRI)
When the world’s population reached 5 billion on 11 July 1987, it was observed as the “Five Billion Day” by the United Nations. Taking inspiration from this, the then Governing Council of the United Nations’ Development Program for the first time in 1989 launched an initiative to observe 11 July as the World Population Day every year to garner world’s attention towards the urgency and importance of population issues.
As population explosion as a cause of serious concern began to take the center-stage, the themes of the World Population Day focused on the health problems faced by childbearing women and the importance of family planning, gender equality, poverty, maternal health and human rights. With the current global population at 7.8 billion and an estimate of 9 billion people by 2050, the massive surge in the population is identified to be the causal factor of developmental concerns in several countries. It becomes more conspicuous for developing and lesser developed countries. Therefore, World Population Day assumes paramount importance because it highlights the problems of increasing population and raises awareness about the effects of overpopulation on the environment and planet.
This year the theme of the World Population Day 2020 is to raise awareness about safeguarding sexual and reproductive health needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is very timely and significant because many pregnant women succumb to poor reproductive healthcare. A study by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) revealed that 800 women die every day during the process of childbirth. UNFPA research highlighted that if the lockdown continues for 6 months, with continued major disruption to health services, then 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries might not have access to modern contraceptives.
This would, in turn, lead to 7 million unintended pregnancies. This could lead to a rise in gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and child marriages, and thus threaten the transformative results attained thus far in raising the health conditions of women. Thus, the dedicated theme of this year’s World Population Day assumes critical significance with its primary aim to ensure greater awareness and advocacy for people to boost their sexual and reproductive health and heed to the importance of family planning.
The concern for India on the World Population Day is clear: it has just 2% of the world’s landmass and 16% of the global population. Between the Census of 2001 and 2011, the country added 18% more people to its population — translating to around 181 million. It is the second-most populous country in the world with an estimated population of around 1.37 billion by 2019. According to the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, India’s population is expected to add nearly 273 million people in the next three decades and surpass China’s population within the next 7 years. In this context, the importance of sexual and reproductive health of women and planned parenthood on the World Population Day 2020 underscores some major concerns for the country.
Birth rate and death rate are important factors for the population explosion in India. Over the years, the death rate and birth rate were almost the same, up to the mid-20th century, which meant a slow rate of growth of population. However, with gradual improvement in the access to healthcare facilities, level of education, availability of proper nutrition and diet etc., people began to live longer and the death rate began to decline. This mismatch in birth and death rate resulted in faster growth of population in the past few decades. As of 2020, India has registered birth rate at 18.2 per 1000 population and death rate at 7.3 per 1000 population.
Poverty and illiteracy also contribute immensely to the population explosion. In particular, children in rural areas are considered as assets, who will take care of parents at old age, while in poorer families, more children mean more earning hands. On the other hand, the level of female education has a direct impact on fertility, as it is evidenced that the fertility rate of illiterate women tends to be higher than those who are literate. Lack of education prevents women from having full knowledge about the use of contraceptives, of the consequences of frequent childbirth as well as of their reproductive rights. On the other hand, educated women understand their rights and choices of contraception, are often vocal against early marriage and choose not to have many children. In India, female (39%) illiteracy was almost twice than their male counterparts in 2011.
Even after 69 years of the creation of the National Family Planning Program, the pattern of family planning has not changed much in the country. The National Family Health Survey (2015-2016) revealed that use of condoms declined by 52% over eight years and vasectomies fell to 73%. Added to this, women still lack the power to negotiate and choose if they are willing to get pregnant or wish to give birth to a baby, whether it is a boy or a girl. Preference for male children by families is still prevalent in the overwhelmingly patriarchal society in the country. In this process, a woman ends up being pregnant multiple times and producing many children until a male child is born.
Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years. For the population to remain stable, an overall total fertility rate of 2.1 is needed. Hence, a TFR of 2.1 is known as the replacement rate. India has witnessed a steady decline in its TFR, which touched 2.3 in 2016. However, there are huge variations across states and the income level of people. Poorer states like Bihar (3.2), Uttar Pradesh (3.1), Jharkhand (2.7) and Rajasthan (2.7) still have TFRs above 2.5, while the poorest household has a TFR of 3.2 children per woman compared to 1.5 children per woman from the affluent families. This shows that population growth is more concentrated in economically weaker sections of society and poorer regions of the country.
India has the highest number of the youth population in the world, i.e. around 28% of the total population. This youth potential is often referred to as the ‘demographic dividend’ which means that if the youth available in the country are equipped with quality education and skills training, then they will not only get suitable employment but can also contribute effectively towards the economic development of the country. Every year, around 25 million people enter the workforce, but only 7 million are able to secure jobs, resulting in huge unemployment rates. Around 18% of the youth labour force is unemployed in the country today, and around 33% of the total youth are not in employment, education and training (NEET), which is highest in the world. This huge unemployed and NEET category of youth are turning demographic dividend into a demographic disaster for India.
Population growth constantly acts as a hurdle in effectively addressing the problems of poverty, hunger and malnutrition and in providing a better quality of health and education, with limited resources. COVID-19 has accentuated these challenges and also raised concerns on the timely attainment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is therefore important to understand that in order to have a better future for all on a healthy planet, attainment of the SDGs is critical.
Family planning is an effective tool to ensure a stable rise in the population, which in turn is crucial for the achievement of some of these SDGs. The government at all levels — Union, State and Local, citizens, civil societies as well as the businesses must take the onus to promote awareness and advocate for the sexual and reproductive rights of women and encourage the use of contraception. This would go a long way in ensuring that every child who is born proves to be an asset for the country, as all the research shows that investing in family planning and well-being measures have significant benefits over per Rupee cost spent vis-à-vis other investments.
Additionally, the key stakeholders need to be committed to well-researched planning and implementation on how to harness the population growth for the maximum economic benefit of the society and country. Providing adequate education and training to the large young population would ensure them to be productive, effective and competent, thereby proving themselves as key contributors to economic growth. Therefore, the World Population Day, 2020 is an opportune time to discuss these important issues and raise awareness about safeguarding sexual and reproductive health needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, so that corrective measures can be taken to overcome these challenges towards the vision of ‘New India’ and an ‘AtmaNirbhar Bharat’.
The article was first published here.