Demographic Trends since 1757

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DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS SINCE 1757 The Indian subcontinent is the seat of one of the world's oldest agrarian civilizations, and has long sustained a sizable population. Before the explosive growth of the European population in the 1800s, only China exceeded India in size and density of population. The period of almost continuous warfare that accompanied the establishment of the British Empire in India between 1756 and 1818 seriously affected the population in almost every major region of India. Thus the baseline population in 1757 was probably about 180 million for the subcontinent as a whole.

On the basis of scattered observations and anecdotal records, it seems that this population—like most pre-modern ones—was characterized by early marriage, relatively high fertility, and (by today's standards) high mortality, quite like what was found in the subcontinent the mid-nineteenth century. Some mortality was intentional, especially through the neglect or outright infanticide of female babies in North India. Nonetheless, sources suggest that the population generally maintained an overall excess of births over deaths. There is evidence of a steady trickle of immigration over both land and sea frontiers. Emigration was limited, though all the European powers exported slaves (it is likely, however, that larger numbers were imported from Africa by both European and other merchants). Overall, migration was not of great significance for the large Indian population. Internal migration however, was important since labor was still scarce relative to land. Rulers and landlords sought tenants and taxpayers, and emigration was the major strategy by which merchants, artisans and peasants could resist political and economic oppression. It was also a way to reduce, if not eliminate, the consequences of crop failures. (Climatologists observe that the monsoon is much more uncertain in the arid zones of the subcontinent.) In addition, extensive transregional networks of trade and credit also mitigated the effect of regional crop failures. Still these would certainly cause terrible hardship for many, and significantly increase mortality, especially among the young and the old.

Heavy mortality occurred when political conflict prevented these mitigating mechanisms from operating. So the western peninsula saw a devastating famine in 1702–1703 because the monsoon failed in the twentieth year of a protracted war between the Marathas and the Mughal empire. Manucci, an eyewitness, thought that 2 million people perished. In 1769–1770, the predatory maladministration of the English East India Company in eastern India helped convert a regional crop failure into a serious famine in which 8 million to 10 million people, or over a quarter of the population of Bengal, died. Between 1780 and 1783, British wars with the Marathas in northern and central India, and with Mysore in the south, contributed to catastrophic famines that left hundreds of ruined and deserted villages in the affected regions. Internecine warfare among the Marathas culminating into war with the British led to widespread depopulation in southwestern India from 1801 to 1803.

Establishment of the Colonial Demographic Regime

The gradual establishment of British rule led to a significant improvement in population statistics. The state-craft of the era was anxious to promote population growth: Sir James Mackintosh, a leading scholar-official, proposed in 1804 that the comparative success or failure of governments worldwide might be measured by the reproductive success of the populations they ruled. The British colonial government moved beyond the established Indian practice of enumerating only households, rather than individuals, and for the first time began population counts ordered by approximate age and sex—basic inputs for demographic analysis. These sources allow us to estimate a population of 161 million in 1800, down from a probable 180 million in 1757. Recovery from this nadir was generally swift, and by 1860 the aggregate population of India had reached 250 million, despite the occurrence of at least one serious crop failure in every region, except the humid central and eastern Gangetic Plain. From 1868 to 1872 the British government coordinated population counts on a relatively uniform standard throughout British-administered India, and in 1881 a simultaneous enumeration covered the subordinate (princely) states as well. Thus began the series of decennial censuses that have been conducted in India to the present. Statistically speaking, we now enter the modern era, but the populations counted would not derive the benefits associated with modernity for decades to come.

The Demography of the Colonial Era, 1860–1947

The impressive administrative achievement of enumerating hundreds of millions of highly diverse people, spread over thousands of miles, was but one aspect of an energetic drive to remake colonial India. It was also exemplified by the construction of a network of railroads and the revival and development of irrigation works on many major rivers. Yet, paradoxically, this period saw severe demographic catastrophes, and life expectancy at birth hovered around twenty-four years until 1901 and then fell in the next two decades, reaching the lowest ever recorded in 1911–1921, when crop failures, inflation, and the worldwide influenza pandemic struck in the same decade (see Table 1). The population increased by only 20 percent in fifty years, or about 0.35 percent a year. Only after 1921 did growth speed up to approximately 1.0 percent and then 1.4 percent per annum. As far as we can tell, growth was determined by variations in the death rate, since there is no evidence that marriage or birth rates changed significantly. Thus the decades of colonial modernization up to 1921 were marked by increases in death rates. This paradox may be understood in terms of three effects:

