India’s plummeting birth rates illustrate the coming population decline

Fertility rates are dropping sharply across the world and simple arithmetic tells us that by 2100 world population will be steady or declining slightly. In fact, rather than facing a population explosion and food shortages we will be facing the demographic challenges of a stable or declining population together with an increase in longevity. A new flexibility in the patterns of working will be needed as the populations in work reduce in proportion to those beyond retirement age. Retirement age itself will have to increase.

Yet it seems to me that the utterly alarmist, Malthusian, catastrophe scenarios for world population put forward in the 1970’s and 80’s by the Club of Rome, Ehrlich and other doom-mongers still prevail as “conventional wisdom” – even though it has long been established that their basic assumptions were plain wrong. For some reason environmentalists are the most ardent deniers of what the arithmetic says. They are the first to proclaim the dangers of population explosions yet are extremely loth to abandon catastrophe scenarios they have espoused when they are shown to be exaggerated or false.

I was therefore glad to see the subject getting attention in GeoCurrents where Martin W Lewis addresses and presents the sharply falling fertility rates around the world and in the various States in India. His maps are particularly well put together. The average fertlity rate in India is now down to 2.5 but many of the States fall well below the “replacement rate” of 2.2. The variation of fertility rates is impacted by the “usual suspects”; GDP, female literacy, proportion of urban dwellers, life expectancy, the Human Development Index (HDI) and the availability of electricity. But as Lewis shows there is also a striking correlation between fertility and TV ownership (seems plausible) and between fertility rates and the exposure of women to the media (also very plausible).

India’s Plummeting Birthrate: A Television-Induced Transformation?

…. It can be deceptive, however, to view India as an undivided whole. As shown on the map posted here, fertility figures for half of India are actually below replacement level. Were it not for the Hindi-speaking heartland, India would already be looking at population stabilization and even decline. All the states of southern India post TFR figures below 1.9. A number of states in the far north and the northeast boast similarly low fertility levels, including West Bengal, noted for its swarming metropolis of Calcutta (Kolkata).

(from GeoCurrents)

India’s geographical birthrate disparities, coupled with the country’s admirable ability to collect socio-economic data, allow us to carefully examine ideas about fertility decline. The remainder of this post will do so through cartography, comparing the Indian fertility-rate map with maps of other social and economic indicators. ……. 


Some scholars have argued that recent fertility decreases in India and elsewhere in the Third World are more specifically linked to one technological innovation: television. The TV hypothesis is well-known in the field, discussed, for example, in the LiveScience article on the African population explosion mentioned above. In regard to India, Robert Jensen and Emily Oster argue persuasively that television works this magic mostly by enhancing the social position of women. As they state in their abstract:

This paper explores the effect of the introduction of cable television on women’s status in rural India. Using a three-year, individual-level panel dataset, we find that the introduction of cable television is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and son preference, as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility. We also find suggestive evidence that exposure to cable increases school enrollment for younger children, perhaps through increased participation of women in household decision-making. We argue that the results are not driven by pre-existing differential trends.

As it turns out, the map of television ownership in India does bear a particularly close resemblance to the fertility map. Two anomalously low-fertility states with low levels of female education, Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, score relatively high on TV penetration, as does West Bengal, which lags on several other important socio-economic indicators. The correlation is far from perfect: Mizoram ranks higher on the TV chart than its fertility figures would indicate, whereas Odisha and Assam rank lower. Odisha and Assam turn out to be a bit less exceptional in a related but broader and more gender-focused metric, that of “female exposure to media.” These figures, which include a television component, seem to provide the best overall correlation with the spatial patterns of Indian fertility.

(from GeoCurrents)

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