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India’s Plummeting Birthrate: A Television-Induced Transformation?

Submitted by on May 7, 2013 – 9:06 pm 34 Comments |  
(Note: As can be seen, GeoCurrents has a new, more streamlined appearance. The “GeoNotes” feature has been replaced by section that highlights “featured posts,” as we found it increasingly difficult to differentiate regular posts from “notes.” We also hope that the new format will make it easier for readers to access older posts.

To initiate the new format, today’s post is longer and more map-intensive than most. It also deviates from the norm in another important aspect. In general, GeoCurrents avoids making policy recommendations: this post, however, breaks the rule.)


World Fertility Rate MapAs Stanford University, like many others, is advocating interactive approaches to teaching, I have been experimenting with a software system (Top Hat Monocle) that lets me quiz students as I lecture. In so doing, I can assess levels of knowledge and adjust my lectures accordingly. Overall, the experiment has proved useful, revealing that some issues are already understood, whereas others most definitely are not.

India TFR GraphThe one question that stymied almost all of my students concerned India’s birthrate. As their in-class answers revealed, most believed that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) was roughly twice that of the United States, imagining that the average Indian woman could be expected to bear at least four children. Informal queries among colleagues and friends produced similar results. Most well-educated Americans, it would appear, are under the impression that India is still characterized by high fertility.

In actuality, India’s TFR is only 2.5—and falling steadily. This figure barely exceeds that of the United States. In 2011, the US fertility rate was estimated at 2.1, essentially the replacement level; a more recent study now pegs it at 1.93. Still, from a global perspective, India and the US fall in the same general fertility category, as can be seen in the map posted here.

TFR Selected Gountries GraphIn today’s world, high fertility rates are increasingly confined to tropical Africa. Birth rates in most so-called Third World countries have dropped precipitously, and some are now well below the replacement rate. Chile (1.85), Brazil (1.81), and Thailand (1.56) now have lower birth rates than France (2.0), Norway (1.95), and Sweden (1.98). To be sure, moderately elevated fertility is still a problem in several densely populated countries of Asia and Latin America, such as the Philippines (3.1) and Guatemala (3.92). But as the Google Public Data chart posted here shows, even the Philippines has been experiencing a steady fall in TFR. The same is true of Afghanistan, the most fecund country outside of Africa, at least for the past 15 years. As can also be seen, TFR declines have been much more modest in such African countries as Niger and Tanzania. It must be acknowledged, however, that reductions in fertility are not necessarily permanent. As the New York Times recently reported, the decline of family planning services has already ticked up the birthrate in Egypt, threatening that country’s already tight demographic squeeze.

TFR African Countries GraphI find it extraordinary that the massive global drop in human fertility has been so little noticed by the media, escaping the attention of even highly educated Americans. The outdated idea that Mexico has a crushingly high birthrate continues to inform many discussions of immigration reform in the United States, even though Mexico’s TFR (2.32 in 2010) is only slightly above that of the United States. It almost seems as though we have collectively decided to ignore this momentous transformation of human behavior. Scholars and journalists alike continue to warn that global population is spiraling out of control. A recent LiveScience article, for example, quotes a co-author of an April 2013 Science report who argues that “the poorest nations are caught in a downward spiral that will deplete resources and cause a population explosion.” The article goes on to argue that “with the world population slated to hit 9 billion by the year 2050, many scientists and others worry that unchecked population growth and increasing consumption of natural resources will cause dire problems in the future.” Although the LiveScience article notes that the original report focused on sub-Saharan Africa, it does not mention the fact that high birth rates are in fact increasingly confined to that part of the world, or that fertility rates are persistently declining in almost every country in Africa, albeit slowly. Many African states, moreover, are still sparsely settled and can accommodate significantly larger populations. The Central African Republic, for example, has a population of less than 4.5 million in an area almost the size of France.

India is an instructive place for investigating fertility decline. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich* began his pivotal 1968 book The Population Bomb with a vignette of teeming New Delhi and the disasters it portended. Warning that overpopulation would soon spread massive famines across continents, Ehrlich advocated coercion: the “sterilization of all Indian males with three or more children” (Ehrlich, 1971 edition, p. 151). Responding in part to such dire prophesies and advice, India enacted a population campaign in the 1970s tilted toward forced sterilization. This widely despised program was quickly dismantled with little appreciable effect on India’s TFR, which continued along its steady downward path.

