Editorial: Fertility Rates and Reproductive Autonomy

Welcome the data, don’t go regressive It has been two years now since the State Government discontinued the financial incentive it offered to government servants if they opted for smaller families – usually seen as one with a maximum of two children. The reason behind this discontinuation was that the fertility rate in Sikkim had dropped to the desired level of two children per couple. With small families having become the norm, there was clearly no reason to incentivize it anymore. That is good news, right? But that is not necessarily how everyone seems to be receiving the news that women in Sikkim, by and large, have achieved some level of reproductive autonomy. First, because everyone has been hearing it so often in speeches and private conversations, let’s try and first understand what total fertility rate means. Fertility rate is the number of children an average woman is likely to have during her childbearing years. Sikkim’s Total Fertility Rate stands at 2.02. Fertility rate should not be confused with birth rate because the latter stands for the actual number of children born per 1,000 people per year. And then there is Replacement Rate. Simple logic suggests that if there are no mass scale deaths, the replacement rate would be 2.0 - two parents replaced by their two children. Actually, fractionally higher because there are fewer girls as compared to boys and infant mortality rates are such that more girls die as infants than boys. Also, since child mortality is higher in under-developed areas, the replacement fertility rate is higher there as well. In the developed world, replacement fertility rate is about 2.10. In poorer economies, it can go over 3.0. The global average is 2.33. The Fertility Rate for Sikkim in the year 1998-99 was recorded at 2.75, substantially higher than the current rate of 2.02 which is lower than even the replacement fertility rate. That said, the fall in the fertility rates is clearly not because more women in Sikkim have gone barren, but is obviously thanks to improved consciousness of modern parents. More and more couples in Sikkim are discarding the “hum do, hamarey do” slogan for the increasingly popular choice of having just one child. This could also be the reason why the percentage of the child population [age group of 0-6 years] has also reduced in Sikkim to 10.05 percent of the total population in the 2011 Census compared to 14.28 percent in 2001. It is also an accepted fact that fertility rates start to drop as incomes and living standards go up, roughly tracking the passage from poverty to middle-income status and from an agrarian society to a modern one. Macroeconomic research has also established a link between living standards and fertility even within countries. Bihar, for instance, has a fertility rate of 4, while the “richer” Tamil Nadu and Kerala have rates below 2. It is possible that there is such a contrast in fertility rates even between rural and urban Sikkim. There are also cons to falling fertility rates, but they pale in comparison to the fact that women bearing fewer children is a sign of them having finally secured some level of reproductive autonomy. It is also evidence of the fact that both partners in a relationship are planning their families together, by consensus. Falling fertility rates is proof of women’s empowerment, but that is not how everyone sees it. One often hears of the need for Sikkimese women to bear more children because the “local” population was falling! Demographic changes are always worrying, but not as offensive as asking your women to bear more children just so that the state or the community can increase its share of the population. Pause on the thought and the misogynic import of such beliefs leaps out to scare.