An Indian official described the aftermath of the 1783 famine in North India:

wilderness covered with grass. . . . Such is the state of the territory! The local administration was already oppressive—on top of that came the failure of the rains and the peasants died en masse, so that entire villages were left uninhabited. Entire households of ten to twenty persons all died! No one remained to dispose of the corpses! Heaps of bones lay in the houses! This is the condition of the country from the Chambal river to the borders of Kashmir and Lahore in the west; in the east up to Lucknow or perhaps even beyond. Many people have perished. The survivors are those who abandoned their homes early and emigrated to other provinces. Many went to the east; lakhs moved south. They came past the encampment at Gwalior—bands of thousands came, one after the other. But Marwar was in the same state; so the bands of refugees travelled on through Malwa, Nemar, Burhanpur.

(cited in Guha, p. 36)

Global transport networks now ensured the rapid spread of epidemics, like the bubonic plague and influenza, that would earlier have burned themselves out in isolated locales;

The same transport networks efficiently distributed food in response to prices, but the famine-affected poor lacked the purchasing power to buy it (resulting from what Amartya Sen has termed "entitlement failure");

The new irrigation works often resulted in waterlogging, which increased the incidence of malaria, a major killer of infants and children.


(Ramabai was raised in a formerly affluent Brahman family. In the famine of 1874 she was forced to beg food for her mother after her father had died of starvation.)

The lady spoke kindly to me but I could on no account open my mouth to open my mouth to beg for that piece of bajree (millet) bread. . . . With superhu man effort I kept the tears back, but the expression on my face told its own story. The kind Brahman lady, guessing what was on my mind, asked me if I would like to have some food, so I said "Yes, I want only a little piece of bajree bread." She gave me what I wanted, and I felt very grateful, but could not say a word to express my gratitude. I ran to my mother in great haste and gave it to her. But she could not eat, she was too weak.

(Kosambi, p. 252)

In 1896, Ramabai was herself attempting to relieve famine victims in Central India:

The first [British Government] Poor House we saw was no house at all. It was a grove in the outskirts of the town. Groups of famished people were seen sitting or lying in ashes on dirty ground. Some had rags to cover their bodies, and some had none. There were old and young men, and women and children, most of them ill, too weak to move about, and many suffering from leprosy and other horrible diseases. ..They slept in the open air or under the trees at night, and ate the scanty and coarse food provided by the Government. The food was nothing but dry flour and some salt. There were several starving orphan children who could not cook for themselves, and had no one to work for them. So they had either to eat the dry flour or depend upon the tender mercies of their fellow sufferers, the older persons, who took as much of their food as they could. ..Parents can be seen taking their girl children around the country and selling them for a rupee or a few annas, or even for a few seers of grain.

(Kosambi, p. 254)

These impacts were mitigated, but not nullified, by a colonial government that ultimately considered balancing its budget more important than preventing famine. If so, why did the population increase through the interwar decades? First, these two decades escaped widespread crop failures. Furthermore, elected politicians and the press had more authority as power gradually "devolved" into Indian hands, which may have led to the more liberal disbursement of relief in areas where the scarcities occurred; and finally, India benefited from the global recession of bubonic plague and lethal influenza. Thus the death rate fell significantly below the birthrate for the first time since the 1880s, and the population grew by 27 percent in twenty years. But the country was not secure against famine: renewed warfare and a downturn in the weather cycle again brought famine to Bengal, which had escaped it since 1770. Amartya Sen (1981) has emphasized the importance of political processes in preventing famine, and these now conspired to intensify it. The Indian National Congress had opposed the war, and its leaders were out of office and in jail. The leaders of the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha alternately allied and feuded over office, while a succession of colonial governors were more concerned with repressing the nationalists and supplying Allied forces reeling from the Japanese onslaught than with feeding the rural poor. So food scarcities and associated epidemics resulted in at