India Fertility MapIt can be deceptive, however, to view India as an undivided whole. As shown on the map posted here, fertility figures for half of India are actually below replacement level. Were it not for the Hindi-speaking heartland, India would already be looking at population stabilization and even decline. All the states of southern India post TFR figures below 1.9. A number of states in the far north and the northeast boast similarly low fertility levels, including West Bengal, noted for its swarming metropolis of Calcutta (Kolkata).

India’s geographical birthrate disparities, coupled with the country’s admirable ability to collect socio-economic data, allow us to carefully examine ideas about fertility decline. The remainder of this post will do so through cartography, comparing the Indian fertility-rate map with maps of other social and economic indicators. Where spatial correlations are strong, underlying causes may be indicated. Such a technique is admittedly suggestive rather than conclusive, and it does not take into account institutional variables, such as family planning efforts. Still, some of the implications are intriguing.

India fertility literacy MapSeveral scholars have linked birthrate decline to female education. Educated women, they reason, generally prefer smaller families, allowing them to pursue their own interests while investing more resources and time in each child. As it turns out, the map of female literacy in India does exhibit striking similarities with the map of fertility. States with educated women, such as Kerala and Goa, have smaller families than those with widespread female illiteracy, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But this correlation, although strong, is of limited explanatory power, since Kerala and Goa rank high on every social indicator, just as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh rank low. A number of exceptions, moreover, are evident. Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, for example, combine low female literacy with low fertility, whereas in Meghalaya and Nagaland the pattern is reversed. Thus while the education of women is no doubt significant in reducing fertility levels, it is not the only factor at play.

India Fertility GDP MapGeneral levels of economic development, as reflected in per capita GDP, also fail to fully explain India’s fertility patterns. Again, map comparisons reveal congruences in some places but deviations in others. Low-fertility Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal are not, by Indian terms, prosperous states. Gujarat in western India is well ahead of them economically, yet its fertility rate remains higher, slightly above the replacement level.


India Urbanization Fertility MapUrbanization often correlates with reduced fertility, and the rapid growth of India’s cities is probably linked to its declining birthrate. India as a whole, however, remains a predominantly rural country, so urbanization itself cannot be the answer. Note also that low-fertility Kerala and especially Himachal Pradesh have low urbanization levels, whereas in Mizoram the opposite situation prevails.


India HDI Fertility MapThe general level of social development makes another interesting comparison. The somewhat dated Human Development index map, from the Wikipedia, again deviates from the fertility map, especially in regard to low-HDI-ranking Andhra Pradesh and Odisha (Orissa), and high-ranking Nagaland and Manipur. The mapping of life expectancy, a major social indicator, again reveals both common features and anomalies. States with high life expectancies tend to have low India Longevity Fertility Mapbirthrates (Kerala, yet again), whereas those with low life expectancies tend to have high birthrates (Madhya Pradesh, especially). Yet while Odisha lags behind even Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in terms of longevity, its TFR (2.2) is close to replacement, lower even than that of Gujarat.


India Fertility Electrification MapTechnological modernization is also worth examining. Here we use electrification as a proxy. The extent of electricity use varies tremendously across the country. All of southern and far northern India are now almost fully electrified, whereas in impoverished Bihar fewer than 20 percent of households have electric lights. Overall, the general pattern holds here as on the other maps, with interesting exceptions. Nagaland and Chhattisgarh, for example, have relatively high levels of electrification, yet are marked by elevated birthrates.

Some scholars have argued that recent fertility decreases in India and elsewhere in the Third World are more specifically linked to one technological innovation: television. The TV hypothesis is well-known in the field, discussed, for example, in the LiveScience article on the African population explosion mentioned above. In regard to India, Robert Jensen and Emily Oster argue persuasively that television works this magic mostly by enhancing the social position of women. As they state in their abstract:

This paper explores the effect of the introduction of cable television on women’s status in rural India. Using a three-year, individual-level panel dataset, we find that the introduction of cable television is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and son preference, as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility. We also find suggestive evidence that exposure to cable increases school enrollment for younger children, perhaps through increased participation of women in household decision-making. We argue that the results are not driven by pre-existing differential trends.

India Fertility TV Ownership MapAs it turns out, the map of television ownership in India does bear a particularly close resemblance to the fertility map. Two anomalously low-fertility states with low levels of female education, Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, score relatively high on TV penetration, as does West Bengal, which lags on several other important socio-economic indicators. The correlation is far from perfect: Mizoram ranks higher on the TV chart than its fertility figures would indicate, whereas Odisha and Assam rank lower. Odisha and Assam turn out to be a bit less exceptional in a related but broader and more gender-focused metric, that of “female exposure to media.” These figures, which include a television component, seem to provide the best overall correlation with the spatial patterns of Indian fertility.

