Census 2011: False Alarms and Real Challenges


The provisional figures of the 2011 census, released on March 31, raise several questions while demolishing several population-related myths. With a total population of 1.21 billion, India has now inched closer to China, the most populous country in the world. According to current projections, India may well surpass China by 2025. Those who see India’s population figures as the biggest problem facing the country will of course continue to raise a huge alarm; but census 2011 clearly tells us that the rate of growth of Indian population is slowing down. In terms of annual rate of growth, India with a growth rate of around 1.4% is ranked 93rd in the world. In decadal terms, the growth rate during 2001-11 stood at 17.64%, down from 21.5% during 1991-2001. Even in absolute terms India actually added less people between 2001 and 2011 than in the previous decade.
The Sangh brigade never misses an opportunity to talk of growing infiltration from Bangladesh as a key factor propelling India’s population growth. Indeed, the issue of ‘foreign nationals’ remains an explosive topic in the northeastern state of Assam, with both Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi promising ‘to do everything to deport foreign nationals’ in the ongoing election campaign in the state. But the 2011 census figures tell us that the decadal population growth rate in Assam remains lower than the all-India rate – in 2001 it was 18.92%  (as against the all-India figure of 21.5%), in 2011 it is 16.93% (as against the all-India figure of 17.64%). In neighbouring West Bengal, another state where the bogey of Bangladeshi infiltration is being invoked increasingly, the growth rate has come down from 17.77% to 13.93%.
The biggest real question raised by the census figures concerns an acute gender imbalance, driven by a growing disappearance of India’s daughters in the 0-6 age group. The sex ratio may have recorded a marginal improvement from 933 to 940 (Modi’s Gujarat and Nitish Kumar’s Bihar being two notable exceptions where the sex ratio further declined), but the number of girls in the 0-6 age group has fallen from 927 to an alarming 914, an all-time low since independence. Haryana (830), Punjab (846) and Rajasthan (883) continue to be the biggest offenders on this score, but alarmingly enough as many as 27 states and UTs recorded a decline in child sex ratio. At a time when Indian rulers boast of rapid economic growth and social advance and closer integration with the global economy and culture, India’s daughters are finding the country to be increasingly inhospitable, nay downright hostile.
The National Commission for Women has demanded stricter prohibitive action in terms of both legislation and enforcement. The PC & PNDT Act (Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994) has clearly failed to have any deterrent effect – the number of cases registered and convictions under this Act has been utterly negligible. But the issue cannot be seen merely as a case of weak legislation and law enforcement, nor can it be hoped to be overcome through official campaigns of ‘awareness and empowerment’. It is clearly part and parcel of a larger multi-layered phenomenon of violence against women. If Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan are the capital of female foeticide and infanticide, the region also witnesses the largest number of killings of women in the name of protecting the honour of family/caste/clan. States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar remain traditionally notorious for cases of rape and other feudal patriarchal assaults on women. If the number of women per 1000 men has still increased from 933 to 940, it is surely because women are putting up a more effective resistance to this patriarchal violence and not because of the state’s false claims of women’s empowerment.
There is also a lot of loose talk these days about India’s so-called ‘demographic dividend’ with more than half of Indian population being younger than 30 years. But India’s policy-makers and rulers hardly talk about the challenge posed by this demographic profile – the challenge of fulfilling young India’s basic needs for education and jobs, not to talk about meeting the aspirations for a better life. As it is, there is a growing demographic divide in India with northern and eastern India accounting for the lion’s share of population growth (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan accounting for 52% children in the age group of 0-6 years) and yet lagging way behind in terms of literacy and employment, even as the southern and western states race ahead in terms of economic growth without however creating enough job opportunities. The findings of the 2011 census have only corroborated this divide which threatens to negate much of the so-called demographic dividend.
Census 2011 has shown a slow improvement in literacy levels among both men and women, more among women than men. The effective all-India literacy rate has now risen to 74.04%, up from 64.83% in 2001. In fact, female literacy rate grew by 11.8% (up from 53.67% to 65.46%) while male literacy rate registered an increase of only 6.9% (up from 75.26% to 82.14%). The gender gap on literacy front is evidently still pretty huge, while the Planning Commission would like to see the gap brought down to 10 percentage points by 2011-12, it is still as high as 16.68. And in states like Rajasthan and Bihar, the female literacy rate is still as low as 52.66% and 53.33%. But surely the time has come when the focus should shift from mere literacy to at least basic education and on this score the situation still remains absolutely alarming with low enrolment and high dropout rates.

Neo-liberal ideologues wax eloquent about economic growth and accumulation of wealth, viewing the ordinary people at best as a prospective market and at worst as an avoidable burden. Any meaningful notion of development with democracy and dignity must treat the population not only as crucial human resource but also as the focal point of development. As we await the final and detailed census figures, we must intensify the battle for a more democratic people-oriented model of development which will also ensure a more equitable distribution of the fruits of development. This alone can ensure a comprehensive and qualitative improvement in India’s demographic profile.