T K Arun

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time is a classic definition of insanity. China is desperate to find a solution to the ageing population. The grey heads of the Chinese Communist Party are not mad; so, when their gracious offer to the Chinese people that they could have two children, instead of one precious offspring, failed to produce many additional caterwauls at night, they did not repeat the offer.

Instead, they upped the ante: Chinese couples are now allowed to have three children. Makers of baby formula would be well-advised to not rush to add capacity. If those who cannot eat bread do not quite take up the offer to eat a piece of cake instead, do not be surprised if they do not act on the follow-up advisory to eat two pieces of cake.

Grow Rich, Before Growing Old

Why should we bother so much about infantile Chinese contretemps? Because Hindutva, which, as the ruling ideology, has pushed attacks on secularism off the list of charges the Congress levelled against the Modi government on its seventh anniversary, suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of demography, similar to the one that propelled the Chinese one-child policy post-Mao.
Earlier talk about reaping the demographic dividend has changed to worries about a population explosion.

In Hindutva’s world, population explosion is code for Muslims outnumbering Hindus. Muslims are 14% of India’s population, and the Hindus, four-fifths. Yet, the Sangh Parivar worries that Muslims will multiply, while Hindus merely add. What is the source of this anxiety? Muslim men can have four wives. Hence this great eagerness to introduce a Uniform Civil Code. That elementary logic and arithmetic can dispel these forebodings does not help.

Whether one man marries many women or one woman has multiple partners, what determines population increase is the number of children each woman has. This is called the total fertility rate (TFR). If each woman has two children, she would, through them, replace her partner and herself. So, if the population is to remain stable, instead of growing or declining, TFR should be two.

However, since all children who are born do not grow into reproductive adults, the replacement TFR is a shade higher: 2.1. Any group, whose TFR is higher than 2.1, will keep growing. Any group, whose TFR is lower than 2.1, will eventually decline.

This process of decline is well underway in Japan, and in most rich European nations. If population declines, is that a cause for worry? The consequences differ, depending on the group. When the proportion of the aged and the non­ working rises, and the proportion of the young, who work, produce income and pay taxes, comes down, unless those who work produce enough income to sustain themselves and the aged, the aged would not be cared for. You might say prudent people save during their working life and this would see them through their old age. This saving is direct or indirect command over the productive capacity of the economy.

If the saving is in equity, you own rights to dividends and capital gains. These latter depend on how much the company produces. If you own bonds of companies, that again depends on the companies’ ability to service their debt. If you own government debt, you are betting that the government would be able to service its debt, because it can collect taxes or, on the strength of its solvency, borrow. Taxes depend on production being carried out. If savings are in the form of bank deposits, banks’ ability to pay interest depends on their ability to deploy them as credit to finance production.

Agency, Not Coercion

Ultimately, if a society fails to produce enough to meet the needs of those engaged in production and their dependants, it would suffer. It must have a workforce large enough to produce the needed output. As societies grow rich, they develop automation or command over productive capacity in nations that are as yet young, offsetting the decline in working age population. If a society grows old, without having grown rich, their young would not produce enough for the totality of society.

And it would need to depend on aid, of the kind that rushed oxygen machines to India recently. It is this fear of growing old as a nation and being without a sufficiently large workforce before having become rich that drives China to increase its young population by inviting couples to have three children. If the Chinese authoritarians have realised their mistake in forcing a onechild policy on their people, Hindutva folk are still trying to limit population growth by compulsion.

The Administrator of Lakshadweep wants to disqualify those who have more than two children from elected office. Population should be allowed to stabilise along with societal development. Women’s empowerment and education are the biggest determinants of family size. Bangladesh has a TFR below 2.1. The Muslim majority district of Kerala, Malappuram, has a TFR below 2.1. Bihar, UP, MP and Rajasthan have high TFRs. Focus on development and empowerment, instead of fantasies of a Muslim population explosion.

First Published in The Economic Times The 3-child policy: China’s policy reversal holds lessons for the Hindu right’s population worries on May 25, 2021

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About the Author

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T K Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi.