By: Damini Mehta
In his recent address to the Bihar Legislative Assembly, Chief Minister of the state Nitish Kumar pointed towards the inter linkage between rising female literacy rate and declining fertility rate.
Quick to pick up on this, political parties from the opposition, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi attacked Kumar’s statement alleging the vulgarity and the obscenity of his comment as an affront to women.
While the theatrics and attacks against each other are atypical of politics in India, especially closer to elections, the current situation warrants a closer look at the data and numbers underlying Kumar’s claim. Moreover, given the ongoing assembly elections which are perceived as a semi-final to the Lok Sabha elections next year, it is imperative to dissect the veracity of Kumar’s comments in an environment where truth often remains hidden in the garb of rhetoric.
A pan India, state wise analysis of literacy rate and total fertility rate reveals that in most cases states with higher total fertility rate have low literacy levels amongst females. This partially corroborates Kumar’s statement in the Assembly.
According to the Household Social Consumption on Education in India Survey 2020 by the National Sample Organisation (NSO), Bihar (60.50%), Jharkhand (64.70%) and Uttar Pradesh (63.40%) were some of the states with the lowest female literacy rates in India. Interestingly, the NFHS-5 data ranked them amongst states with some of the lowest total fertility rates (TFR) across India at Bihar (3), Uttar Pradesh (2.4), and Jharkhand (2.3). As per the datasets, Meghalaya had the second highest total fertility rate across states in India at 2.9, however, female literacy rate in the north eastern state was relatively higher at 73.78%. Same was the case for Manipur which had a fertility rate of 2.2 and female literacy at 73.17%.
Source: Fertility Rate: NFHS-5 (2019-2020), Literacy Rate: NSO 2017, The Economic Times (SRS 2017)
According to a different dataset, the Sample Registration System (SRS) for 2017 compiled by Registrar General of India (RGI), the total fertility rate at an all India level declined to an all-time low of 2.2 in 2017 after being stable at 2.3 between 2013 and 2016. In the same period, fertility rate went down primarily in southern states such as Tamil Nadu (1.6), Andhra Pradesh (1.6), Telangana (1.7), Kerala (1.7) and Karnataka (1.7). Most of these states have historically recorded higher literacy across males and females.
TFR refers to the average number of children expected to be born per woman during her reproductive span (15-49 years) and a high TFR is often associated with low literacy rates and less awareness about contraceptives. As a norm, developed countries with a much larger share of literate population often have low fertility rates and in recent years are also witnessing declining populations. On the other hand, low income, underdeveloped and developing countries often have low access to literacy across communities and genders and have high fertility rates with an ever expanding population base.
Several studies have noted that literacy and education in women is often associated with declining fertility and fewer children per woman and per household. According to the SRS data, in 2017, 14.7% of the female population was reported illiterate in India.
According to the SRS data, Bihar with the highest fertility rate pan India (3.2) also had the highest percentage of illiterate women at more than one fourths of the population (26.8%) whereas Kerala had a mere 0.7% of women still illiterate and the lowest TFR across states at 1.7.
Interestingly, the SRS survey findings also drew a direct correlation between higher education in females and lower fertility rates, quantifying Kumar’s statement. An analysis of fertility rates based on educational qualifications reveal that while at the national level literate women have recorded a gradual decline of TFR to 2.1, women with no education recorded a higher TFR of 2.9.
Women as a singular cohort are increasingly turning out to be a vote bank target for parties and alliances across the political spectrum. From BJP’s women’s reservation bill and schemes like LPG cylinders and Swacch Bharat Toilets to Nitish Kumar’s liquor ban in his home state, political parties have been at the forefront of capturing a vote which forms nearly 50 per cent of the vote share in any state. Amidst this, while poll promises, appeasement politics and attacks on the opposition are a norm, it is imperative to ensure that actual facts and data, however socially unacceptable, are not lost in the rhetoric.