 Life expectancyAnnual rates per thousand
Notes: Births and deaths per thousand of the mid-year population are referred to as the crude birth and death rates, respectively, because they are heavily influenced by the age-structure of the population—an older population will have more deaths and less births than a younger one with identical conditions and behavior. The gross and net reproduction rates (GRR and NRR) measure the likelihood that, under the prevalent conditions, a woman of childbearing age will bear girls to replace herself and continue the population. The gross rate ignores the likelihood of interruption by premature death; the net rate takes that into account and is a better measure of trend population increase.
SOURCE: Adapted from Davis, Kingsley, The Population of India and Pakistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1951, Tables 36 and 87; Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Population of India. New York: United Nations, 1982, Tables 49 and 89.

least 2 million deaths in the Bengal famine that rang out the colonial era.

Population Policies and Impacts

While there is little doubt that the establishment of colonial rule brought enormous socioeconomic changes, few colonial policies directly targeted major demographic variables. In the nineteenth century, population growth was often viewed benignly and was cited as evidence of British beneficence. So, for example, Walter Hamilton, publicist for the East India Company, could write of Bengal: "It is pleasing to view the cheerful bustle and crowded population by land and water . . . evincing a sense of security, and appearance of happiness, seen in no part of India beyond the Company's territories" (Report on the Population Estimates of India (1820–1830), 1965, p. xii).

On the other hand, the enormous population could always be invoked to unburden the government of responsibility for anything negative, from famine to soil erosion. Perhaps the only demographic initiative taken in the nineteenth century was the effort to suppress female infanticide. This practice was widespread among some communities of northern and western India; it is probable that state penal measures led to the substitution of neglect for outright infanticide. Northwestern India and Pakistan are still characterized by heavily skewed sex ratios. Other than that, the 1892 law that raised the age of consent to twelve years could hardly have had measurable demographic impact; the 1929 legislation that raised the marriage age to sixteen for women went unenforced.

Most medical interventions before the 1920s were focused on the health of colonial personnel and the new urban environment; interventions for the benefit of rural Indians began only between the two world wars. The joint impact of ignorance and parsimony limited their effects. At best, in the absence of state intervention, the unplanned growth of the early colonial cities would probably have led to large increases in urban mortality. As late as 1941, however, only 4.2 percent of the population lived in cities with over 100,000 people. Perhaps the most important development was the creation of a basic structure for medical education, the beginnings of a hospital network in the cities and of health centers in rural India. World War II also saw the beginnings of a food rationing system in the cities. These were the early measures that a more activist and less parsimonious Indian government would later build on.

India, 1947–2002

The successor states created by withdrawal of the British in 1947 had to mobilize swiftly to cope with the catastrophic population displacement that accompanied the partition of British India. A recent study calculates that between 1947 and 1950, 6 million to 7 million Muslims left India, and 4.7 million non-Muslims entered from West Pakistan and 2.5 million from East Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands perished in the violence that generated this flight and from their sufferings on the way. The flow from East Pakistan continued for several decades.

Demographically, the new Indian republic was more urban and industrial than undivided India had been, but it had lost its only reliable food surplus region (West Punjab). For the next two decades, India was to live precariously "from ship to mouth." The leaders of the new republic had long been critical of the stock British explanation of Indian problems as resulting from its population. Jawaharlal Nehru commented caustically in 1940: "And what they propose to do about this population I do not know, for in spite of a great deal of help received from famines, epidemics and a high death rate generally the population is still overwhelming." He did not oppose the spread of voluntary contraception, but added that "[e]ven in India, the food supply has increased and can increase more than proportionately to the population." (Toward Freedom, p. 283) Mahatma Gandhi was firmly opposed to contraception; confronted by Margaret Sanger in 1935, he would go no further than the "safe period" method. He said, "Why should people not be taught that it is immoral to have more than three or four children and that after they have had that number they should sleep separately?" (Green, ed., Gandhi in His Own Words, pp. 233–235).

