*******Population and prosperity: Govt must focus on women’s education and health to control population growth | The Financial Express

Clipped from: https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/population-and-prosperity-govt-must-focus-on-womens-education-and-health-to-control-population-growth/2596776/

Each country looks for the prosperity of its people and follows policies that suit it most for a speedier road to prosperity.

But it seems India is progressing much faster than China, at least in terms of population, and the global agencies also had to change their forecast significantly within three years!But it seems India is progressing much faster than China, at least in terms of population.

The United Nations’ latest report on Population Prospects (2022) gives an interesting forecast: India will surpass China’s population by 2023, and reach 1.5 billion by 2030 and 1.66 billion by 2050. It was only three years earlier when the UN Population Prospects report (2019) had projected that India will surpass China’s population by 2027. But it seems India is progressing much faster than China, at least in terms of population, and the global agencies also had to change their forecast significantly within three years!

Each country looks for the prosperity of its people and follows policies that suit it most for a speedier road to prosperity. Over the last 44 years, since 1978, China’s story has been unique in the world in terms of the fastest decline in poverty as well as its rise as a superpower, perhaps next only to the US. It holds some important lessons for India because, in 1978, when China started its economic reforms, its per capita income was lower than that of India, at $156.4 versus $205.7. Both countries were saddled with humongous poverty. Today, China is more than six times ahead of India, with a per capita income of $12,556.3 in 2021, while India’s hovered around $1,933 in 2020. It is this economic prosperity that has enabled China to spend large amounts on building its military might.

How did China do all this, and what lessons does it hold for India? It is quite well known that China started its economic reforms in 1978 with the primary focus being agriculture. It broke away from the commune system and liberated agri-markets from myriad controls. As a result, during 1978-84, China’s agri-GDP grew by 7.1% per annum, and farmers’ real incomes grew by 14% per annum with liberalisation of agri-prices. As the masses gained prosperity and farmers’ real incomes doubled, poverty fell by half in just six years. Enhanced incomes of rural people created a huge demand for industrial products and gave political legitimacy to further pushing the reform agenda. The manufacturing revolution in China through the Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs) programme was basically to meet this surging demand from the hinterland. Rest is history.

But one crucial policy during this period that is not talked about much was China’s ‘one child’ norm. China introduced ‘one child per family’ in September 1980, which lasted till early 2016. It is this strict control on population growth, coupled with booming growth in overall GDP over these years that led to rapid increase in per capita incomes. Chinese population growth today is at the rate of just 0.1% per annum compared to India’s 1.1%. India’s overall growth story, though reasonably well, has not been as impressive as that of China, and certainly not in agriculture. China’s agriculture, over a 40-year period (1978-2018), has grown at 4.5% per annum, while India’s agri-GDP growth since the reforms in 1991 has hovered at around 3% per annum. Market and price liberalisation in agriculture remain a significant issue. At the slightest hint of a food-price rise, the government clamps down on export with controls, imposes stock-limits on traders, suspends futures markets, and so on—basically strangulating markets. The net result of all this is reflected in ‘implicit taxation’ of farmers to favour the vocal lobby of consumers, especially the urban middle-class.

Let’s get back to the population story, and what India can do at this juncture. There is no way India can impose a ‘one child’ norm that China did in 1980. After Sanjay Gandhi’s attempts to control the population through forced sterilisation in the early 1970s, and the people’s rebellion against it, no government will attempt that. The only way is through effective education, especially for the girl child, and open discussion and dialogue about family planning methods and the benefits of a small family-size for the family and the society at large. The record on that front is not very good.

As per the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21), of all the girls and women above the age of 6 years, only 16.6% were educated for 12 years or more. And if one talks of the quality of education, several reports of ASER point out the poor quality of education. In one of our earlier research, based on unit-level data of NFHS, we found that women’s education is the most critical factor determining the status of malnutrition amongst children below the age of 5 years. NFHS-5 data shows that more than 35% of our children below the age of 5 years are stunted, which means their earning capacity will remain hampered throughout life. They will remain stuck in the low-income trap. On top of this, 57% of women in the reproductive age group of 15-49 are anaemic, as per NFHS-5 (2019-21), up from 53% in NFHS-4 (2015-16). With this dismal picture of health and education of women currently, what future India holds for its children is a serious issue to ponder over.

Biofortification of staples, supplying clean and safe drinking water to every household (nal se jal), mid-day meals, etc, are all steps in the right direction to improve the well-being of the people. But unless a focused and aggressive campaign is launched to facilitate the girl child to have more than 12 years of good quality education, India’s performance in terms of prosperity of its masses, and human development index, may not improve significantly for many more years to come. From the policy perspective, if there is any subsidy that deserves priority, it should be for the education of the girl child. If the Modi government can take up this cause in symphony with the state governments, this will significantly boost the labour force participation rate of women, which is currently at a mere 25%, and will help fire ‘double engine’ growth! This policy focus can surely bring a rich harvest, politically and economically, for many years to come.

The author is Infosys chair professor for agriculture, ICRIER

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