Why China got population control wrong; India got it right

Yes, India has many challenges ahead, but compared with China, it has shown that slow and steady can win the race.

Mothers with their newborn babies wait for a check-up as other women wait for their turn to get antenatal examination outside a doctor's room at a maternity hospital in Mumbai, India, April 25, 2023. REUTERS/ Niharika Kulkarni TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Mothers with their newborns wait for check-ups as other women wait to get antenatal examinations at a maternity hospital in Mumbai, India, on April 25, 2023 [Niharika Kulkarni/ Reuters]

In the poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost described the dilemma of standing at the intersection of two divergent paths. Both looked inviting, but he had to choose one. “I took the one less travelled by/And that has made all the difference,” he wrote.

Half a century ago, India and China stood at a similar point. Their fertility rates – at 5.6 and 5.5 children per woman – were neck and neck and way more than what is regarded as replacement level fertility of 2.1, at which the population stabilises. They also faced similar social and developmental challenges as they sought to build their nations after suffering the devastation of long colonial and imperial humiliations and war.

However, their journeys towards population control took vastly different routes, shaped by vastly different policies and approaches. Today, as India’s population passes China’s amid a mix of hope and apprehensions about its implications, it’s important to recall those journeys so societies and policymakers draw the right lessons from them.

Slow and steady India

India has been running its family planning programme since 1952 and chose to travel on a path that was slow, steady and winding. It provided reproductive health services, choices for couples on contraception and the freedom to decide how many children they wanted.

The strategy wasn’t an obvious success right away. The population growth rate increased initially, from 21.6 percent in 1961 to 24.8 percent in 1971, and the population rose from 439 million to 548 million, largely as the result of increased life expectancy — up from 45 to 49 years in that decade.

Frustration about these rising 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 sterilise people, especially men.

With the lifting of the emergency in 1977, India returned to its old path focused on the provision of reproductive health and family planning services as the means to a stable population.

Under India’s federal structure, state governments set their own priorities with southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu emphasising socioeconomic development and women’s empowerment.

India’s population growth rate began to decline from 1981, a trend that continues. By 1991, India’s total fertility rate had declined to 4, falling to 3.3 by 2001 and 2.5 in 2011. Finally, in 2020, India achieved replacement-level fertility, a significant milestone in its demographic transition.

Fast but tumultuous China

As India was marking that momentous occasion in 2020, China was facing a population crisis very different from the one it was staring at in the 1970s. Its fertility rate had dropped so much that it was far below replacement levels at 1.3 and was forcing the country into a series of policy about-turns in the hope of actually increasing the birth rate as it faces the reality of an ageing society, a shrinking workforce and a slowing economy.

But how did China go from one extreme to the other?

Even though post-1948 Communist China has invested in infrastructure and health services in a major way, it was keen to achieve lower fertility fast. Very fast. In the 1970s, the country set new age limits for marriage: Women needed to be at least 23 years old and men 25. Couples in the cities were encouraged to delay marriages even more. The fertility rate plunged from 5.5 births per woman in 1971 to 2.7 births in 1979.

But that wasn’t enough for China. So in 1979, it brought in a one-child norm, fining couples who gave birth to two or more children. Additionally, forced sterilisations and abortions were also carried out in the zeal to achieve lower fertility.

The 1980s witnessed fluctuating fertility rates, mostly hovering slightly above the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. However, the early 1990s marked a turning point when fertility dropped below replacement level, and it has continued to decline since then.

China has now realised how that policy has backfired, leading to a skewed sex ratio of more men than women and a rapidly ageing population. It changed its policy in 2016 to let families have two children and raised the bar to three in 2021.

However, the decades-long punitive restrictions have interfered so fundamentally with the country’s demographics that the effects will not be easy to mitigate — leave alone reverse.  In 2022, for the first time in 60 years, China’s population shrunk — and by nearly a million people.

The road ahead

Today, India and China are poised to encounter very different demographic landscapes in the years ahead.

China is ageing rapidly. The proportion of its population that is older than 65 has almost doubled since the turn of the century from 7 percent to 13 percent. The country’s earlier restrictive policies have also created another legacy, a severe gender imbalance with 1,123 male births per 1,000 female births in 2020. Faced with these challenges, China will need innovative solutions to sustain economic growth and provide for the needs of the elderly.

Conversely, India’s youthful population – half of which is younger than 30 — offers tremendous opportunities for the country. Successive governments have invested in girls education and women’s social and economic empowerment instead of more draconian steps like the ones China previously adopted.

India’s development-centric approach is in keeping with the United Nations-organised International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, which called for making investments 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 additionally targeted 146 high-fertility districts in seven states with a series of initiatives from enhanced supplies of contraceptives 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 country’s economic progress, but it needs to be educated and trained to do so.

India needs to make sure that it adapts its education and professional skills programmes to meet the needs of the job market. In the success of its youth lies India’s success.

India must also work towards leveraging its gender dividend, defined as the increase in economic growth that can be realised by greater investments in women and girls. According to recent data, China has among the world’s most skewed sex ratios at birth.

India’s sex ratio at birth was observed at 1,079 male births per 1,000 female births in 2020. Going forward, the country must invest in gender equality initiatives that focus on changing patriarchal norms with an invigorated focus on promoting secondary school education and female workforce participation.

The country must also plan ahead for an ageing population, putting in place social security systems and geriatric care facilities. Lessons from China underscore the need for an empowerment-based approach to population stabilisation with the interests of the people at the centre.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.