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Decoding census data: Muslim growth rate has declined faster

KS James | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:56 IST
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The data

  • The 2011 religion-wise census shows 79.8% of Indians are Hindus, and 14.2% are Muslims
  • The percentage of Hindu population has declined by less than 0.7% in the last decade
  • The growth rate among Hindus has come down by 0.27%, while among Muslims, the number is 0.38%

The meaning

  • Contrary to hate-mongers\' insistence, Muslims will never be the majority in India
  • The proportion of religions in the country is expected to stay largely the same in the coming decades
  • The fertility rate has declined across the board - on average, every woman is giving birth to 2.3 children
  • This is close to the mark at which a population exactly replaces itself every generation

There has been intense debate and controversy over religious demography in India. Over the last two or three decades, there has been a polarisation and reaffirmation of caste and religious identities.

Healthy debates on the growth of religious groups are always welcome. They can generate significant public policy intervention.

However, the current discussions were mainly attempts to target groups or communities, rather than try to understand the issues.

The growth of population of any religion, region or caste depends on the interplay of different forces. Interpreting data based on certain averages conceals the truth and often gives rise to emotional statements that hardly bear any relation to the truth.

This is what came to the fore when the 2011 population data on the basis of religion was released this week.

Away from the sensational headlines, here is an objective evaluation of the data. Objectivity is the key word, in order to understand the pattern of religious demographic growth in a diverse country like India.

Fertility decline across religions

A rapid fertility transition is happening in India, which appears to embrace all sections of the population, no matter which religion or caste you belong to.

The current fertility level is 2.3 children per woman, which is very close to the level of two children per woman at which the population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next. This is called replacement level fertility.

This number portrays an important fact - that this decline is not specific to certain sections of the population. It is the result of a faster decline in fertility in almost all sections.

It shows that India is on a path of rapid demographic changes, irrespective of the narrow boundaries of religion and caste.

No chance of Muslim majority

The annual growth rate among Hindus during the previous decade was 1.82%, which has come down by around 0.27% to 1.55% between 2001-11.

But the growth of population among Muslims has come down by 0.38% - from 2.58% between 1991-2001 to 2.20% in the 2001-11 period.

At two children per woman, the population exactly replaces itself every generation. India's level is 2.3

The data clearly shows that the population growth rate has declined faster among Muslims than Hindus. The number for Muslims is one of the lowest since the modern census started in India towards the end of the century.

It is interesting to note that the share of Hindus in total population has declined marginally between 2001-11, and that too, by less than 0.7%.

There has been widespread concern at the supposed explosive growth in the population of Muslims, without any data to back it up.

Contrary to what hate-mongers may have you believe, Muslims will not become the majority in India. It is clear that the change in religious composition of India is going to be minimal, even in the coming decades.

Gradual process

It's wrong to consider the growth rate of population at any point of time and then make assertions on religious demography.

The decline in the growth of population cannot be altered over a short period. This is a gradual and continuous process.

There is a significant lag between a decline in the birth rate, which mainly causes population growth, and population growth by itself. Even when the level of fertility is low, population continues to grow. Thus, the mere depiction of growth rate conceals the truth behind the causes of population growth.

Region matters too

Population growth rate varies heavily across the different regions of India. This is why the 'high' growth rate of Muslims compared to other groups needs to be viewed a bit cautiously.

An all India average often conceals vital information on the concentration of population belonging to certain groups in certain regions.

For instance, a quarter of India's Muslim population lives in Uttar Pradesh, followed by around 10% in Bihar.

It is well known that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar show high fertility rates compared to the rest of the country - not only for Muslims but all other religious groups as well. Thus, the fact that a lot of Muslims live in these high fertility regions is a prime reason for the apparent their 'high' growth rate.

Overall, it is clear that India is on a course of rapid demographic changes, irrespective of religion.

It is also clear that the difference in the growth rate between Muslims and Hindus is narrowing rather than widening.

Therefore, Indian religious demography is not going to be altered significantly, as the progress is nearly uniform across groups.

First published: 27 August 2015, 11:32 IST
 
KS James @CatchNews

KS James is Professor of Population and Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru

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