It is commendable that the office of the Census Commissioner was able to bring out the provisional population totals for March 2011 as a reference point, in the first week of April.

While the Census data released have not yet been subjected to the usual cross-checks and are still tentative, the document is useful in gauging the broad trends and is a rich information source that provides a prelude, supplementing the data with figures, maps and notes to enhance the general understanding of the public.

India's total population in 2011 is 1.21 billion, compared with 1.03 billion in 2001. It is significant that the percentage of decadal growth during 2001-2011 has registered the sharpest decline since Independence. This is the first time that the growth rate has declined to below 20 per cent and the absolute growth of the population was less than in the earlier decade.

While the growth rate declined from 23.87 per cent for 1981-1991 to 21.54 per cent for the period 1991-2001, for 2001-2011, this decadal growth has fallen to 17.64 per cent. Similarly, the average exponential growth rate for 2001-2011 dipped sharply to 1.64 per cent per annum from 2.16 per cent during 1981-1991 and 1.97 per cent per annum during 1991-2001.

India in the World

India accounted for 17.5 per cent of the world population of around 6.9 billion. The three most populous countries are now China, India and US, together accounting for four out of every ten persons of the world. At present, a little more than one out of every six persons in the world is from India. India continues to rank next only to China in total population, but the decadal growth rate in China is only 5.4 per cent, and in the third most populous country, the US, the decadal growth rate is only 7.2 per cent. With the current trend, India is expected to overtake China as Number One in population by the year 2030. Pakistan's decadal growth is much higher, at 24.7 per cent, while that of Bangladesh is comparable to India at 16.8 per cent.

Traditionally, for historical reasons, some States depicted a tendency of higher growth in population and these States accounted for about 45 per cent of country's total population in 2001.

Growth inter se States

Recognising this phenomenon, and in order to facilitate the creation of area-specific programmes, with special emphasis on eight States that have been lagging behind in containing population growth to manageable limits, the Government of India constituted an Empowered Action Group (EAG) in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in March 2001. These eight States were Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, which came to be known as ‘the EAG States'.

The document released by the Census Commissioner makes a comparison of EAG and non-EAG States. During the two decades since 1971, the growth rates in the EAG States stagnated around 25 per cent till 1991. As a result, the decadal growth rate of India, till 1991, was almost at a constant level, hovering around 24 per cent.

During 1991-2001, the growth rate for the EAG States remained the same as that in the previous decade, whereas there was continuous reduction in the growth rate of non-EAG States and Union Territories. This was primarily responsible in bringing about a significant fall of about 2.3 percentage points in the growth rate of the country as a whole.

During 2001-2011, for the first time, the growth momentum for the EAG States has slowed, falling as much as about four percentage points. This, together with a similar reduction in the non-EAG States and Union Territories, has brought down the rate of growth for the country by 3.9 percentage points.

Census 2011 marks a milestone in the country's demographic history as, perhaps for the first time, it has recorded a significant fall in population growth rate in the EAG States, after decades of stagnation.

Impact of Reforms

With the exception of Chhattisgarh, the decadal growth rate of the population has decelerated in all EAG States. It cannot be coincidental that deceleration in India's population growth came in tandem with the reform initiatives of the early 1990s, lifting the economic growth trajectory from the Hindu rate of growth to around 6 per cent in 1990s and further to over 8 per cent since about 2004. The growth rates in the EAG States also improved during the period. And economic prosperity has obviously brought with it social improvements and a higher literacy rate.

The available data for EAG States show that the human development index (HDI) and the literacy rates have shown considerable improvements in these States (see Table). By 2005, the HDI of Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh crossed the 0.5 level and in other States also they are close to that level. The literacy rate has improved to more than 70 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Orissa.

The success in achieving a population-resource balance in the future, therefore, lies in improvement of education and health, in parallel with higher economic growth.

(The author is Director, EPW Research Foundation. These views are personal.)