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Population Explosion in India? Get the Facts Straight

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Goodpal is connected with some NGOs and activists working on population and women issues.


Population of India: Latest Demographic Trends

The Myth of Population Explosion

Population explosion in India is a myth created in the West by the Malthus philosophy. It is an irrational fear of large human population.

Leaving aside immigration from neighboring countries, the current annual population growth rate is about 1.4 percent; five decades ago it was 3 percent. Reflecting this decrease, average children per couple also dropped from about 6 to about 2.3 in fifty years. The census data of 2011 slow that there is decline in fertility across the whole country; though the rate of decline is not uniform but the demographic transition is taking place at different paces in different parts of the country.

A district wise analysis of the 621 districts revealed that in 190 districts, representing 31% of the population, the fertility rate has gone below the replacement level of 2.1; in 192 districts where the fertility rate is between 2.2 and 3.0 will go below replacement level by 2021; and the 239 districts have fertility rate over 3.0 despite significant drop from the last census.

It is a widely recognized fact that now there is country-wise awareness about small family size. The current population growth can be attributed to 2 major causes: poor access to contraceptives and early marriages resulting in early pregnancies, particularly in the rural areas.

Western thinkers have traditionally seen large populations as threat – a psychological fear of being outnumbered which has justification in the population theory of Thomas Malthus of 1798. He had argued that population growth, if left unchecked, can easily go beyond limited resources of the nature and create widespread conflicts. His theory has greatly impacted thinkers and sociologists in the Western capitalistic societies and even shaped the international politics after the second WW. However, the assumptions on which Thomas Malthus based his population theory are no longer valid in today’s world; it is not the primitive world anymore.

The correct and more relevant way to look at the population issues was shown by several International conventions of early nineties, particularly the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) of 1994 held in Cairo. It emphatically propounded that “population issue” is not a fertility control issue but a “development issue” because population growth automatically reduces as societies develop because it brings in education, awareness and medical facilities. Development is the best contraceptive as well an antidote of poverty. This is the new mantra for all free and democratic societies of the world.


Why is the Indian population still increasing if the average family size is decreasing?

About 18 million people continued to be added every year in India because more than 50% of its population is in the reproductive age. This large base of young people imparts momentum population growth. The high birth rates of the previous decades have added large number of people in the reproductive age group. According to population projections by the Registrar General of India, about 60% growth is due to momentum alone.


What exactly is population momentum?

Population momentum is the tendency for population growth to continue even after replacement-level fertility (2 children per woman) has been achieved. It is caused by a relatively high proportion of people in the reproductive age. As the proportion of young people decreases the population momentum also reduces. So, momentum operates through the age distribution. It is important because of the magnitude and duration of its effects.

The importance of momentum led population growth has increased as fertility levels throughout the world have declined. In 1994, John Bongaarts estimated that population growth due to momentum could account for nearly half of world population increase during the twenty-first century.

Often there is a gap of few decades between achieving replacement level fertility (two children per couple) and population stabilization – when birth and death rates become equal. This is similar to stopping a car by applying breaks; it continues for some distance before coming to a halt.

Over a decade ago, India had set the goal of attaining replacement levels of fertility (of 2.1) by 2010 so that the larger goal of population stabilization could be achieved by 2045 – after a gap of about 35 years to account for population momentum. However, it missed the target and now population stabilization would be achieved somewhere around 2050 - 60.

Is it possible to check population momentum?

Bongaart has pointed out that the momentum driven growth could be reduced simply by raising the average age of childbearing. He also calculated that a 2.5 year increase in age at first birth would reduce population growth momentum by 21%. Typical ways to check population momentum are by delaying marriage and first pregnancy, and by spacing subsequent births.

If all unwanted births were prevented, India’s total fertility rate would immediately drop to replacement level fertility of 2.1. Given the not-so-good health indicators in India many experts take the fertilities of 2.2 -- 2.3 to be replacement level in many parts of the country.

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What are other factors contributing towards population growth?

There are two major contributors to the population growth at present: Although the awareness about small family size can be seen practically everywhere but in many areas women are unable to prevent pregnancies because of poor availability of contraceptives and lack of reproductive healthcare services. Births due to these unwanted and unplanned pregnancies - unmet need - is particularly common in rural areas where facilities and services are rather weak.

