The burden of youth

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Population, Child Marriage Restraint Act

The outlook for India’s youth is not as rosy as it is assumed. The population explosion and denying young women their right to decide on matters that impact their lives will only bring in more problems, not solutions…

Raise the topic of population and expect the following reactions: India will have the last laugh because its population is youthful and would continue to be so for decades more. Or, there is the Nandan Nilekeni idea which is fast becoming popular with optimistic urbanites — that a second hump of opportunity might miraculously emerge from the laggard Hindi belt States.

This oversimplification can cost us dearly. The demographic dividend argument is used in the West to signify the proportion of working people compared to retirees. In India, the so called dividend is actually represented by a disproportionately high number of young people who for the most part would be incapable of staying rooted to the school system and thereby end up uneducated and unemployable. In short, a burden on society.

Among them, girls will continue to have early pregnancies and their underweight infants will have poor chances of survival. For those that live, the cycle of malnutrition, stunting and wasting will be perpetrated and inequities will grow. Across the country, the regional and intra-State disparity would widen and resources for health and education would get sucked up or scattered before they can get to those in the greatest need. This is a recipe for disaster.

A development issue

Governments need to recognise that population is not merely a health issue but an overarching development issue. Concrete measures are urgently needed to enforce the prevention of Child Marriage 2006 Act and to make marriage registration compulsory. Incentives are needed to push up the woman’s age at first birth and to make birth spacing attractive. Instead of honing in on a broad category called Below Poverty Line (BPL) it would make sense to target the lowest wealth quintile where fertility rates are disturbingly high.

Alok Ranjan Chaurasia and S. Gulati in “India the State of Population 2007” have divided the country into three groups. In the first group there are the Hindi belt States and some north-eastern states like Manipur and Meghalaya. Together they will account for more than half the population growth in the country by 2026. In these States, lowering fertility will be very difficult as the majority of couples use no contraception. Among the poorest families in these States, the “wanted fertility” factor, when parents want larger families as insurance against old age and to provide additional hands for work, is as high as 40 per cent of the total fertility. A “techno-medical model” of family planning as Chaurasia and Gulati call it, with a focus on female sterilisation will quite simply not work, because many couples actually want more children.

In the rest of the population of these States, including poorer families who do not want more children, a huge unmet demand for contraception exists. By present indications, the goal of two children per woman set for the country by 2010 will not even be achieved in the next two decades by these States. The New York Times mocked India’s “paradox of a proud democracy”, describing the persistence of child hunger and galloping malnutrition levels as worse than sub-Saharan African countries. Given this scenario, nothing can succeed unless the numbers become manageable. And waiting for trickle-down to happen, much less miracles to emerge from the sheer weight of a youthful population is being completely unrealistic.

In the second group, Gulati et al include States like Maharashtra, West Bengal, Gujarat, Haryana and Orissa, which have achieved or are about to achieve the two child goal. But even today these states measure the success of the family planning programme by sterilisation of women, usually undertaken after the demographic damage has been done. A stricter enforcement of the legal age of marriage and much greater stress on spacing methods, in the initial childbearing years, would be infinitely more advantageous than concentrating on sterilising women that have already produced several children. Gujarat has trained some 5,000 ANM’s in inserting IUDs using Zoey models. This has liberated women by acquiring a 10-year protection against pregnancy. With more than 5,00,000 successful insertions done on village women, Gujarat’s Public Health Commissioner Amarjit Singh recites his mantra, “women use this IUD but only if they feel comfortable.”

The third group of States comprises Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. These States will account for hardly 15 per cent of the population growth by 2026 and have all achieved replacement levels of fertility with two children per woman. But here we may be in for some surprises. According to the Registrar General of India (SRS data 2006) Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have higher marital fertility among 15 to 19-year-olds than Rajasthan or even Bihar. Two more south Indian States, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, have nearly twice the proportion of children born to pre-20-year-olds compared to Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. West Bengal is another surprise, being exceptionally prolific when it comes to childbirth among 15+ teenagers. This is best illustrated with an example:

Take Andhra Pradesh. Were all births under age 20 to be eliminated, the marital fertility would be reduced by 40 per cent each year, which would translate to over 20 million averted births in one generation of 60 years. But in the absence of efforts to push up the age at first birth, the reproductive process is starting too early and is propelling the population momentum, despite the average number of children being two or less than two per woman.

The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 was hardly implemented with any seriousness. That appears to be the fate of the new Prevention of Child Marriage Act 2006 also, which has made little dent on the States. Neither family nor society will raise a finger against early marriages, which are invariably followed by the first childbirth within a year. Something else is badly needed to slow the pace of the population momentum.

Remedial steps

First, there should be a Compulsory Registration of Marriage Act with an office of Registrar General of Marriages to coordinate and monitor implementation of the Act countrywide. State Planning Boards should be presented with an annual picture of marriage registrations done and the median age of rural girls at the time of marriage. This information should be disaggregated and published throughout the State to give an idea of registrations done and gaps that continue. The birth of the first child after 19 needs to be incentivised and targeted to lowest wealth quintile, which is not the same thing as the entire BPL stock. The wanted fertility syndrome needs to be countered with state supported insurance for children lost, and employment guarantees for those that live. Concentrating on the lowest wealth quintile in every block, would make a lot of sense, as otherwise the richer among the poor would drain away whatever benefits might accrue.

India’s young population, far from being a boon, is a potential calamity. The births of children in quick succession when the girl is less than 20 is providing an unhealthy impetus to the population momentum besides denying women the right to decide what impacts their lives the most. Only if the economic consequences of the population momentum are understood, would governments take notice. Unfortunately that day is nowhere in sight.

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