Interviews |

Muslim fertility rate has shown the sharpest decline in recent years

G’nY. The total fertility rate (TFR) as per the first 1992-93 National Family Health Survey (NFHS-I) was 3.4. It has gradually declined since. What do you think has happened?

Dr Amitabh Kundu : TFR is defined as the total number of children born or likely to be born to a woman in her lifetime, given the prevailing age specific fertility rates. As per the World Population Prospects 2017, published by the UN, India’s fertility rate has declined from 5.9 in 1960 to 2.3 to 2015-16. It is projected to drop to 2.1 in 2025-30 and to further slide to 1.9 during 2045-50. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4 released in January 2018, reports however that India’s TFR has dropped from 2.7 in 2005-06 to 2.2 in 2015-16. TFR at 2.1 is the replacement fertility level where population stabilises. India’s population is projected to peak at 1.7 billion in 2060, before declining to 1.5 billion by 2100. The faster decline in TFR, as reported by NFHS 4, suggests that this can happen even earlier than predicted.

TFR decline may be partly ascribed to increased acceptance of contraceptives. But this is only a part of the explanation. The data from NFHS 1, 2, 3 and 4, show that acceptance of ‘any’ contraceptive method by married women has not increased significantly. The percentage of women using ‘modern’ contraceptive method also has not increased much. This is the case even during 2005-06 and 2015-16, the period recording a high decline in TFR. The main factor which led to a significant decline in TFR is the increase in age of marriage. NFHS 4 records that among the married women in 20-24 age group, the persons who were either pregnant or had a baby at or before the age of 18 was as high as 48 per cent in 2005-06 which came down to 21 per cent in 2015-16. So, the nation is experiencing this demographic advantage primarily due to the increase in the mother’s age when her first child is born.

G’nY. Will the declining fertility rate affect population growth and demographic dividend?

Dr Amitabh Kundu : Of course. TFR decline will benefit the country because with it the dependency rate will fall. Reduction in the share of children and an increase in adult population can help achieve a high growth rate as these will lead to an increase in the percentage of working population. The Indian economy is expected to grow at a faster rate in the coming decades—largely due to its demographic dividend. India will enjoy this demographic dividend for many years ahead of China since the latter has controlled its population several decades ago. India is a recent entrant into this phase.

The Asian Development Outlook (ADO), 2018 report has projected that the Indian economy will grow at 7-8 per cent in the next three decades and hailed that in the 21st century Asia and India are likely to be the leaders in the economic world. Brookings Institution, an American research group,has also projected an optimistic scenario, but noted that these predicted scenarios are critically dependent on the increase in the work participation rate and skill development. In order to achieve the predicted growth rate, an increase in the percentage of women participating in the workforce is a must. Furthermore, skill development and on job training on a massive scale needs to be stepped up to meet the demand of the emerging labour market.

G’nY. TFR is highest for Muslim women (2.6), even higher than the national average. How can you explain that?

Dr Amitabh Kundu : The percentage of the number of poor among the Muslims is almost equal to that in Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) population. This poverty syndrome affects their TFR. Interestingly, Muslim men have a high rate of work participation as they get into labour market at an early age. The NFHS 4 data suggests that the Muslim community is more centered around household, which could explain a larger ‘desired number of children’, than other communities. The situation, however, is changing dramatically across all communities. The fall in total fertility rate among Muslims is very high. In 2005-06, the TFR for Muslims was 3.4 and in NFHS 4, it came down to 2.6—a decline of 0.8 percentage points. No other community has seen this massive fall. For Hindus, TFR was 2.6 in 2005-06. In 2015-16, it came down to 2.1—a fall of 0.5 points. Similarly, the fall for the Christians and Sikhs were just 0.3 percentage points during the period from 2005-06 to 2015-16.

There is, thus, definite evidence of convergence in fertility rates across different socio-religious groups. The gap between Hindu and Muslim fertility rates is narrowing down. Improvement in education status and benefits of economic development and modernity reaching the marginalised communities has made difference. Clearly, the acceptance of non terminal and spacing methods of family planning has gone up among Muslim women, although terminal methods, such as sterilisation, are not very popular. A large section of Muslims go in for traditional and conservative contraceptive methods.

Primary education has had a significant impact in the TFR among women. With increase in the percentage of women accessing primary education in a community, there seems to be a corroborating sharp decline in its fertility rate. The decline as a result of spread of primary education is universal. But the impact is much higher for Muslim women as revealed through NFHS data.

G’nY. The median years of schooling is the lowest among Muslims, being 3.7 years for women and 4.8 years for men. What do you think are
the reasons?

Dr Amitabh Kundu : The indicators such as number of years of schooling, work participation rate and more, can always be seen from different perspectives. It would, however, be misleading to draw inference based on the average figures across communities without looking at the gender difference. Girls have a lower attendance rate in educational institutions as compared to boys in both Hindu and Muslim communities. Among Muslims, although the school attendance rate for girls is much below that of Hindus, the gender gap in dropout rates is not very high. Contrastingly, Hindu girls have high dropout rates. The lesser number of years for schooling among Muslims are a result of poverty, with young boys having to enter the labour market and girls having to conform to tradition and culture besides having to take care of their younger siblings.

There is evidence that the importance of these socio-cultural factors in pulling down work participation rate is declining over time. Indeed, the labour market scenario is changing fast with modern ideas seeping into the communities, bringing about attitudinal changes, especially towards modern education. More and more Muslim women are entering the labour market. The fact that educated Muslim women report a very high unemployment rate is evidence that societal norms have been relaxed, permitting many more of these women to seek jobs than the capacity of the labour market to absorb them.

G’nY. Do you think low workforce participation rate among Muslims is a developmental issue and not merely an employment concern?

Dr Amitabh Kundu : The overall workforce participation rate of Muslims is quite low compared to ST-SCs or Hindus. This is arrived at when we combine workforce participation rates for men and women. One must point out that while the percentage of workers among Muslim men is higher than the national average while for Muslim women, it is the opposite. A large section of Muslim girls do not attend schools or enter the labour market. Now, I have always maintained that in order to get a better understanding of the employment scenario, we should calculate the workforce participation rates for men and women separately. Muslim men record much larger percentage of workers than Hindus, both in the Census and the National Sample Survey. Higher work participation rate for Muslim men implies lesser number of them going to schools and colleges. It is extremely unfortunate that a large segment of Muslim youth is unskilled and unemployed. A section of them join the workforce without proper education or skills. This would certainly not help in realising demographic dividend.

G’nY. Another issue that is current and merits attention is that of women’s migration, which has considerably increased. What, in your view, are the reasons for this?

Dr Amitabh Kundu : Yes, that is true. Evidence in NSS suggests that migration of women has been increasing over the past three decades both in rural and urban areas. Marriage mobility of women is determined by socio-cultural factors that slowly change over time. Hence the spurt in their migration rate must be attributed to economic factors. Importantly, NSS classifies the migrants by reasons of mobility. This too confirms that women’s migration for economic reasons has gone up. There are other macro level indicators that confirm the above proposition. NFHS 4, for example, shows that the percentage of women aged 20-24 years becoming a mother below the age of 18 has almost halved. It would, therefore, be no surprise if women work participation and their mobility for economic reasons show a happy rising trend. This conclusion can also be derived from the 2011 Census data on migration. Urban labour market is offering employment opportunities to women, although they are still at the bottom of the economic ladder. A large percentage of them work as domestic helps whose demand has gone up with the increase in work participation rate among middle and upper class women. Also, single male migration driven by poverty and other push factors has gone down. There is an increase in family migration at higher income and skill levels which too improves the gender ratio among migrants.

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