The directive principles of the new Constitution enjoined the state to improve the health and nutrition of its people. This injunction came at a time when cheap and effective public health technologies were becoming available; in the Indian context, the most dramatic was the insecticide DDT, which in its early years left surfaces lethal for mosquitoes for several weeks after spraying, and which had the collateral benefit of destroying plague fleas, flies, and other insects. A dramatic drop in malarial infections occurred during the 1950s. There were also great strides in the production and availability of the newly developed synthetic antimalarials and antibiotics. Access to older techniques such as vaccination jumped dramatically. (Smallpox was eradicated in 1975.) The health system grew considerably with over 3 percent of the outlay under the First and Second Five-Year Plans being allocated to it. Finally, the "ship-to-mouth" process was managed competently enough to avert famines, though chronic malnutrition remained common. In conformity with Nehru's prewar outlook, some government clinics began offering family planning services, and contraceptives were distributed free or were subsidized for low-income groups.

Life expectancy increased sharply from age thirty-two in the years 1931 to 1951 to age forty-four in 1960. The Planning Commission underestimated its own success in this sector, complacently assuming that the population would grow at 1.2 percent annually, even slower than in the 1930s. The 1961 census, however, found an increase of 78 million, a growth rate of 2 percent, with only 0.1 percent (the excess enumeration over natural increase) being net immigration, such as refugees from East Pakistan and "repatriated" Tamils from Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, the Third Plan perspective declared that the "objective of stabilising the growth of population over a reasonable period must therefore be at the very centre of planned development." The planners now realized that mortality would continue to decrease and so policy had to be directed to reducing fertility. The 1960s saw further efforts in this direction, with wider outreach for family planning. The emphasis was on intrauterine devices and sterilization as contraceptive methods; the commercial distribution of condoms was introduced in 1968. The population grew even faster than in the 1950s: a birthrate of 41.1 and death rate of 18.9, yielding an annual natural increase of 22.2 per thousand. Legislation passed in 1972 lowered the legal obstacles to abortion. The Fifth Plan (1969–1974) aimed to reduce the birthrate to 30 by 1979 and 25 by 1984 by propagating a range of barrier and terminal methods of contraception. In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, beset by legal, economic, and political problems, established a semidictatorial regime ("the National Emergency"). In an interesting revival of colonial rhetoric, most problems were now attributed to the undisciplined nature and feckless reproduction of the Indian people. Coercion was liberally deployed to correct both, and—especially in North India—to achieve arbitrary sterilization targets. The targets were inaccurately reported as achieved and overachieved (by 8.3 million). But Gandhi's regime dramatically lost the national election of 1977, and its successor immediately declared that "family planning" was to be entirely voluntary. Presciently, the new government also introduced a new emphasis on maternal health, immunization, and the improvement of women's education. But the 1981 census enumerated 684 million people, an increase of 24.8 percent since 1971; in 1991 the total was 846 million (+23%); and in 2001, 1,027 million (+21.9%). Life expectancy at birth mirrored these improvements, reaching sixty-three years for men and sixty-four for women in 2002, twice the 1931–1951 level but still a decade below China and Sri Lanka.

In the gloomy stock-taking that followed the 1981 census, a few bright spots emerged: certain parts of the country had achieved dramatic reductions in fertility and mortality, and were within striking distance of zero growth. The most famous (and now, much-cited example) was the southern state of Kerala. Gandhi had been fond of saying that development was the best contraceptive; yet this state had gained little from the large industrial projects of the Nehru-Gandhi era, and its income was below the national average. Kerala's high level of literacy and quality of general public services were soon invoked as the explanation. Even though the Constitution of 1950 had directed the state to provide free and compulsory education up to the age of fourteen, only 55 percent of men and 26 percent of women over that age were literate nationwide in 1981. In Kerala, however, the percentages were 86 and 71. Even as demographers were studying fertility trends, advocates for women's rights pointed out that:

[t]he right of women to decide freely on the number and spacing of her [sic] children and to have access to the information and means to enable them to exercise that right has a decisive impact on their ability to take advantage of educational and employment opportunities and to participate fully in community life as responsible citizens. (Objectives of International Women's Year, cited in ESCAP, p. 359)

A major national survey in 1992–1993 found that total fertility rates varied inversely with educational attainment, ranging from a fertility rate of 4.03 for women who were illiterate to 2.15 for women who had completed high school.

