Southern States Say Modi’s Idea of Curbing Population Growth ‘Unacceptable’ as Problem Lies Only in North


Bengaluru/Trivandrum: India's southern states are quite perturbed by the call for a national ‘scheme’ to control population explosion, an idea expressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Independence Day speech last week. Their concern is, if there are any further measures to control population in the south, their voice will completely be overshadowed by that of the north.

The population debate has also, unexpectedly perhaps, kicked off a larger debate on the contributions of each state, besides every state’s share in policy-making as well as national wealth – to the point of raising questions on whether the government should stop using population as the main parameter to decide benefits.

Hours after Modi’s tweet on the issue, activists from the region talked about the huge mismatch in population growth between the north and the south.

“What is sad is that the problems of UP and Bihar are being extrapolated as problems of all of India. Population explosion is an issue concerning states of north India, it is not a problem here in Karnataka,” wrote Kannada activist Arun Javgal on social media.

“The population in Karnataka is going down comparatively. By 2026, there will be changes in the number of Lok Sabha seats from Karnataka… we may end up losing five to six seats, going from the current 28 MPs to just 22-23 MPs. The political voice that Karnataka has at the national level will go down, politicians in the state must be wary of this,” Javgal said.

All the southern states – Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh – have fertility rates that are below 2.1 – the ideal rate.

So when Prime Minister Modi said, “This rapidly increasing population poses various new challenges for us and our future generations… The time has now come that we should take (such) challenges head on,” there were many in the south wondering if such an announcement is misplaced as far as the south and the south-vs-north demographics are concerned.

Kerala, way back in 1981, reached the ideal population TFR (total fertility rate) and is now at a stage when it has reached what’s called a ‘replacement level.’ That is, there is no further growth.

Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra have all achieved replacement levels over the last decade.

Dr CM Lakshmana, head of the Population Research Centre at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, says the PM spoke of overall India, where population explosion is a matter of concern. But if you exclude five-six states, the ‘Bimaru’ states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh – now also Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand), our population is actually coming down.

“By 2030, India will overtake China in total population, that is true; but in the south, the total fertility rate is 1.7 to 2.1. In the north, particularly the Bimaru states, it is more than double, at 3.5 or more. We cannot have one kind of policy for the entire nation because we need to understand regional inequalities,” he told News18.

Kerala finance minister Thomas Isaac sees a communal tint to the PM’s remarks.

“The objective, I suspect, is not about reducing the population rate, growth, which is a national goal. The way it is said today is ulterior communal motive. Now next step, they will say certain communities have higher growth rate and therefore they are responsible for this population explosion and therefore certain steps have to be taken against them and so on. This is totally unacceptable, undemocratic and no citizen’s rights can be curbed," he said.

Both politicians and academics agree that there is one single variant/parameter that influences population growth – women’s education.

Bernard D' Sami, an academic and researcher from Tamil Nadu, says he is not for a policy on fixing a limit for children afresh at all. Negative growth has started in Kerala and Tamil Nadu; irrespective of religion, population in all southern states are going down.

Over the last two decades, the average size of the family in the south is 3, while it is five in the Bimaru states.

“Negative growth began in 2016-17, so these two states are clearly in the red. Southern population will not increase. Politically, I think this is a disadvantage for the south. What we need is a policy, not on population but on education, particularly education for children. Bangladesh is a prime example. They tried many family planning methods... finally they found that education of women was the best family planning method. Enlightened decisions that reduce number in a family come with education,” says Sami, coordinator at the Loyola Institute of Social Science Training and Research.

Politically, the south will not be a matter for national politics at all in the days to come, he warns.

This is one of the reasons population should stop being considered as a parameter when it comes to distribution of wealth or funds or anything else, some academics feel. As of now, the number of MPs and MLAs in a state is based on population of that state (and density of population). For instance, the highly populated Bengaluru city and its suburbs have four MPs in the Lok Sabha, while Mysuru and Kodagu districts are clubbed together for one Lok Sabha seat.

Two years back, the 15th Finance Commission’s move to consider population data from the 2011 Census to decide on devolution of funds from the Centre to the states had raised a huge outcry among southern states – the south wanted the commission to continue using the 1971 Census – purely because population across the south had declined between 1971 and 2001, and this will directly reflect on each state’s share in getting funds.

As it is, the south is cross-subsidising the north – Karnataka, for instance, gets back only Rs 45 for every Rs 100 it contributes to the central kitty for its own development. While states such as UP get about Rs 125-plus for every Rs 100 they contribute, the southern states’ success in controlling population should not be used against it, the five states had argued.

Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, S Irudaya Rajan, believes that other parameters need to be taken into account while deciding distribution of the country’s resources and wealth, instead of only population.

“You cannot distribute resources based on raw population – whether providing incentives, providing funds (devolution of funds from the Finance Commission) or providing MPs,” says Irudaya Rajan.

“Right now, whatever happens, UP decides the Prime Minister. They have 80 seats. In Tamil Nadu, even if you win 40 seats out of 40 seats, you cannot decide the PM,” Rajan adds.

If parliamentary constituencies are again based on population, Kerala may end up with 15, while UP may have about 100.

“That means north domination will be more compared to south and central India. So it will accentuate the north-south divide all the more, in policy formation and planning for the country. Maybe in the south then you should ask couples to have more children, but that does not always work… incentives to reduce fertility work, but incentives to increase it doesn’t work, once it comes down, you cannot make it go up. If I have only one daughter, I cannot expect her to have two or three children,” he laughs.

Sami, too, feels maybe it is time then to go for a dramatic change in each state’s representation.

“Nowhere in the world is the Upper House based on size and population. In the US, every state has two senators. Similarly, in India, if there are 10 MPs in Kerala, we must have 10 MPs in all 29 states. Otherwise, the south will be obviously at a disadvantage,” he told News18.

The might of the numbers should not become a tool to stymie the aspirations of an entire region or make them feel left out.