The Union Health and Family Welfare Minister in India, Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad kicked off a storm recently when he suggested late marriages and electrification of villages as solutions to the problem of population growth. Mr Azad felt that late marriages would lower the fertility levels among couples and providing electricity to villages would get people to watch more late-night television and thereby keep them away from procreation. Critics accused him of treading on the personal and cultural sensitivities of people and trivializing a complex problem. But he is right on both counts and deserves to be complimented.
A study commissioned by the USAID which examined the ages of child bearing across India in 2005-06, found that
1. Women marrying late have a shorter first birth interval than women marrying at a younger age.
2. Second and higher birth intervals are longer among those marrying late compared with those marrying early.
Since most marriages take place at a very young age, it concludes that efforts to promote late marriage could lead to a reduction in fertility and improve child and maternal health. Evidence from across the world too points to much the same conclusions. In fact, among all the countries, India has one of the lowest average marriage age for women in the world, at 19.3 years (only Chad, Mozambique, Niger, Nepal and Bangladesh are below).
A BREAD working paper by Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea examined the impact of soap operas in Brazil (which depict smaller families) on fertility trends by controlling for other factors, and found striking positive trends. They use census data for the period 1970-91 and the presence of signals of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas (or soaps), and 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."
If these aforementioned studies carry any significance, then apart from the conventional approaches to lowering population, the government should be considering solutions that address these issues. It should be promoting late marriages by providing incentives for children's education and tax concessions, encouraging tertiary education for women, and so on. And even the much derided, populist measures of some of the political parties to provide television sets and cable connections, may after all not be as bad as originally thought!