Policy changes are needed to tackle the threat of an ageing population
Byline: Gangtok Times Bureau
In his recent Independence Day address, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling talked about the declining fertility rate in the state. He said “It is important to maintain the TFR (Total Fertility Rate) at 2.0, which is considered the replacement level. In April 2017, the government introduced the Proud Mother Scheme to improve TFR. Women employees are entitled to six months of maternity leave.
The scheme seeks to ensure that every pregnant woman during the birth of her first child receives ₹ 7,000 and ₹ 10,000 for second child along with monetary assistance of ₹ 500 up to six years of age. Besides the health of the mother and baby, the Scheme also aims to improve TFR, Child Sex Ratio and the overall health status of all women and children in the state. The state has allocated ₹ 2.25 crores from the 2018-19 budget for the same.”
India embarked on a family planning program from 1951.
Sikkim joined the Indian Union as its 22nd State in 1975. Since then the family planning programme has been taken up. Sikkim took this up seriously leading to the present levels where the TFR has fallen to 1.2.
According to the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS), 21 states in the country have already reached replacement level TFR. Bihar has the highest TFR of 3.4, while Sikkim has the lowest of 1.2. Comparing with NFHS 3, Uttar Pradesh has shown the highest decline in TFR – 1.1%, followed by Nagaland (1%), Arunachal and Sikkim (0.9%).
Demographers, population specialists and public health experts use a simple figure to analyse a country’s population policy, to see if it’s on track. This number is the TFR – the average number of children that an average woman will have in her life. TFR is a more direct measure of the level of fertility than the birth rate, since it refers to births per woman. It shows the potential for population change in the country.
In June last year, United Nations release a report on world population, which said that by 2024 India’s population is set to take over China’s. According to data from the fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS), India’s TFR is 2.2, only 0.1 units away from the ideal 2.1, the replacement level fertility. The national decline in TFR has been steady, with 3.4 in 1992-93 to 2.2 in the latest one. According to experts, reaching replacement level fertility will keep the working population robust and the country will reap demographic dividend.
In July 2017, the Centre unveiled Mission Parivar Vikas (MPV), a new policy on population stabilization, to focus on a total of 146 high TFR districts in seven high fertility states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Assam. The government needs to focus on development of indicators on health and education.
Population growth in Sikkim is being slowed down by delayed marriage, delayed first birth and increasing space between children. Besides, quality family planning services, improved public health system, increased access to maternal and child health services, vaccination and nutrition, in conjugation with efforts to empower women and educate children have also contributed to the decline.
Several scholars have linked fertility rate decline to female education. The map of female literacy in India does exhibit striking similarities with the map of fertility. States with higher literacy rate for women, such as Kerala and Goa, have smaller families than those with widespread female illiteracy, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Looking at Scandinavian countries, Japan, Austria and Germany, the fall in their fertility rates is in direct correlation with rising levels of prosperity. Early in history when fertility rates dropped, they were caused by epidemics or wars. In such cases, the fertility rates were reversible. However, low fertility rates caused by higher income and education levels may not be reversible.
Low TFR also implies an aging population, since no new children are being
added, and more burden on the productive age population in the future. As family sizes shrink and community support fragments, familial ties that offer support to the infirm and elderly are fraying. A labour shortage also becomes evident and the vacant slots are filled by migrants.
Besides the threat of an ageing population, TFR has another implication, as is evident by the concerns expressed by the South Indian states over the Terms of Reference of the 15th Finance Commission, which lays out the roadmap for revenue sharing between the Centre and states and among states. The Terms of Reference suggested that the 2011 Census would be taken into consideration instead of the previously used 1971 Census. The southern states allege that they would be at a disadvantage, despite evoting efforts, energy and resources towards population control.
To reach and maintain replacement level fertility, the focus should not be limited to controlling TFR in high fertility states. It should also focus on improving access to healthcare, family planning and education for women as well as developing employment opportunities to delay childbearing and to space out children well.
However, focusing all the policies on women is indicative of a patriarchal mindset. Perhaps we can take inspiration from countries such as Denmark, South Korea and Singapore which are working on improving their fertility rate. These countries offer paternity leave to new fathers, they focus on improving work-life balance and have subsidised day-care options for working parents. The key to changing fertility trends lies in changing societal mindsets too, normalising fathers’ involvement in raising children and easing transition into work life post maternal or paternal leave can be important factors in improving fertility rates.