India Fertility Media MapI suspect that the rapid drop in fertility in such countries as India and Brazil, as well as its association with television, has been missed in mainstream US commentary in part because it flies in the face of deeply ingrained expectations. That television viewing would help generate demographic stabilization would have come as a shock to those who warned of the ticking global population bomb in the 1960s. Many of these same critics regarded television as inauthentic, mind-numbing, and thought-controlling, and feared that by inculcating consumerism it would hasten environmental destruction. Jerry Mander’s 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, was widely embraced by the green movement, and is still approvingly cited in such places as the “primitivist” blog Challenging Civilization. Mander argued not only that television singularly lacks democratic potential, but that it functions to enhance autocratic control.

Mander currently sits on the board of directors of the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization alongside Vandana Shiva, India’s most prominent environmental activist. Shiva, best known for her campaigns against genetically modified crops, is deeply opposed to most aspects of modernity, calling for a return not just to organic farming but to a broadly traditional way of life, albeit without patriarchy and class (and caste) oppression. She gained global attention earlier this year when she responded to a prominent environmentalist advocating genetic engineering with the following tweet: “Mark Lynas saying farmers shd be free to grow GMOs which can contaminate organic farms is like saying rapists shd have freedom to rape.”

Despite Vandana Shiva’s insistence to the contrary, most experts doubt that India could feed itself through non-modern farming. The “progressive contrarian” blogger Bernie Mooney concludes that Shiva is nothing less than “an elitist, anti-progress menace” whose program, if enacted, would not “help the poor of the world, [but would] only keep them at a subsistence level and more importantly, in their place.” Although Mooney’s assessment is harsh, it does seem likely that a return to traditional lifestyles would bring back high fertility levels, resulting in truly unsustainable population growth.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the transition to a low fertility regime, deemed necessary by almost all environmentalists, requires substantial modernization, particularly in the socio-cultural realm. Television depresses fertility because many of its offerings provide a model of middle-class families successfully grappling with the transition from tradition to modernity, helped by the fact that they have few children to support. In a study of declining fertility and television in Brazil, Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea point in particular to the role of soap operas (telenovelas):

We focus on fertility choices in Brazil, a country where soap operas (novelas) portray families that are much smaller than in reality. We exploit differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas production in this country. Using Census data for the period 1970-1991, we find that women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle, consistent with stopping behavior.  … Finally, we provide suggestive evidence that novelas, and not just television, affected individual choices.

If it is true that soap operas have played a critical role in Brazil’s spectacular fertility decline—its TFR dropped from 6.25 in 1960 to 1.81 in 2011—the policy implications are momentous. But it will take a fundamental change in the way we talk about technology, population, and environment for this point to come across. As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (2007, page 130) argue, old-school environmentalists typically prefer to “wrap the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for Nature while prophesying even worse disasters to come unless human societies repent for their sins against Nature and work for a return to a harmonious relationship with the natural world.” The data presented here confirm that it is time for a new mode of environmental rhetoric.

To return to our first map, fertility rates remain stubbornly high across tropical Africa. The analysis presented here would suggest that the best way to bring them down would be a three-pronged effort: female education, broad-based economic and social development, and mass electrification followed by the dissemination of soap-opera-heavy television. As it is, Africa’s television market is growing rapidly, but much of the programming so far has been heavily oriented toward sports. One can only hope that Nollywood (Nigeria’s Hollywood) and other African entertainment centers can provide the women-focused, locally appealing telenovelas that have been so strongly associated elsewhere with fertility reduction.

*Ehrlich is also one of the co-authors of the Science article referred to above.

Paul Ehrlich. 1968 (revised edition 1971). The Population Bomb. Sierra Club/Ballantine.

Jerry Mander. 1978. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. HarperCollins.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. 2007. Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Houghton Miflin.

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  • It’s worth noting that replacement level fertility in India, as elsewhere in the world, is substantially higher than in developed countries on account of higher levels of mortality in the years preceding parenthood (infant mortality, mainly). Sex ratio issues, such as prevail in many parts of India, also make the situation more problematic.

    • These are excellent points, Randy! Thank you!

      • India might have below-replacement fertility now, on account of its high infant mortality and biased sex ratio.

        • Yes, excellent points. I did nudge up replacement TFR for India in the post from 2.1 to 2.2, but I probably should have added a bit more. I will do a post on India sex ratios later.

