NEW DELHI – With its population set to surpass China’s by 2024, India is trying to find ways to manage higher-than-average fertility rates in some parts of the country and to adapt to the inevitable strain on resources that this brings. The northeastern state of Assam is even debating the introduction of a two-child policy in an effort to control population.
But focusing on limiting family size alone is a short-sighted, unsustainable solution, says Diego Palacios, the India representative for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Palacios has worked at the UN agency for three decades. He says he has seen “impressive changes” in India since his first official appointment to New Delhi, a three-year stint that began in 2000.
However, Palacios believes the country still has a long way to go before it can bridge the gender inequality gap and change the patriarchal mindset of its people – two major factors that make it difficult to implement effective population control programs, he says. Adolescent health, Palacios says, is the first priority area of UNFPA’s work in India, as nearly a third of the country’s population of 1.3 billion is between the ages of 10 and 24 years.
News Deeply spoke with Palacios about the common perceptions about India’s population growth and the need to look at the social factors behind the rising numbers.
Women & Girls: India is expected to become the world’s most populous country by 2024. How do you think it is coping with this impending population explosion?
Diego Palacios: We should not necessarily use the term “population explosion” in the case of India. I think India has been doing well in terms of coping with its rate of population growth. Recent results indicate that the fertility rate [the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime] has decreased from 2.7 a decade ago to 2.2.
The issue is that over the decades, India has had a huge population. Even if it achieves very low fertility rates, India’s population will continue to grow. And by 2050, India might reach 1.7 billion. But on the whole, I would say the picture is positive. The rate of growth has decreased substantially.
Out of 29 Indian states, 22 have already achieved fertility replacement levels [the rate at which the population replicates itself from one generation to the next]. Among the remaining seven there is concern about what is happening in Bihar, Jharkhand and also Uttar Pradesh, which have a population growth rate above the national average. India needs to concentrate its actions on high-growth states as well as high-growth districts, which is what the government is already doing.
High fertility could be an expression of many other things that are not happening in terms of development. For example, issues related to schooling, gender inequality, decision-making of women in terms of their reproductive plans, poverty, child mortality and maternal mortality. The government needs to approach the districts with high population rates in an integrated manner, providing services but at the same time looking at the social sectors.
Women & Girls: Can India take any lessons from China, which for decades followed a coercive one-child policy?
Palacios: The case of China was peculiar [and] it certainly should not be an example for India because India is already in the process of reaching population stabilization.
India really needs to follow the example that India has already provided for itself. The southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu provide very good examples of how, without relying on coercive measures, you could reach population stabilization and reduction of fertility. They have strong family planning programs that reach the last mile [and] respond to the needs of couples; they better inform the young and adolescents about their reproductive health and sexuality; they educate young women and girls and fight strongly for gender equality.
China reduced its population growth so much that it is facing a situation in which it is going to be the most rapidly aging society in the world. Now it seems that [the Chinese] have realized that coercion only worked for some time. In India about 8 percent of the population is above 60 years of age. Between 2040 and 2050, that proportion will go up to 20 percent. India has to think about its population situation not only in terms of its present, but also in the longer term.
Women & Girls: What are some of the challenges that India faces in its population control efforts?
Palacios: The challenges for India are how it could work harder to make services available for the poorest of the poor. It is not only the quality of the services, but it also has to come with a changing mindset.
For example, how do you promote gender equality? How do you deal with the issue of son preference – which is a big issue in India and affects the sex ratio? How do you give your women and girls opportunities to perform and to engage in the economy? How do people seek out health services and incorporate health behaviors that are positive? I think those are the challenges that need to be addressed, coupled with more social development actions.
I see the current government making efforts in the right direction – teaching people skills, giving them the opportunity to engage. Of course, the economy would have to do its part by creating the jobs to absorb the young people. TheBeti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Girl, Teach the Girl) program, for example, is a good way to address these obstacles. The question is how you engage the state governments to implement these programs.
Women & Girls: In India, the onus of family planning falls largely to women. What can be done to ensure that both men and women share the job of planning their families?
Palacios: Throughout the world you see the weight of family planning lies on women’s shoulders and that has to change.
If you calculate among the methods of family planning, you realize that of the modern methods being used in India [the majority] is through female sterilization. Vasectomy is almost nil in the country. When we say that the government should be working more toward empowering women and girls, we have to say that we need to work with boys and men as well, because they need to begin to change their mindset and realize that they have a responsibility in all these decisions.
We need to work more with education – educate men and women, make them realize that family planning should be a shared responsibility. But in India it’s not happening by far.
We are working with the government to include content about this issue in the school curriculum and to include life skills and issues related to gender equality. The traditional mindset takes some time to change.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.