By Krishna N. Das
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - As the global population reaches 8 billion, India, formerly a powerful driver of the number of people on the planet, is experiencing a marked slowdown.
Falling fertility rates in the South Asian country have forced at least one state to consider reviewing policies that encouraged families not to go beyond having two children.
The world's population is estimated by the United Nations to have hit 8 billion on Nov. 15, with China and India accounting for more than a third of the total. India estimates its population at 1.38 billion, slightly lower than the 1.4 billion that the World Bank estimates for China.
India will become the most populous country in 2023, according to the United Nations.
But India's annual population growth has averaged 1.2% since 2011, compared with 1.7% in the 10 years previously, government figures show.
Further slowing can be expected. India's total fertility rate (TFR) - children per woman - fell to 2 in the latest assessment period, for 2019-2021, from 3.4 in 1992-93, according to a government report issued last month. It estimated that the average must be 2.1 for the population to reproduce itself.
Increasing use of contraceptives and rising education among girls could have contributed to the decline in fertility rates, the government says.
The use of family-planning methods jumped to 66.7% in 2019-21 from 53.5% in 2015-16.
That indicated that India's national population policies and health systems were working, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said in comments shared with Reuters.
"As India invests in its younger people, it needs to make plans for a demographic transition to take better care of a greater proportion of older people in the future," the UNFPA said.
In Odisha, an eastern state, the TFR dropped 21% in only 11 years, between 2008/10 and 2019/21, maybe too fast from the point of view of the government there.
"Odisha may need to relook at the policy framework that promotes a two-child norm," the state's Planning and Convergence Department said in a June note seen by Reuters. The policies discourage exceeding two but do not encourage reaching that number.
The northeastern state of Assam, with its TFR higher than the national average, is still pushing in the other direction.
In January, it implemented a policy that made anyone with more than two children ineligible for government jobs and election to local and civic bodies.
"This is the need of the hour to have such a legislation in place," Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told Reuters.
But such measures have limited impact on fertility, the UNFPA said, citing global experience.
"Most such schemes have had only a marginal impact on fertility and in some cases have even been counterproductive," the UN agency said.
(Additional reporting by Shivam Patel in New Delhi; Writing by Krishna N. Das and Shilpa Jamkhandikar)