Falling fertility rates leave India staring at a looming demographic challenge

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Falling fertility rates have left India staring at the spectre of looming demographic challenges that have caused big problems for other Asian powerhouses like China and Japan.

India needs to urgently take proactive measures to counter the impact of declining fertility rates, news agency ANI reported on March 26 citing a Nikkei Asia report based on recent findings by Lancet.

Total fertility rate in India has come down steeply over the past few decades, Lancet’s findings showed. It may be noted here that India’s fertility numbers fell from nearly 6.2 in 1950 to just under 2 in 2021.

As per policymakers’ calculations, these rates stand to fall further to 1.29 by 2050, before touching a worrying level of 1.04 by 2100. This is broadly in tune with falling global fertility rates — which came down from 4.5 in 1950 to 2.2 in 2021. The global figure is seen sliding to to 1.8 in 2050 and 1.6 in 2100.

The global fertility rate has been decreasing steadily, dropping by nearly 50 per cent in the past 70 years, Dr Prakhar Singh, Consultant Critical Care and Diabetology at OSVI Healthcare, said.

In India as in many other nations, the combination of declining fertility rates and longer life expectancies presents a complex situation, necessitating provisions for social security and healthcare for the increasing elderly population. There is also a need to generate employment opportunities that effectively utilize the skills of this demographic, Dr Singh said.

Dr Singh said that the aging population resulting from lower fertility rates and higher life expectancies is a global phenomenon. The median age worldwide has increased from 25 to 33 years since 1950, leading to economic risks such as escalating healthcare expenses and a shrinking global workforce, ultimately contributing to economic slowdowns. Factors like wealth disparities, gender biases favouring male offspring, and social imbalances further complicate the situation by creating disparities among different segments of the population.

Despite the decrease in fertility rates, the United Nations projects that India’s population will exceed 1.6 billion by 2050. While a large population presents challenges, policymakers have long recognised the economic advantages of India’s youthful demographic, known as the demographic dividend. However, there is an urgent need to capitalise on this advantage to prevent India from getting stuck in the middle-income trap.

Various factors, including obesity, stress, smoking, and environmental pollution, contribute to the declining fertility rates in India. Research indicates a 20 per cent drop in the general fertility rate over the past decade, affecting around 30 million individuals.

Dr Zahoorullah S, Chief Innovation Officer at AIC ALEAP WEHUB, told the news agency that urban areas with high-stress lifestyles and dietary patterns are seeing a significant proportion of infertility cases, with sedentary employment increasing the risk.

The rising demand for In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatments underscores the growing prevalence of infertility issues, with the IVF market projected to reach $3.7 billion by 2030, up from $793 million in 2020.

As India braces for a surge in its senior citizen population, policymakers face additional challenges in managing social security programs and healthcare infrastructure, experts have cautioned.