        • Ram

          But the fact is the sex ratio of states with higher TFR such as Bihar, UP, Haryana, and Rajasthan are worst. In fact, all north indian states have this problem with sex ratio. But in contrast, the states of South India and East India, have very good sex ration compared to rest of India due to the cultural value give to female figures in these states.

  • skepticalbynature

    This was an interesting but ultimately disappointing article. It is well worth making known the positive force that television has in normalizing women’s role as co-decision maker within the family and community. However, none of the facts cited here in any way lead to the grasping conclusions the author makes about agricultural or environmental activism, and in fact his insertion of his own polemics into the article detracts from its merits.

  • TimUpham

    As more women in India, become educated its birth rate will go down. I had people say to me “but India has had a woman prime minister.” I will say “yes, that is simply because her father was prime minister.” Family traditions run very deep in India. Something else, that will be effected is arranged marriages, which are stil very common in India. That is the reason why multi-national corporations are having difficulty marketing Valentine’s Day in India, because it centers on courtship. In India, marriage is very rarely done by courtship.

    • Good points, I thought of adding a discussion of the fact that in Indian soap operas, the mothers-in-law tend to be the dominant characters, “ruling the roost” according to this article:

      Also to note is the fact that South Asia as a whole has had many women political leaders, in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan as well as India. All have reached their positions through their family ties.

      Valentine’s Day must be making some headway in India, however, or oterwise Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists would not be so stridently opposed to it. See

      • TimUpham

        Another thing that will coming out of changes within Indian society, will be acceptance to sexual orientation. India just recently decriminalized homosexuality. A controversial film came out of India, about two married women having a lesbian love affair with each other. But has it gotten to the point yet, where someone can say no to there family about an arranged marriage, become of attraction to the same sex?

    • P

      India hasn’t had a woman prime minister in 30 years.

      I also think India is way too diverse and rapidly changing to make sweeping general about culture, people, traditions.

  • A comment from our reader (via Facebook), Pritty Patel-Grosz:

    Thanks so much for posting the article about India’s plummeting birthrate. One observation I made when I was there a few months ago, is that the decline is connected to the high number of cases of female fetocide (which seems to be on the rise again).

    Here is what I observed (through conversation and visiting local hangouts, discussions with family members, local polititians etc). There simply aren’t enough girls for boys, there is no dating culture and the strict segregation (it’s really stricter then Islamic middle eastern countries, for example), the strong presence of religion in daily life, is responsible for the increase of rape cases in the country.These changes in society get interpreted as: girls are trouble. I don’t want a girl, she’ll most likely get raped and bring shame on the family. I only want
    male children.

    Female fetocide has always been a problem in the country, but it seems to be on the up. The other thing I noticed which Ifound quite striking is that the majority of locals that I met seem to associate a strong economy with males. India’s economy is indeed booming, and many feel that to be a part of this success its important that they produce only sons, and not a single daughter, since the
    daughter won’t become a CEO of a multinational company, and she will leave home and belong to another in the end anyway.

    Now of course, this is not the only view being echoed in the country, but I found it to be the one echoed most by the middle class all over Gujarat and conservative parts of South India. Things are significantly better in the North and the East.

    I know the views expressed here are orthogonal to the issues the article raises, but I thought you might be interested in them. Please feel free to ignore, too, though.

    • Thiru

      This comment is highly in accurate, please read the latest Indian

      census results. You will see that the female to male ratio has come down in the last 10 years also the literacy rate of felmals is higher that males.

      • Pritty Patel-Grosz

        I am not contesting the literacy rate, nor am I contesting the overall improvement of female to male ratio. Again, in my post, I was referring only to certain pockets of the country – none of which, are discussed in the article you mention.

    • Seyes

      What BS. I don’t think that the person who made this comment ever opened his/her eyes and ears. Probably spent all the time in a very backward area and came back to post how the outlook is so primitive.

      • Pritty Patel-Grosz

        I’m sorry you feel that way. I’ve traveled extensively all over India, and have spent a significant amount of time in Gujarat (in various parts of the state) over the last 25 years, and my observations posted by Asya reflect the decline I’ve witnessed over that time frame.

      • Mahila Utthan Samiti (MUS)

        India is backward everywhere but for a few pockets of prosperity and competence (where I guess you live). Move out from your gated community once in a while.

