Fertility Decline and Family Change in India: A Demographic Perspective

By Ram, Bali | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview
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Fertility Decline and Family Change in India: A Demographic Perspective

Ram, Bali, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


India's high fertility has been a subject of concern among scholars and policy makers since the early days of demography. Malthus (1872) was profoundly influenced by India's demographic situation in the 19th century and had considerable influence over the British administration's response to periodic famines in India. Famine was regarded as a "Malthusian check" to India's high fertility and "excess" population growth. Malthus asserted that even though high fertility might be beneficial to the economy as it increased the number of workers available, it reduced the per capita economic output. A more systematic appraisal of the Malthusian model came into fruition in Coale and Hoover's (1958) classic study. This study concluded that "the economic advantages of reduced fertility ... begin immediately and cumulate for an indefinite period into the future" (Coale and Hoover, 1958:334). Malthusian thinking dominated a good deal of the demographic research and policy in India, including its government-sponsored national family planning program which was introduced in 1952.

Many of the early concerns about India's fertility among demographers and policy makers were because of its high level and its stability over time. In the early part of the 20th century, the birth rate hovered around 45 per 1,000 and the average number of children born to women was around six. It was only in the early 1970s that the fertility rate began to show some modest signs of decline, although the pace of decline was faster in subsequent periods. The prolonged stability and recent decline in fertility have left important imprints on the socio-economic structure of India, including the family-the primary focus of this paper.

This paper does not address the effects of fertility on family change in its entirety. Rather, it summarizes and evaluates the evidence collected and compiled by various organizations to explain the patterns and determinants of changes in fertility and the family in India, which are relevant to public policy. I begin by describing recent trends in fertility in India, focusing primarily on the slow and steady pace of fertility decline in recent years following prolonged stability. Considering the vast regional differences in language, culture, and socioeconomic development, I focus on comparisons between various Indian states. I also compare Indian patterns with those observed for some of its Asian "rivals," such as China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

I then move to a brief portrayal of fertility preferences among women which are often used as a reliable guide to predict future fertility and family patterns. In this section, I discuss wanted and unwanted fertility and show how unwanted fertility still forms a large proportion of overall fertility in many states. Next, I examine women's age at the initiation of childbearing with a view to elucidating how, in spite of declines in fertility early motherhood has persisted among Indian women. I then present a discussion of how family planning influences fertility patterns with an emphasis on various measures of contraception and their effects on birth spacing, birth stopping and reproductive life span.

Next, I present a discussion of the relationship between reduced fertility and sex imbalance in favor of male children. Finally, 1 delve into the analysis of the effects of fertility decline on population age structure, which is highly important from the point of society, the economy, and intergenerational relations. I conclude by summarizing the relationship between changes in fertility patterns and the family in the light of their implications for public policy.

This paper draws primarily upon secondary data collected and compiled by various organizations which are in the public domain. I make substantial use of data collected by the three recent and large scale surveys: the National Family Health Survey, 1990-92 (NFHS-1), the National Family Health Survey, 1998-99 (NFHS-2), and the National Family Health Survey, 2005-06 (NFHS-3).

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