Understanding India’s demographic transition

Author: Raghbendra Jha, ANU

Rising incomes, increasing levels of education — particularly in women — and a variety of social factors contribute to determining the demographic profile of India’s youth and their role in India’s demographic transition.

India’s 2011 census revealed two key trends regarding India’s demographic transition. The first is that the total fertility rate has dropped from 2.9 in 2001 to 2.62 in 2011. And the second is that the gender balance has deteriorated in recent times, particularly among India’s youths. The number of girls per 1000 boys, for age groups 0–4, 5–9 and 0–6, fell from 939 to 891, 920 to 889, and 927 to 914 respectively.

The first trend is usually taken as an indicator of the demographic transition associated with rising per capita income. The second trend, however, may point to the growing widespread gender imbalance that is taking place in India. There is evidence to suggest that sex selection tests exist in India and follow-up abortions are more likely to be carried out if the fetus is found to be female. One study uses household-level data from India’s National Sample Survey (NSS) for 1993–94 and 2004–05 to identify characteristics that increase the chance of feticide, something that the Census data alone cannot identify. The study found, ironically enough, that women with higher levels of education, as well as women from wealthier households, are more likely to contribute to India’s gender imbalance. Only when the level of education and wealth combined reach a relatively high level does the gender imbalance start receding. This implies that over time there will be fewer women than men among India’s youth.

What are the key determinants of India’s household fertility rates? Answering this question may help provide further insights to the demographic make up of India’s young — from those aged 9 (born in 2004–05) to 34 (those who were 14 in 1993-94). An analysis of the same NSS data reveals that in both 1993–94 and 2004–05 the number of children per household — those aged 0 to 14 — rises significantly with the number of females in childbearing age (15–49) and peaks within the 26–35 age group. The number of girls aged 5–14 not receiving any formal education is also a significant determinant of the number of children per household. The level of education the mother receives correlates with the number of children in the household. Specifically, average-level education of adult females lowers the number of children. Similarly, the higher the monthly per capita income, the lower the number of children. Shares of health and education in the household budget are associated with a higher number of children.

Social factors and geography were also considered. The study shows that scheduled caste (SC) households have fewer children in both years whereas scheduled tribe (ST) households had fewer children in 1993–94 but more children in 2004–05. Muslim households had more children in both years. Households in the BIMARU states — which consist of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — had more children than those in non-BIMARU states. Rural households had fewer children than urban households.

Women of childbearing age had fewer children in 2004–05 than they did in 1993–94, with the drop being highest for women aged 26–35. The impact of the number of girls aged 5–14 not receiving any formal education became noticeable over time, as did that of the shares of education and health expenditures. The impact of women and children with average-level education also rose over time. Higher monthly per capita expenditure was found to have lowered the number of children. SC and ST households, as well as households in BIMARU states, had a significantly higher number of children per household. The change in the number of children in Muslim households was insignificant.

The analysis shows that rising incomes, social background, education and geography all help determine the demographic profile of India’s youth — those aged 9 to 34 — today. The drop in India’s total fertility rate masks widespread variation among groups. The number of women in the childbearing age group significantly affects the number of children per household. Higher levels of education in women lower household sizes, whereas shares of expenditure on education and health have varying effects. The impact of a household being SC or ST varies by year and by the regression model chosen. Over both time periods Muslim households have more children than the general population. Households in BIMARU states and urban households have more children and have larger family sizes.

With the exception of Muslim households and those in BIMARU states, demographic transition — propelled by India’s youth — is well underway in India, with rising incomes associated with fewer children.

Raghbendra Jha is Professor of Economics and Executive Director at the Australia South Asia Research Centre, the Australian National University.