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Population Challenges in India

Md Juel Rana ( is a senior research fellow at and Srinivas Goli ( teaches at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Population Concerns in India: Shifting Trends, Policies, and Programs by Krishnamurthy Srinivasan, Delhi: Sage Publications, 2017; pp 293, ₹ 850.


Following the unparalleled decline in fertility, India’s population growth has shown signs of deceleration in the recent decades. Despite this, India will overtake China and is slated to be the most populous country in the world within the next decade. Keeping in mind the rising concerns of population scientists over the non-standard demographic transition that the country experienced, it is high time to assess the achievements and the rough paths traversed since independence. Krishnamurthy Srinivasan’s book critically studies the demographic changes in India in the context of national and international policies. It brilliantly highlights the lessons learnt from the population policies in the country.

Accroding to Srinivasan, historically, India had a lower fertility rate than the European countries (before the medical revolution in Europe). The low fertility recorded initially has been primarily due to India’s traditional social and cultural norms and practices. Srinivasan argues that India’s demographic achievements are far worse than those of China and the East Asian Tigers, despite the efforts long made by successive governments of independent India. Using this backdrop, the book discusses several aspects of population challenges from the population policy perspective. The chapters are laid out logically, beginning with a vivid narration of the shifting goalposts of family planning programmes in successive five-year plans and national population policies (NPPs). Second, a range of demographic challenges on account of the population changes are discussed. Third, the progress of different development indicators in India has been compared against the global benchmarks. Finally, major challenges on the demographic front in India have been summarised. Thus, the author tries to bring together a wide range of demographic issues in this book, making it a valuable contribution to India’s population and development research.

Family Planning Programmes

Srinivasan critically analyses and meticulously interprets the changing approaches to family planning programmes in India from the British period to the recent past. In his view, neo-Malthusian thinking dominated the approach to population control programmes in the post-independent era. The size and growth of population had been one of the major concerns of researchers, social scientists, and policymakers. Under the umbrella of the neo-Malthusian movement, it was believed that checks on population would combat the adverse effects of famine, epidemics, and poverty, and the propagation of modern methods of population control was emphasised. As a result, the family planning programme had been introduced to control population growth along with improving maternal health in the First Five Year Plan. During the consecutive five-year plans and in the documents of the NPPs, various demographic targets had been put forward, but many of these targets had not been realised as these were highly ambitious targets. Therefore, the goals had been shifted time and again beyond the time frame of different five-year plans and population policies over the decades.

Based on his critical evaluation of the NPPs in India since their inception, the author opines that the country experienced a mixed bag of outcomes as far as progress in family planning programmes was concerned. Although family planning contributed to fertility decline in a major way, from the beginning, family planning methods in the country were skewed towards the sterilisation of women. This was because the government chose the cheaper action of sterilisation rather than the more expensive one of teaching the know-how of the use of spacing methods of contraception, despite successive years of economic growth. Further, the integration of family planning with reproductive and child health (RCH) services has stalled the progress of family planning in India in the past two decades. Discussion of population control cannot be complete without discussing proximate and distal determinants of fertility decline and the state-level variations in factors contributing to it. Srinivasan, however, has not devoted enough space to such discussions.

Major Population Issues

Srinivasan describes several diverse socio-demographic challenges, notably the institution of marriage, fertility, health, and quality of data as the major population concerns in India. He has highlighted the significance of culture on the issues of fertility, nuptiality, and stability of marriage. Also, he has underscored chronic problems such as child marriages and emerging issues such as live-in relationships and rising divorce rates in the country. He has mentioned four reasons for the breakdown of marriages: rise in individualism, economic independence of women, the rising costs of marriage, and movements towards gender equality. Also, he has argued that same-religion and same-caste marriages are more stable than their counterparts, but there is no demonstrated evidential bases for this argument. Srinivasan suggests the need to conduct studies to evaluate the economic benefits of same-caste and same-religion marriages commonly practised in India in comparison to practices in Western countries, such as live-in arrangements as well as the prevalence of high divorce rates and incidences of children reared by single parents. According to him, although same-caste and same-religion marriages could enhance economic progress, such practices would not yield benefits for all sections of society as it would only encourage the existing societal inequity in terms of the superiority of one religion and caste over the others.

According to Srinivasan, other major concerns are current demographic trends and diversity and its implications for the future. To govern the large size of its population, India needs an efficient political and administrative management system, especially in the large states. The high growth rate of population, child marriage and adolescent fertility, childhood malnutrition, and worsening child sex ratio, maternal, infant and child mortality in Empowered Action Group (EAG) states continue to be the burning population issues in India. Besides, the author justly raises his concerns about the quality of data for the estimation of demographic indicators in India. According to him, reporting bias and omissions in the age–sex information of the census and the civil registration of births and deaths are the important data reliability concerns. Good governance is crucial for the successful implementation of programmes, including health and family welfare as well as civil registration of births and deaths. He believes that technological development would pave the way to good governance by way of easy diffusion and circulation of information.

