In the poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost described the dilemma of being at the intersection of two divergent roads. They both looked attractive, but he had to choose one. “I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference,” he wrote.
Half a century ago, India and China were at a similar point. Their fertility rates of 5.6 and 5.5 children per woman were well below what is considered the replacement fertility level of 2.1, at which the population stabilizes. They also faced similar social and development challenges as they sought to build their nations after suffering the devastation of long humiliations and colonial and imperial wars.
However, their journeys towards population control took very different routes, shaped by very different policies and approaches. today as India’s population exceeds China’s amid a mixture of hope and fears about its implications, it is important to remember those trips so that societies and policymakers can draw the right lessons from them.
slow and steady india
India has been running its family planning program since 1952 and chose to travel a slow, steady and winding road. It provided reproductive health services, options for couples about contraception, and the freedom to decide how many children they wanted.
The strategy was not an immediately apparent success. The population growth rate initially increased, from 21.6 percent in 1961 to 24.8 percent in 1971, and the population increased from 439 million to 548 million, largely as a result of increased life expectancy, from 45 to 49 years in that decade.
The frustration over these growing numbers was palpable. So much so that after then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of national emergency in 1975 and suspended many civil liberties, the government used coercion to sterilize people, especially men.
With the lifting of the emergency in 1977, India returned to its old path focused on the provision of family planning and reproductive health services as a means to a stable population.
Under India’s federal structure, state governments set their own priorities with southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu emphasizing socio-economic development and women’s empowerment.
India’s population growth rate began to decline from 1981, a trend that continues. By 1991, India total fertility rate it had declined to 4, falling to 3.3 in 2001 and 2.5 in 2011. Finally, in 2020, India reached replacement fertility level, a major milestone in its demographic transition.
Fast but tumultuous China
As India celebrated that momentous occasion in 2020, China was facing a very different demographic crisis than the one it faced in the 1970s. Its fertility rate had fallen so far that it was well below replacement levels at 1.3 and he was forcing the country into a series of political turns in the hope of actually increasing the birth rate as it grappled with the reality of an aging society, a shrinking economy. workforce and a slowing economy.
But how did China go from one extreme to the other?
Although post-1948 communist China has invested heavily in health infrastructure and services, it was eager to achieve lower fertility quickly. Very fast. In the 1970s, the country set new age limits for marriage: women had to be at least 23 and men 25. Couples in cities were encouraged to delay marriages further. The fertility rate plummeted from 5.5 births per woman in 1971 to 2.7 births in 1979.
But that was not enough for China. So, in 1979, he introduced a one-child rule, penalizing couples who gave birth to two or more children. Besides, forced sterilizations and abortions were also practiced in the effort to achieve lower fertility.
The 1980s saw fluctuating fertility rates, mostly slightly above the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. However, the early 1990s marked a turning point when fertility fell below replacement level and has continued to decline ever since.
China has now realized how that policy has backfired, leading to a skewed sex ratio of more men than women and a rapidly aging population. He changed its policy in 2016 let families have two children and raised the bar to three in 2021.
Yet decades-old punitive restrictions have so fundamentally interfered with the country’s demography that the effects will not be easy to mitigate, let alone reverse. In 2022, for the first time in 60 years, China’s population has shrunk – and by nearly a million people.
the road ahead
Today, India and China are poised to encounter very different demographic landscapes in the coming years.
China is aging rapidly. The proportion of its population that is over 65 it has nearly doubled since the turn of the century from 7 to 13 percent. The country’s previous restrictive policies also created another legacy, a severe gender imbalance with 1,123 male births for every 1,000 female births in 2020. Faced with these challenges, China will need innovative solutions to sustain economic growth and meet people’s needs. greater.
By contrast, India’s young population, half of whom are under 30, offers tremendous opportunities for the country. Successive governments have invested in girls’ education and women’s social and economic empowerment rather than more draconian measures like those China has taken before.
India’s development-focused approach is in line with the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, which called for investing in people’s lives and discouraged coercion as a strategy to reduce fertility . Several Indian states, such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, achieved low fertility levels early, setting an example for others. India has also targeted 146 high-fertility districts in seven states with a series of initiatives ranging from increased contraceptive supplies to campaigns on family planning.
Still, India has an unfinished agenda. As its population continues to grow, its large young population is available to work and accelerate the economic progress of the country, but it needs to be educated and trained to do so.
India needs to ensure that it tailors its education and professional skills programs to meet the needs of the labor market. In the success of his youth lies the success of India.
India must also work to harness its gender dividend, defined as the increase in economic growth that can be achieved through increased investment in women and girls. According to recent data, China has one of the most skewed sex ratios at birth.
The sex ratio at birth in India was noted at 1079 male births for every 1000 female births in 2020. Going forward, the country needs to invest in gender equality initiatives that focus on changing patriarchal norms with a strengthened focus on the promotion of secondary education and female labor participation.
The country must also plan ahead for an aging population, establishing social security systems and geriatric care facilities. The lessons from China underscore the need for an empowerment-based approach to population stabilization with the interests of the people at the center.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.