Falling Fertility Rate

Population Puzzle

T Vijayendra

India’s National Family Health Survey 2019-21 (NFHS) has recorded a decline in the total fertility rate (the average children a woman has) from 2.2 in the previous survey (2015-16) to 2.0 in the latest one. Also it is 1.6 in urban areas and 2.1 in rural settings. When the fertility rate falls below 2.1 then it means that the existing population will not be replaced. There will be a decline, or in other words the population will start falling in future.

The increasing population is supposed to hinder every kind of progress and a country whose population was not increasing was considered ‘developed’ whereas India has been either ‘underdeveloped’ or a ‘developing’ country. The population issue was first raised by Malthus way back in the 19th century. Malthus (1766-1834) specifically stated that the human population increases geometrically, while food production increases arithmetically. Under this paradigm,food production will not be able to keep up with growth of human population resulting in disease, famine, war and calamity. In 1968, the Stanford biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich infamously predicted that millions would soon starve to death in their bestselling, doom-saying book The Population Bomb. At the time the Ehrlichs were publishing their dark prophecies, the world was at its peak of population growth, which at that point was increasing at a rate of 2.1% a year. Since then, the global population has ballooned from 3.5 billion to 7.67 billion. Since the days of Malthus, Marxists have been arguing against this theory in vain. Until recently middle class Indians of all hues including many liberals and progressives were arguing that population increase was the most important problem.

But now the country has arrived! Essentially it is a result of the growth of industrialisation and capitalist society. The old order is breaking down. Joint families are breaking down and individualism has increased. Urbanisation has increased. Then women have been empowered. More women have been educated. Percentage of women marrying before the age of 18 has been halved. Their control over their bodies has increased. Increase in contraceptive use has happened. In a nuclear family it is difficult to raise many children. Cost of bringing up children has gone up. They can’t afford to bring up more children. There are also some reasons that are not so nice. The Indian state’s abandonment of basic health care and education has proved to be a very effective contraceptive. Then there is a rise in infertility among the Indian population—probably due to all the poison they breathe, drink and eat thanks to air pollution and the Green Revolution. Infertility clinics are mushrooming even in small towns.

Falling fertility rate has also some serious problems. Falling fertility rates have become a problem in the world’s wealthiest nations. And instead of promoting family planning and reducing births they are making extensive government efforts to promote childbearing! All over Europe and in Japan the fertility rate is falling dramatically and in England and Wales it fell from 1.9 children per woman in 2012 to just 1.65 in 2019. The problem is even more severe in Scotland, where the rate has fallen from 1.67 in 2012 to 1.37 in 2019. In South Korea last year, birth rates fell to 0.84 per woman, a record low. From next year, in South Korea, cash bonuses of 2m won (£1,320) will be paid to every couple expecting a child, on top of existing child benefit payments. So what is wrong with falling fertility rate?

When the fertility rate falls below replacement levels there will be a shortage of workers and an increase of the dependent population of old people and children. In such a situation labour immigration occurs. That is the main reason why people migrate to the U S, Canada, Australia and Europe. Of course people who migrate have their own reasons, some of which are social and some are economic. Initially these countries only wanted young male labourers and resented the families also coming over. Now they are beginning to welcome them and giving child benefits also. All this is presented as great acts of charity, liberal thinking, and promoting multiculturalism, fighting racism and fighting resurging fascism. In India also Bihar, U.P and Jharkhand have fertility rates higher than the replacement rate whereas rest of India and particularly South India has experienced lower fertility rate for years. So labour is migrating from these North Indian states to South Indian states.

Another problem is that these countries are facing an ‘ageing’ problem. People above sixty years are considered old or senior citizens. It is the percentage of old people in the total population that is important and not the total number, and especially in relation to those in the 0-15 age group in the population. The percentage of the elderly in the population rises because of a fall in fertility and not because of decrease in mortality and increase in life expectancy at birth. As a proportion of the total population it is the Scandinavian countries, France and Japan that have a very high percentage of old people in their population. As the population of the old approaches that of the 0-15 group, the working population shrinks in proportion and the burden of taking care of the old and the young becomes very heavy. In such cases, societies experience a shortfall in its working population. Today as the fertility rates are falling even in countries like China and India the old age problem is becoming really huge.

Today, the burden of the care of the elderly on the government is so big that it often exceeds the pay check of the working people. In Kerala, for instance, the pension of government employees is more than the current wages of the employees. As a result, today’s governments desperately want to get out of it. The fact is, care of old people is rapidly becoming an unsolvable problem, and only more so in the coming resource crunch due to peaking of non-renewable resources and economic crisis.

Another problem with this policy of fewer births and reduced child mortality is that the proportion of genetically weak will increase in the population.

With the policy of saving every child the genetically weak also will survive and the proportion of disabled children will increase. It is particularly heart rending in case of mentally retarded children. The parents and particularly the mothers go through a harrowing time.

Disability due to accidents is a different matter. Many of those people who have lost a limb (hand or leg) can survive quite well. Also in a future fossil fuel free society the speeds of vehicles will be below 20 Km. per hour and such accidents will become rare.

Now with all this knowledge and government efforts to increase fertility again, these trends won’t reverse. The reason is that they emerged in a capitalist environment and unless that changes these trends won’t change. For example women will not give up their right to their bodies and will not start having more babies. The social cost of bringing up a child will remain high even though the state gives cash incentives. This is so because in a nuclear family with both the partners having jobs there is no time to give to children.

To avoid the problems created by falling fertility is to follow Nature’s Way.The countries have to aim at a ‘zero population growth’ or a steady population fluctuating within a narrow band of few percent due to annual changes in nature. This means high fertility rate, high child mortality and low longevity. Now human society in the last two hundred years has set its goals in completely the opposite direction. All the UN agencies, all the human ‘science’ have these newer goals—of reducing fertility rate, child mortality and increasing longevity.

Human species did not have such an unsustainable policy in the nineteenth century. There was high child birth, high child mortality and longevity was below 50 years. In a way the current policy is also related to cheap oil. It produced health care facilities that allowed reduced child mortality and increased longevity. It created a new morality saying that reduction of child mortality and increased longevity is desirable and good. Then frightened with the increased population they arrived at the present policy of low birth rate and low child mortality. High longevity also became a desired goal.

The aim of a sane population policy today ought to be achieving negative growth, reducing population and then stabilising at zero population growth. As a rule, a sustainable population policy is based on high child birth rate and high child mortality and normal/low longevity. Today it should also include a healthy population, which enjoys good life and a good death too. This will need a healthy attitude to death and euthanasia too.



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Vol 54, No. 36, March 6 - 12, 2022