Friday, December 1, 2023

Is India going infertile? A comprehensive look


By Jayita Ghoshal

Is India going infertile? This is a question from various quarters of researchers and scientists. Why this question, and how valid is it?

India has long been known for worshipping fertility cults since the days of the Harappan civilization. In such a situation United Nations has declared that India is going to be the most populous country by 2050. Obviously, it calls for a celebration; after all, thousand years of worship will ultimately bear fruit. Fertility rates have always been on the higher side, which stood India in good stead. Post-independence agriculture contributed about 51.9% of GDP. Agriculture and its allied services being a labour-intensive operation, enjoyed the services of both sexes in agricultural operations.

So each family having 5-6 children was normal and considered a boon. But the complacency of a large joint extended family or stem family soon crumbled with the clarion call of the leaders of the nascent independent nation. The industrialization and service sector beckoned to make India self-reliant in all sectors. Industrialization ushered the cropping up of multiple towns and towns prospering into cities. The more urbanization, the greater the disintegration of the joint families into nuclear families.

Occupation shift was slowly happening across towns and cities, and also in the rural hinterland. The entire subsistence was no longer dependent on the agricultural land holdings of a family. Need of the hour was skilled labour than unskilled labour, vis a vis industry and agriculture. Mechanized farming’s marked progress in the Green revolution further reduced the need for unskilled labour. 

As India made rapid strides towards self-reliance, the health sector was a matter of great concern, especially maternal and child health. Family planning was adopted as a socio-economic development policy for alleviating the condition of women in terms of empowerment and also in adopting family planning methods to improve the health and partly economic burden of the family. The first three planning commissions (1951-66) included family planning under socio-development policies, during which the fertility rate showed a slight decline in decades from 5.907 in 1950 to 5.598 in 1970.

Family planning is the cheapest way to achieve sustainable health development goals.

This same period showed a marked decline in the fertility rate from 4.857 to 3.346. This trend is further corroborated by the fact that while the percentage of the joint family declined from 16.5% to 14.6% in urban areas, the decline was much steeper in rural areas, from 20.1% to 16.8%, mainly due to rapid industrialization, a decline of agriculture-based village industries, modern education and enlightenment of women.

Family planning is the cheapest way to achieve sustainable health development goals, which influences the Human Development Index of a country. Human Development Index (HI) is a statistic composite index of life expectancy, education and per capita income indicators, and India scores 42.8 out of 100. But formulating policy and implementing it across an area of 3.287 million square km is not an easy task. Socio-cultural determinants vary along with regional variations in the position of women, educational status, wealth, religious norms and values and access to health services.

Region-wise analysis of the number of children per family presents a diverse scenario.

The average number of children in families of Eastern states (Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal) ranges from 1.64-2.98, North Eastern states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim) ranges from 1.17-2.91, Southern states (Tamil Nadu, Telengana, Karnataka, Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Lakshadweep) ranges from 1.28-1.75; Central states (Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh) ranges from 1.82-2.35; Western states (Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Dadra & Nagar Haveli Daman and Diu) range from 1.30-1.84, and finally, Northern states (Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Delhi) ranges from 1.40-2.01.

The rural-urban divide has also observed a decline in the average number of children. In urban areas, the number has decreased from 2.7 (1992-93) to 1.6 (2019-21), and in rural areas, from 3.7 (1992-93) to 2.1 (2019-21). Analyzing the socio-cultural determinants affecting the fertility rate, it has been found that women with a minimum of 12 years of schooling have 1.8 children on average, in contrast to illiterate women (2.8). The economic condition also influences the fertility rate with a decreased TFR (1.6) in the high-income category compared to 2.6 in below poverty level. Buddhists /neo Buddhists have an average of 1.6 children against that of 2.4 amongst Muslims.

The ideal fertility rate is 2.1 children per family is known as the replacement fertility rate (in more precise terms, the mother in normal circumstances is replaced by her daughter to produce the next generation). In India, only two states have wanted a fertility rate more than the replacement level fertility rate, Mizoram (2.7) and Bihar (2.2). The gap between the actual fertility rate and the wanted fertility rate is also more than 0.5 in the two states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, reflecting a failure to ensure neonatal health and maternal health at birth. However, the scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) population still has a total fertility rate of 2.8 and 2.9, respectively, much higher than the ideal replacement level fertility rate.

If India is termed as infertile is a sign of decreasing total fertility rate, then it augurs well for the economic prosperity of India and a good ranking in the Human Development Index and Health cares Universalism Index. Though India’s neighbouring countries have scored a better fertility rate than Bangladesh (1.9), Bhutan (1.9), Myanmar (2.1) and Sri Lanka (2.1) in comparison to India (2.2), at the same time, it has to be kept in mind that Governmental and non-governmental agencies of India have to cater to citizens occupying an area of 3.287 million square km in contrast to Bangladesh (1,48,460 sq. km), Bhutan (38,394 sq. km), Myanmar (6,76,578 sq. km) and Sri Lanka (65,601 sq. km) to provide facilities to attain “forced infertility”.

The dichotomy remains whether a decline in the average number of children per family is attaining infertile status as a nation, or availability of informed fertility choices, thereby empowering women is a welcome connotation of a nation being infertile.

Also Read: Covid-19 pandemic – Impact on reproductive health

(Jayita Ghoshal is a Professor in Anthropology.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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