…one day my husband told me that he wanted a child after 2–3 years. I told him that I also want a child after 2–3 years. But he said that he did not know how not to have a child so he would ask someone, but then next month I found that I was pregnant. (18-year-old, first time pregnant woman in a small town)

Sterilization, which is still the most available and widely used of birth control, is not suitable for the young couples and actually has an adverse impact on population momentum. When there is no access to temporary contraceptives, it encourages people to have babies in quick succession and then terminate permanently, which in reality add to population momentum. Most Indian family planning officials are still not educated on the role of momentum and continue to remain obsessed with the idea that sterilization is the “best choice.”

Another dominant reason is somewhat traditional: early marriages of girls. This is a bigger cause than the 'unmet need' and preventing all marriages below 18 for girls will almost immediately bring the fertility rate below 2.1.

Perhaps, the obstacle comes from the mindset of planners who still don't appreciate the importance of preventing pregnancies whether from 'unmet need' or from early marriages. They need to learn from neighboring Bangladesh which has brought the fertility down from 6.3 in 1975 to 2.2 in 2012, largely by expanding the use of contraceptives throughout the country.


What is a demographic transition, in simple terms?

Stated simply, it is a transition from a stable population with high mortality and high fertility to a stable population with low mortality and low fertility. During the transition population growth and changes in the age structure of the population are inevitable. Most of India’s population growth in next two decades will be caused by increased numbers of people in the 15 to 59 years age group - the working age.

In India the demographic transition has been relatively slow but steady. As a result India was able to avoid adverse effects of too rapid changes in the number and age structure of the population, as is seen in China. Read, for example, The Dark Side of One Child Policy of China.


What one action can significantly reduce population momentum in India?

According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), raising mother’s age at first birth from 18 to 23 could reduce population momentum by over 40%.

Although the legal age of girl’s marriage is 18, it is not followed in several areas of India. Many pockets of the country have tradition of child marriage. About 46% of young women marry before the legal age (18 years) and 63% by 20 years. The proportion of child marriage is significantly higher in rural areas of some states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, and Rajasthan as shown in the chart at the right.

Early marriage leads to early pregnancies and early child birth. The young woman has hardly any idea about contraceptives and the patriarchal traditions denies them the freedom to even talk about sexual behavior and pregnancies. Thus, they end up giving birth within the first year of marriage. According to 2001 census, about 3,00,000 young women (girls) below 15 years gave birth to at least one child in the state of Karnataka which is a rather economically developed state in south India. Therefore, it is a serious issue that needs collaboration among the sociologists, social workers, educationists and the policy planners.


So, how are the policy makers trying to control population momentum?

Historically, the Indian family planning efforts have revolved around permanent termination of pregnancy – with strong bias towards female sterilization. Even at present this is the most popularly offered method of birth control. Needless to say it is totally unsuitable for those who are just starting families and for that growing population which enters into physical relations outside marriage. Their prime need is spacing methods and temporary contraceptives, respectively. These are either easily or timely not available. It has been estimated that over 20% of all live births are the result of unplanned and unexpected pregnancies. Many of these unwanted pregnancies are terminated through abortions. The growing numbers of abortion provide an indication of the magnitude of the problem. Thus, increasing the availability of temporary contraceptives is an area where policy planners are concentrating.

The population planners now seem to be coming to terms with population momentum as seen by a recent policy of 2011. In an effort to increase spacing between births, the government is promoting a scheme called the post-partum insertion of intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUCD). Under this scheme, pregnant women are counseled for use of IUCD during the antenatal period and the IUCD is inserted immediately after delivery of the babies. In China, the usage of IUCD is as high as 60 percent; it is only 2 percent in India right now.

Other initiatives are emphasis on girls’ education through various schemes and encouraging women for institutional delivery to reduce both infant mortality rate (IMR) and maternal mortality rate (MMR). They also toyed with "Two-Child-Norm" through coercive methods of advantages and disadvantages but the results have been dismal.