The Comparative Position of India

Srinivasan also compares five populous developed countries, namely, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) with five developing nations, namely, India, China, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, discussing the various demographic and developmental indicators.

Demographic indicators such as fertility, mortality, the institution of marriage, sex ratio, human development and gender equity have been compared. Among the developing countries, India performs poorly in terms of fertility and mortality along with Bangladesh. The populations of China and India have the most unfavourable sex ratio for females mainly due to sex-selective abortions. Although gender inequalities are higher among other developing nations in general, conditions are the worst in India. Besides demographic indicators, a comparison has also been made with selected indicators of health infrastructure and energy. The availability of hospital beds and physicians is poorer in Bangladesh and India compared to other developing countries. At the same time, the condition of India is the worst in the case of open defecation. Although the availability of drinking water is slightly better in India, it has a long way to go to reach the standards set in the developed countries. Energy consumption per capita, particularly oil and electricity in India is much lower than the developed countries and India even lags behind the developing countries such as China, Brazil, and Indonesia.

In the penultimate chapter, Srinivasan dwells on the discourse on population and development in India and abroad. Against the backdrop of the ongoing debate, he expresses his concerns about the increasing pollution, strong national, religious and racial identities, and the rapid exploitation of non-renewable resources that would pose collective threats to human population. He warns that mankind is facing a collective danger due to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, exploitation of non-renewable resources and increasing inequalities at the local and global levels. Hence, he argues that the motto of policymaking should be, “observe globally, think nationally and act locally” rather than just “think globally and act nationally.” But, he has not convincingly argued whether it is only overpopulation or other factors such as social and economic inequalities and skewed distribution and wastage of resources that have also contributed to considerable pollution and climate change.

The Way Forward

The author proposes a few ways forward to address the challenges, particularly for India to catch up to the East Asian Tigers in realising its anticipated demographic bonus. First, the author emphasises the need for credible data sources. For that, his suggestion is to integrate the Aadhaar card (unique identification number or UID) with the CRS database, although there is no discussion on the quality of Aadhaar data itself. Second, to eradicate child marriage practices, he asserts the need for launching behavioural change campaigns. Third, for better maternal and child health service provision and family planning, he suggests that the maternal and child health programmes need to be separated from the family planning programme to meet the prevailing unmet need of family planning in India. This is required so that the quality contraceptive services, choices of methods and their easy access, treatment facilities of primary and secondary sterility become accessible to everyone. However, a majority of the research studies conducted worldwide still advocate the integration of family planning with maternal and child health services.

Fourth, against the background of the differentials in population growth across the states of India based on the NPP 2000 recommendation, Parliament has frozen the number of seats in the lower house up to 2021. Thereafter, the political representations and regional power balance may be changed as per the population size of the states. Hence, the author has called for a national debate on it and suggested that the number of seats of members of Parliament (MPs) be frozen permanently. However, the author should have brought in more discussions on this point, which would have benefited future debates on the subject. We feel that freezing the number of parliamentary seats may be against the constitutional rights of “one person one vote,” but the issue is larger than the mere representation of the population.
It is the representation of language, culture and ethnic values in a diverse and large country like India. The debate should not only revolve around the size of the population, but must include its diverse population composition. Fifth, the poor outcome of population policies in India is due to its centralised nature, being implemented in different states of India, which are in dissimilar stages of demographic transition. So, the states should be allowed and encouraged to formulate a separate population policy and implement it for better policy outcomes.

In summary, this book analytically brings out several prominent population challenges from the policy perspective in India against the global benchmarks. However, this book lacks its focus on specific issues and their critical evaluation; rather, it narrates the diverse population challenges. In particular, this book did not touch upon the unbalanced demographic transition, specifically the decline in fertility before the considerable fall in child mortality.

The book is dedicated to the millions of sterilised couples of India, claiming that their sacrifice contributed directly and indirectly to the development of the country. However, this may not go well with many liberalist, feminist, neutralist and revisionist scholars. The coercive and highly incentive-based sterilisation programme had in turn reduced India’s fertility rates much faster than its socio-economic and mortality transition. Data shows that India has already reached the replacement level fertility rate, but its infant mortality rate is still relatively high compared to many developing and developed countries at this stage of fertility transition. Therefore, the link between sterilisation-driven family planning and development is not appealing. However, the book is a welcome addition to literature on not only population issues and challenges, but also the population and development debate.


Updated On : 7th Jan, 2019


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