For most people, the general perception about India is of a country sitting on a ticking population bomb. This notion however seems to be somewhat misplaced, at least in the context of the country's urban population, where the fertility rate — the number of children born per woman — has fallen to levels lower even than in countries like the US, France, Australia and New Zealand.
Data from the Sample Registration Survey (SRS) on the total fertility rate (TFR) shows that since 2006 the TFR in urban areas has touched 2 children per woman and from 2010 has fallen below that level. That means there aren't enough children born in Indian cities to replace the existing population of their parents.
For advanced economies, this 'replacement rate' is generally estimated at an average of 2.1. Because of the higher infant mortality rate (IMR) in developing countries, the replacement level fertility rate would be slightly higher and so Indian cities seems to have touched the point where the population would start declining in the absence of migration from rural areas.
Is this an alarming trend?
Experts don't think so: "2.1 is more like a synthetic number. During fertility transition, the total fertility could go below 2.1 and stabilize in a decade or two', says population expert Purushottam M Kulkarni, who recently retired from JNU. Ravinder Kaur, professor of sociology and social anthropology at IIT Delhi, points at a similar pattern of low fertility across Asia and in catholic southern Europe.
"Although the IMR is substantially high as compared to the Western countries but it is not as alarming as it used to be and there is a general confidence among the population that the chances of a child's survival are higher as compared to the past decades and hence the fertility is low", added Kulkarni. Data shows that in 1971, the IMR was 82 (per 1,000 births) and total fertility rate was 4.1 for urban India.
Though the rural fertility rate of 2.5 is higher, it too has witnessed a steep decline. In 1971, the rural fertility rate was 5.4, nearly double its present level. Incidentally in 1952, India became the first country in the world to launch a family planning programme. The sustained government campaign, better access to healthcare facilities, higher female literacy as well as greater participation of women in the workforce have all worked in lowering fertility rates in Indian cities. Many couples prefer one child, although this is not the general norm.