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  • Hi Martin, put up some thoughts on this over at Tom

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  • WJM980

    This is definitely good news. Regarding Mexican immigration to the U.S.; we do not now, nor will we ever have again, remotely enough jobs for those already in the country. Globalization and automation are going to make human beings even more unnecessary. I’m glad the birthrates are declining globally; I’ll be even happier when our U.S. population starts to decline – and that won’t happen as long as we have a liberal immigration policy.

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  • omesh

    This article brings hope! Though, I would have also liked data about:
    1. The time rural women (in India) spend on watching TV

    2. What kinds of TV shows do they watch?
    3. To what extent do TV shows expose rural women to middle-class families with fewer kids?

  • Rohan

    The article presents some interesting data and I was glad to learn about the same. I find the conclusions about TV’s and soap opera’s a bit of a stretch based on the correlations presented here. There are trends and anomalies in these and other correlations, so why did the author choose to delve deeper into only TV’s?

    Additionally there are also other important factors at play like access to medical services (reduces child mortality thus making it possible to have fewer children who can live to become adults), industrialization (societies heavily dependent on non-mechanized agriculture needed more hands)

    Also this statement “Although Mooney’s assessment is harsh, it does seem likely that a return to traditional lifestyles would bring back high fertility levels, resulting in truly unsustainable population growth.” is completely absurd. There is nothing in the article to back this up. You do not even describe what is traditional lifestyle for that matter.

  • Rushabh

    I think TV does have an impact on the fertility level but the impact is not the way the author describes it. Its not like rural Indian females see happy smaller families on TV and suddenly want small family. Even govt. ads. promoting the virtue of small family have stopped airing in the 80s and 90s. What makes difference in my opinion is simple fact that after TV and electricity comes people have other means of entertainment. Earlier kids were seen a large part of your life. Life would be boring and empty without kids. Now kids are seen as nuisance crying, falling ill disturbing your TV time. Mobile phones also help in this.

  • sam

    add one more point – inflation inflation goes up and up and there is a bigger fight for the scarce resources – the population will go down and down.

  • VAGeographer

    I keep telling my students that there’s light at the end of the population tunnel and it’s not an on-rushing train. Wasn’t it said (and rejected) in a Club of Rome meeting in the early 70s that “economic development is the best form of birth control”? India and Brazil are perfect examples of this. Just another sign that developing coutries are rushing through the Demographic Transition much faster than Industrial Revolution countries did and faster than the pessimists deemed possible. The European/North American model of transition just doesn’t apply anymore – except that economic development, education of women, and movement from a rural to an urban setting get you out of Stage 2 and through Stage 3.

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  • colowww

    I read an article in Barrons almost 20 years ago titled something to the effect of “The population isn’t booming anymore”. There were 5 billion people in the world at that time, now there is 7 billion. A 40% increase in just 20 years! If that isn’t booming WTF is? Sure growth has slowed down substantially, but it is still growing very fast from a historic perspective, we are on tract to add two billion more in the next 40 years. Its like an over loaded dump truck speeding through a school zone at 120 miles per hour, then slowing down to 80 MPH. “See its not speeding any more.”

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  • shishirchandra

    within one or two years India will achieve replacement level. But still Hindi heartland is of great concern due to high tfr.

  • Mahila Utthan Samiti (MUS)

    “India’s geographical birthrate disparities, coupled with the country’s admirable ability to collect socio-economic data”
    There is not even birth registration in India, deaths are not recorded either. Population census relies on door-to-door counting. Most statistics are of extremely dubious quality. Even birth dates are variables, according to the needs of the individual. In my son’s school, at the registration office, there is a boards that states ” Every recorded birth date is definitive” Many kids are declared at least two years younger than they really are.

    • indian

      I dont know why you are living in 90’s or maybe a north western state but in south india as far as i know,there were strict G.O(government ordinance) released that birth certificates are given immediately after birth(within 10 days)…..days have changed…omg

      • Mahila Utthan Samiti (MUS)

        You’re right, I live in NW India.

  • Vatroslav Herceg

    What about Albania? Albania has a higher fertility rate then shown on the map…

  • wendy

    muslim population is growing with TFR of more then 3 while Hindus have less then 1. this is a concern. Hindus need to up the birthrate. this is no good news. Hindus need to have a minimum TFR of 3.

  • Mariel Smith

    I guess it’s possible that soap opera can be used as
    birth control, because Indian soap operas such as sarswatichandra
    just irresistible. It makes me hooked up on television as long as my favorite
    soap opera is still airing. It’s just that there is something in their concept
    that makes me want to watch it over and over again.

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