A coercive population policy will destroy India’s demographics

Amir Ullah Khan and Nahia Hussain

S Y Quraishi has been India’s top bureaucrat. A former Chief Election Commissioner, he headed the Union Health Ministry and has written an incisive and well-researched book on the Population myth and why Muslims are being targeted. He will be discussing the book at the CDPP’s Citizenship weekly seminar on the 20th of February. Joining him will be Poonam Muttreja who heads the Population Foundation of Indian and P C Mohanan who headed the National Statistical Commission.

The entire Hindutva narrative has focused on the increase in the Muslim population and how it would overtake the Hindu majority in some imagined time frame. The discourse on population explosion and population control has been prominent and a standard centre-piece of public policy challenges gripping the world today. A massive population’s burdens were more evident than ever in the global pandemic that hit in 2020. Moreover, the sweeping anti-immigrant sentiments and populist rhetoric have shifted the narrative around the population problem from a socio-economic to a political one.

Former US President Trump built a plot around immigrants competing for resources with the allegedly lower American population. Boris Johnson, in his Brexit debates, has frequently raised a hysteria around migration. Brazilian President Bolsnaro has also linked climate change to population growth. In India, a discriminatory immigration law and a population regulation bill gained much traction in policy circles. As the trend goes, most right-wing leaders mainly target one section of the population – women, religious or ethnic minorities. The population concern is also no different; the accusation of overpopulating falls on one particular group, consistent with the right-wing indulgence in racism, Islamophobia, eugenics and xenophobia.

The Indian Citizenship Amendment Act, amended in 2019, denies citizenship to migrants of one particular religious group; it also aims to make refugees out of citizens for the lack of documentation. The population regulation bill brought out in the parliament aims to bar political participation, government jobs and public goods to those bearing more than two children. The bill seems like a natural culmination of the rampant misinformation and polarisation campaign. WhatsApp messages raised the alarm over the allegedly ‘shrinking’ Hindu population, spreading the belief that the Muslims shall overtake the Hindus in numbers and gain a significant political foothold in the country. Inflammatory speeches by radical outfits and fringe groups accusing the Muslim community of being baby-producing centres and exhorting the Hindu community to bear more children to compete with Muslims are all too familiar and common.

The Jansankhya Samadhan Foundation advocates a two-child norm and punishments for those violating it. The campaign is laced with overtones of Islamophobia and believes that the reluctance of Muslims in participating in population control programs is driven by their religious beliefs. The infamous Love Jihad Law, something clearly unconstitutional, is also a populist manifestation of the idea of Muslims’ trying to expand their population in India by way of conversion.

The politicisation of the population problem has successfully masked this reality. The share of Hindus in the total population declined from 84.1% in 1951 to 79.8% in 2011. The share of Muslims increased from 9.9% to 14.2% in the same period. It is not just the Muslim minority that witnessed an increase in population during this period. Sikhs, Jains and Christians also saw a considerable increase in population between 1951 to 2011. The increase in the minority population is proportional to the decline in the Hindu population. So can the allegation of the reduction in the Hindu population solely be attributed to growth in the Muslim population?

Moreover, just like the Hindus, Muslims have witnessed a decline in the decadal growth rate, and both communities are headed towards slow population growth. The National Family Health Survey data indicates that fertility among Muslims dropped by 40.8% between 1992-93 and 2015-16, and among Hindus, fertility rates fell by 35% in the same period. The gap between Muslim and Hindu fertility has narrowed to 0.5 percentage points. Experts opine that fertility in India is more of a region than a religion problem. For instance, the total fertility rate for Muslims in Tamil Nadu ( 1.74) and Kerala (1.86) was much lower than Hindu fertility rates in Bihar (3.29) and Uttar Pradesh (2.67). Thus, it can be inferred that regions with lower socio-economic and educational development also see higher fertility rates regardless of religion.

The lowest prevalence of contraception is also found among Hindus and Muslims. The adoption of family planning methods among both groups increased rapidly between 1970-71 to 2005-06. However, there has been a decline in utilisation of family planning methods by 3.4 percentage points and 0.4 percentage points among Hindus and Muslims, respectively, post 2005-06. The acceptance of family planning among both religious groups is lower in states with low socio-economic indicators. If religion were the only factor, Muslims in all states would fare low on family planning.

Religion, gender and race have often been used to target groups for population control selectively; however, evidence states otherwise. Despite having a strong catholic influence that forbids artificial birth control and abortion, Brazil has seen astounding success in family planning. The fertility rate in Brazil has dropped from 6 in the 1990s to 1.9 in recent times. Bangladesh, with a predominantly Muslim population, has had phenomenal success in family planning outcomes. The fertility rate fell from 6.82 in 1975 to 2.067 in 2020. Iran has reduced birth rates from 5.6 in 1985 to 1.6 in 2020 without coercive methods. Hence, the argument that attributes population growth to one section of the society is typically flawed.

Coercive policies, such as the population regulation bill, will only increase sex-selective and illegal abortions. India’s population will continue to grow until 2051, as 60% of the population is in the reproductive age group of less than 35. While fully utilising the demographic dividend is crucial; planning for the ‘Demographic time bomb’ should not be ignored. By 2100, the country will have 866 million people above 80 years of age. A small working-age population will have to support a large retired population. The government needs to look at the population conundrum with lessons from other ageing nations and appropriately devise policy outcomes. Several ageing nations are now looking at international migration to bring in the young working population. Regressive population control measures coupled with exclusionary migration policies, will only serve short-term political appeasement while distorting the long-term demographic transition.


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Amir Ullah Khan and Nahia Hussain are researchers at Centre for Development Policy and Practice (CDPP) based in Hyderabad.

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