This is big news not just for India but, seeing that its 1.4bn people are nearly a fifth of humanity, for the planet. The number of Indians will still grow, because many young women have yet to reach child-bearing age. But lower fertility means the population will peak sooner and at a lower figure: not in 40 years at more than 1.7bn, as was widely predicted, but probably a decade earlier, at perhaps 1.6bn.
India’s government has sought a lower fertility rate for decades. At independence in 1947 it was close to 6. The new republic had also just suffered a terrible wartime famine in Bengal, which left 2m-3m dead. The excessively gloomy ideas of Thomas Malthus, a 19th-century English economist who warned that population growth would inevitably outstrip food production, cast a long shadow over policymakers. The consequent fear of a “population bomb” drove the creation of the world’s first national family-planning programme in 1952.
It took 25 years for the fertility rate to fall to 5. Impatient at this progress, Indira Gandhi, who was then the prime minister, took drastic action. During the Emergency of 1975-77, when she ruled by decree, her son Sanjay led a notorious campaign of forced sterilisation. This set back many reasonable policies, such as promoting the voluntary use of contraceptives, though they later returned.
The southern state of Kerala was the first to see fertility fall below replacement level, in the 1990s. One by one, other states have followed. Out of India’s 36 states and “union territories”, 29 now have rates of 1.9 or less. In poor and largely rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the rate stands at 2.4 and 3 respectively. But it is falling faster in those places than in the country as a whole.
The share of parents using contraception continues to grow. More than two-thirds of couples now do, compared with 54% five years ago. Another striking change is a steadily rising age of marriage. In the 2005-06 survey, the proportion of women aged 20-24 who had already been married at 18 stood at 47%. This has dropped by half in 15 years, to 23%, meaning that women are spending fewer child-bearing years with a partner. Improving education has also had an impact. India’s data show a perfect correlation between years of schooling and numbers of births.
Slowing growth will reduce long-term pressure on some resources that are relatively scarce in India, such as land and water. The news may have other benefits, too. Politicians have often used fear of population growth to rally votes, typically by accusing “a particular community”—a circumlocution referring to India’s 15% Muslim minority—of having too many babies. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has warned of a looming population explosion. Members of his Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) have even called for limits to family size. In July legislators in bjp-controlled Uttar Pradesh proposed a law that would deny government services to families with more than two children.
The Indian government’s new numbers may curtail these execrable suggestions. Fertility among Indian Muslims is generally higher than among Hindus. This is in part because so many are poor. But the difference has steadily narrowed; between 2005 and 2015 the fertility rate among Indian Muslims dropped from 3.4 to 2.6. Data on religion have yet to be parsed from the latest survey, but the fertility rates it shows for India’s only two Muslim-majority territories, the Lakshadweep Islands and Jammu & Kashmir, are far below replacement level and among the lowest in India, at 1.4.
While a declining fertility rate is broadly a sign that India is richer and better educated than before, it will also bring worries. Economists have long heralded the “demographic dividend”, when productivity rises because a bigger slice of the population pyramid is of working age. This window will now be narrower, and India will have to contend sooner with a fast-growing proportion of elderly people to care for.
Stark discrepancies in fertility rates between states also carry dangers. In future more Indians from the crowded north will seek jobs in the richer and less fecund south. Politicians will also face the hot issue of how to allot parliamentary constituencies. Back in 1971 Mrs Gandhi froze the distribution of seats among states. The result is that whereas an mp from Kerala now represents some 1.8m constituents, one from Uttar Pradesh represents nearly 3m. When the freeze on redistricting lifts some time in the next decade, these disparities will spawn a big fight.