The fear of population "explosion", whether in India or world, is pure fiction. Fertilities are declining across India. The current national average is about 2.3 in 2015; it should definitely fall to around 2.1 in next few years. All attention must be focused on preventing early marriages and widening the spread of contraceptives and reproductive medical facilities.

Rather than targeting people for sterilizing, the population planners will look wise if they target population momentum. Female education and women empowerment are two best and dignified solutions to go about it. This the message from the ICPD for the whole world.

For Further Reading

Thoughtful Comments

Goodpal (author) on August 22, 2017:

Yes, the appeasement politics of the past governments have flooded India with Bangladeshi nationals. India's TFR is already around 2.2 which is more or less at replacement level. Any further push to reduce it drastically would have serious consequences later on - by way of disturbing the demographic profile.

As the government is planning to seal borders with Israeli equipment, the infiltration should diminish in coming months and years.

Thanks for thoughtful commenting. Good Day!

ritakanelove on July 13, 2017:

Hello dear please reply me at(ritakane31 at outl00k.c0m)i have much more to discuss with you.thanks.

beingsure11 on June 15, 2017:

good use of illustrations to explain

Ashutosh Joshi from New Delhi, India on March 06, 2017:

I believe we need to have a more realistic view on this topic. We cannot shy away from the fact that we are the second most populous nation in the world and we are all poised to take over China as most populous nation. At 1.3 Billion we are growing at 1.2%. Marginally above us China stands at 0.5% population growth. The simple reason for my comparison is while China reached the Billion mark almost 3 decades back we just crossed it in 2000.

Now besides how fast we are growing there is a grave problem of migration. The home ministry in its latest reply confirmed that illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India has reached around staggering 20 Million mark. As per pew research, we will have the largest Muslim population by 2050. That certainly raises eyebrows.

While I agree with the education and awareness bit but I think we need stringent population control measures to deal with this issue and for that we need to look east.

Goodpal (author) on May 15, 2016:

While I respect your thoughts, our observations differ. Let there be healthy difference!

Wish you a wonderful day!

ztoa789 on May 13, 2016:

2.3 per couple? I haven't heard of a single Indian family has less than 3 children when the mother is 35, except very rich ones.

Go check the stats, it is more like a couple had 1 or 2 when they are not even 21, and God knows how many more they will have

Goodpal (author) on August 06, 2015:

Thanks Vegas, for sharing.

"...willingness of the people to live substandard lives. The Indian psyche is that one can live happily with meager means and higher standards of material progress is not essential."

Why do you say this is a volunteer choice? I don't think people anywhere in the world make conscious choice to stay in "poverty".

Vegas Elias from Mumbai on August 06, 2015:

You are very right. Delaying the first child will definitely help in reducing the momentum of population growth. There is another factor which adds to the momentum of population growth; and that is the willingness of the people to live substandard lives. The Indian psyche is that one can live happily with meager means and higher standards of material progress is not essential. This is the attitude of the large rural majority. Unless this changes and unless youngsters don't delay marriages until achieving some goals in life, population will grow.

feroz on April 11, 2015:

Its very intresting and very much useful

Manoj37 on July 18, 2012:

My original hypothesis is that India's economy grew at a miserable rate of 3.3% from the period of 1965 to 1991 thus causing economic deprivation, lack of education, health services and infrastructure leading to massive population growth. Had we grown at a 7-8 % GDP growth rate during this period we would not have crossed 1 billion even in 2012. I strongly believe that faster economic growth is the biggest contraceptive. We bungled and missed the bus, now of course it is too late and we are 1.23 billion people.

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Goodpal (author) on May 16, 2011:

Thanks Han, for your input. I can see that you favor the use of coercion as a way to population control and you are not alone in this approach. However, I would like to point out how thinking has changed after the ICPD of 1994 in Cairo.

The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) gave a new direction to the issue of population growth by shifting the focus from “population control” to the well being of women and their reproductive health – thus putting women at the center of the population debate.

It emphasized improving the living and health conditions of individual woman as a way to lower and stabilize the birth rate to solve the wider population problem. As a result, improvement in areas such as reproductive health, reproductive rights and empowerment of women became the main focus of the population issue after ICPD.

