In 2017 the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs published a Revision to its World Population Prospect. This Revision stated that the current populations of China and India were 1.41 and 1.34 billion respectively and it estimated that India’s population would surpass China’s by 2024 and that India would be home to 1.5 billion people in 2030.

While India’s population is growing and it is expected to soon be the most populous nation on Earth, the rate at which this population growth is occurring is slowing down. The population grew by 21.15 per cent in the decade to the census in 2001, but the following decade saw growth of 17.64 per cent. Over those same time periods the total fertility rate (the number of children the average woman will have over her lifetime) has dropped from 2.6 to near the replacement rate of 2.1.

However, despite this slowing growth, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has used his recent Independence Day address from the Red Fort to talk about the “population explosion”. Modi argued that Indians should aim to have smaller families. This would have benefits not only for Indian families but also for India as a whole as existing resources could be shared among fewer people. He said that:

“Parents in India now need to give a serious thought to whether they will be able to fulfil their child’s dreams and aspirations and support a new life.”

According to the Prime Minister, smaller families can be happier and more content, have fewer diseases and have more resources. Beyond the immediate family, having smaller families had an impact on the wider community.

“Twenty-first century India needs to understand that development and prosperity begins only when individuals are healthy and resourceful. There are so many illnesses spread that our efforts cannot just be at the government level. We need to go public with our efforts.”

Indeed, Modi praised that “small section of society” which has small families as deserving respect: “what they are doing is an act of patriotism”.

The Prime Minister’s remarks come after the minister of state (health and family welfare) last year wrote that India’s population growth was a key problem impeding the provision of healthcare, employment and social security. The government is not only words either – it has increased access to contraceptives (including injectable contraceptives and progesterone-only pills) and family planning services in 146 high fertility districts.

However, it has to be remembered that population control initiatives by the Indian government have a dark history. During the Emergency (1975-1977) there was a massive sterilisation programme (8.3 million sterilisations were carried out in 1976-77) in which incentives were used to get men and women to voluntarily get sterilised. There were also many abuses and innumerable cases of forced sterilisations of unwilling victims. Thus, it is not surprising that the Prime Minister’s intervention will be contentious.

And the dark peripheries of population control in India are not solely in the past. An MP aligned with the ruling party has introduced a private members bill (not a piece of government legislation) that, if passed, would impose penalties on people who have more than two children. The Population Regulation Bill of 2019 would disqualify anyone with more than two children from entering local or national politics.

Further, any prospective government employee would have to undertake not to have more than two children. There would also be a reduction in government economic benefits for those with more than two children, including: a reduction in subsidies on loans and interest rates on savings instruments; a reduction in public distribution system benefits; and higher than normal interest rates for availing loans from banks and financial institutions.

With the recent rhetoric in the Prime Minister’s speech, perhaps there a is greater chance that more punitive measures like those contained in the Bill will come to pass as the nation grapples with its biggest “problem”: its children. After all, big families are “unpatriotic”. 

Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...