Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Educational and employment policies need to be carefully thought out instead of being hi-jacked by short-term vote bank populism

South’s Demographic Transition Complete

Stable demographics in India's southern states is a great leap forward.

By B G Verghese

Sahara Times, February 18, 2007

There are great tidings from the South on the population front and some accompanying concerns that should not alarm but must forewarn policy-makers. The goods news is that Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, accounting for 200 million people out of India’s 2001 population of a billion, have completed their demographic transition. This means that the total fertility rate (or the number of children born to a woman) has dipped below 2.1 or replacement level. In other words, married couples in the South merely replace themselves and do not add to overall numbers.

The further good news, according to the noted demographer, Leela Visaria, is that TFR in the country has a whole is likely to reach replacement level by 2015 now that it has dipped to three nationwide, though not uniformly so among the laggard states. This data and accompanying analysis was presented at a Population Foundation of India’s workshop on Population, Health and Social Development indices in the Southern States at Hyderabad recently. The population problem is by no means behind us. Nevertheless, the evidence is that the country is turning the corner and can look forward to a period of “demographic gain” when a predominantly youthful working population can give significant impetus to economic growth over the two ensuing decades until around 2035.

However, there remains an important “but”. This is that translation of this impeding demographic gain into tangible human and economic benefit depends on a simultaneous improvement in the quality of the nation’s human resources, which must be imbued with the skills and capacities required to effect that potential economic transformation. A sustained nine per cent or more growth rate, that adds great allure to so many economic prognostications of future prospects, is not going to be realised without a range of critical manpower necessary to give India the competitive edge in manufacturing industries and the knowledge and service sectors. This is where educational and employment policies need to be thought through more carefully instead of being hijacked by misplaced, short term, vote-bank populism that could, by injuring the larger good, ultimately harm the disadvantaged.

The PFI Workshop presentations on the four Southern States offered several illuminating insights as numerated by Leela Visaria. The greatest fall in fertility has occurred in the age group above 25. This suggests a higher age of marriage among women, reducing their childbearing span to a brief six to seven years and greater use and availability of contraceptive services, generally ending in the terminal method of female sterilisation. The pattern of social development in Kerala has spurred its human development, based as it is on widespread female education, a more egalitarian social structure both gender and class-wise, land reform, enhanced minimum wages and easy access to good public health services.

Tamil Nadu, with lower female literacy and higher infant mortality than Kerala, has had a different set of drivers. Ramaswamy Naicker’s social reforms rejecting caste, invested women with a higher status and encouraged widow remarriage. How far this diminished son-preference remains to be measured. But there is no doubt that education propels social and economic advancement even as more offspring work to the detriment of farm families because of greater fragmentation of land holdings.

Andhra and Karnataka were somewhat late starters within the Southern quartet in making a demographic transition. But, as in Tamil Nadu, the role of the mass media and cinema has been significant in building awareness and projecting role models. Regional variations in Andhra show that work participation among women, rice subsidies to the poor, widow pensions and implementation of the Integrated Child Development Scheme did impact on attitudes and trends in respect of child bearing. In Karnataka, the coastal districts, with their higher literacy and female work participation and better rural communications, have fared better than the more backward northeast plateau. Goa has outdone Kerala and is now at the top of the league.

There are lessons here for the low-performing Northern, especially Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Apart from the obvious importance of human development, feudal attitudes towards male domination and son-preference and its murderous obverse of female foeticide, the heavy dependence on female sterilisation as the preferred contraceptive choice carries high social costs. Punjab has run out of brides and confronts new problems of family life. There is a dire warning here. Female sterilisation in Tamil Nadu and Andhra has led to the spread of HIV-AIDS for, as Leela Visaria explains, once a wife is sterilised she cannot negotiate with her husband to use a condom. The demographic transition together with more rapid economic growth has also resulted in the influx of more migrant labour from Orissa and elsewhere while more traffic along the transport corridors brings AIDS riding on trucks.

Finally, the Workshop bared certain negative consequences of Kerala’s demographic success from the State’s Health Secretary, Vishwas Mehta, and S. Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. With numbers in the age-group 0-9 actually shrinking, about 1000 schools are having to shut down for lack of pupils and may be converted into day care centres for the growing number of ageing elderly, especially women. Pension and long-term health care bills have gone up and 30 per cent of the population lives on (Gulf) remittances. Resultant stresses have caused mental health problems reflected in the highest suicide rate in the country, apart from the highest road accident rate in an increasingly crowded and ageing countryside. Reverse migration is increasing on account of very high unskilled wage rates and to fill the gap in the labour force because of ageing and out-migration in search of more lucrative skill and knowledge opportunities in the country and abroad. This in turn poses new health threats and life style diseases (diabetes, heart, cancer, malaria) and dangers from pollution and biomedical and domestic waste. The shift from public to private health care could also affect access to and the quality of medicare for the poorer segments of society.

All these are certainly cause for worry and call for fashioning new strategies. But all progress and change present ever-new challenges. This is no reason to flinch. Rather, we must continue to progress, learn from experience and anticipate the future.

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