This is a significant shift from the earlier notion that women are merely a means to meet some predefined population growth in some specified time frame. Hence, countries have shifted away from “control” to “women development” and are working towards empowering women and improving their status and health conditions. Most women, given the choice, will have fewer children than their mothers did. In fact, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are also an extension of this approach.

I appreciate your viewpoint and thank you for sharing.

Han on April 08, 2011:

Mr. Goodpal,

I think you need to understand that even if the population growth rate slows to 1%, the population is still growing. The point here is to reduce population.

What China is trying to achieve is not just to reduce growth rates, it is to reduce absolute numbers of people. You may think it is draconian and crude, but I think the only real way a population can be controlled properly is to use coercion in the initial stage until a certain time when the people will control themselves as seen in the case of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, HK and Singapore due to rising living standards.

Goodpal (author) on April 03, 2011:

Thanks Siddsingh, for your input.

I fully agree -- "Development" is the key word. While GDP growth of 8-9 percent looks good, it does not percolate down to the poor section. What is required is the promotion of small industries and entrepreneurship in the rural areas, rather than the current fashion of following American model of capitalism (basically designed to favor rich-and-powerful hoping they would create jobs for the lower class).

Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

Goodpal (author) on March 31, 2011:

Thanks for your comment, Tony. I am fully in agreement with you.

Human race is depleting the natural resources irresponsibly and has caused dangerous damage to the climate worldwide. Global warming and thinning forest cover across the world would become greater issues with increasing world population in the coming decades.

A fresh initiative is needed to curb the defense expenditures worldwide. It would be wonderful if the UN can device a mechanism to extract a tax of 5-10 percent from the major superpowers and use that aggressively towards the MDGs. People of the world need better health, dignified living conditions, and human development.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

SiddSingh on March 10, 2011:

Great hub - well written with valid points.

However, I feel that though there is no population explosion, still we can't deviate to the other extreme - where we think that it is matter of no concern.

The biggest need of the hour is development, fast enough and sustainable enough so that the huge population does not indeed become a burden - and prove the grim Cassandras correct. Malthus was probably wrong in the sense that he did not take into account that technology can grow at a much faster pace, and play an important part in making food widely available.

Still, the fact remains that 35% of Indian population remains below the official poverty line - and 35% of of 1.2 billion is an obscenely large figure. THAT is one population that needs urgent attention.

Tony McGregor from South Africa on March 10, 2011:

You have highlighted the most important issues: "focusing on education, healthcare, and removal of economic disparity between few super-rich on one side and scores of ultra-poor on the other."

I think that the world's population is rapidly reaching a point where the resources will be stretched to breaking point. This will unfortunately lead to conflict over access. We already see signs of that.

I agree that there is fear-mongering in the West about India and China and I think the population issue needs to be addressed with some urgency - not pointing fingers at India and China, but doing concrete and useful things about education in particular. We know that the more educated a population is the lower the fertility rate and that is how the dangers of a world population of more than 7 billion people might be mitigated.

If the developed world (in which I would include China), and most especially the US, would devote a proportion of the money they currently spend on defence to the improvement of education in all countries across the world, they would find they don't need the massive defence budgets they currently have.

Development is the key and hence the importance of the UN's MDGs.

Thanks for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking Hub.

Love and peace


Goodpal (author) on February 24, 2011:

Thank you safiq, for the comment. All the hype of population explosions from the West where people feel threatened by seeing big number of people. The current economic growth rate of India adds fuel to their fear. It is all world politics. Twenty years from now US, China, and India will be the superpowers deciding world politics.

The real issue is how India develops its masses, particularly those living in rural areas and assimilate them in the mainstream economic development. The trick lies in focusing on education, healthcare, and removal of economic disparity between few super-rich on one side and scores of ultra-poor on the other. Population numbers, in themselves, don't decide the growth of a country.

safiq ali patel from United States Of America on February 24, 2011:

I don't think that a population explosion is a bad thing. India needs its children and many of them for it to be india. I personally would like to see an india full of people rather than the sort of India I have been seeing recently where the number of people in the country is in sharp decline.

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