More sophisticated analyses by Jean Drèze and Sen have confirmed this effect at both the state and district level across the entire country. Declines in fertility continued as the national female literacy rate inched up. Thus, in the 2001 census, 76 percent of men and 54 percent of women were returned as literate, and the overall population increase had slowed to well below the 1961–1991 rate. The 2001 census found that the target of bringing the crude birthrate to 25, set for 1984, was almost achieved (25.4). Of course, the enormous cohorts born between 1961 and 1981 were still in their childbearing years, and this masked the true extent of the decline in fertility. Encouragingly, the Kerala pattern seemed to be spreading, and in 2001 no less than 11 out of 20 major states had annual rates of natural increase (CBR-CDR) below 15, with Kerala and Tamil Nadu close to each other at 10.6 and 11.4.

On the other hand, the four northern states with the worst social and educational indicators (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) had rates of increase exceeding 20. These kept the national rate from falling below 17, a rate at which the population would still double in forty-one years. The only hopeful sign is that the rate of natural increase in 2001 was significantly lower than the average increase through the previous decade in these states; since out-migration predominates in them, immigration cannot explain the difference. This signals that fertility is beginning to fall even in these regions. There is evidence that given even minimal support, women would seek to limit their fertility. In 1992–1993 no less than 30.1 percent of women not using contraception in Uttar Pradesh desired to either postpone or prevent pregnancy, but only 17.7 percent planned to use contraceptives. Presumably the remainder were too powerless to make that decision. But by 1998–1999, 53.8 percent of those unprotected in Uttar Pradesh intended to resort to contraception in the future; 22.9 percent planned to do so within the next year. In the country as a whole, 58.8 percent of women planned to use contraception in the short or longer term. Obviously the fulfillment of such intentions depends on the ability of the administration—and the nongovernmental organizations active in the field—to deliver access to usable methods to millions of rural women who cannot travel far from their homes. In addition, it is likely in many cases to depend on protecting women from violence within the household. Both aspects are illustrated in the following anecdote from a woman journalist.

When a team of researchers visited a village in Uttar Pradesh to ascertain its health needs, several women walked up to inquire shyly whether contraceptive pills were being distributed. For many of these women, asking their husbands to get contraceptive pills meant inviting violence. (Jain)

Thus, successful trials of weekly- and daily-dosage oral contraceptives open the door to the adoption of contraception by women too powerless to use other methods. Overall, therefore, the long-awaited demographic transition in India seems finally to be setting in, but it is likely that the population will stabilize only after outstripping that of China in the middle of the twenty-first century. Still, as the experience of several countries has shown, effective improvements in governance and infrastructure can immensely accelerate such transitions to a low-fertility, low-mortality pattern. As of 2002, the total fertility rate had dropped to 3.1, down from 3.7 in 1992.

A disquieting feature of the Indian transition has been the markedly unequal distribution of its gains between the sexes. The sex ratio (women/men X 1,000) declined steadily from the 1901 census (when it was 972) to the 1971 census (925). In 1981 it showed a small increase (930), but dropped to 927 a decade later, and was at 933 in 2001. Analysis has established that the deficiency of women is concentrated in, but not confined to, the northwestern states of India. In most populations, women—biologically more resilient—outnumber men in the older age groups. Therefore, unbiased increases in longevity should raise, not lower, the proportion of women. But in fact, women lost ground exactly when longevity began to increase. The explanation lies in the systematic neglect of female children, and in the heavy toll of childbearing in adult life. It is only after 2000 that female life expectancy again exceeded male (64 and 63 years in 2002). But this is calculated from live births. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the growing availability of in utero sex determination tests allowed parents to selectively abort female fetuses, and the 2001 census found an adverse sex ratio below age six.

Looking at the situation as a whole, the picture is more hopeful than it has been for many decades. The population of India is well into the demographic transition to a modern regime, but only sustained efforts to maintain and develop the institutions of governance—especially those concerned with health and education—can ensure that it completes that transition.

Sumit Guha

See alsoEconomic Development, Importance of Institutions in and Social Aspects of ; Food Security ; Population, Gender Ratio of


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