Declining Fertility Rate: A Daunting Challenge before the State of Sikkim

Declining Fertility Rate: A Daunting Challenge before the State of Sikkim

Everyone knows that Sikkim is a small extraordinarily picturesque mountainous state tucked away in the Himalayas in the northeast of India. However, much less known about Sikkim to the rest of India. What goes even more unnoticed is the role that women have played in Sikkim's development success. Traditionally women have enjoyed greater freedom in Sikkim than in many other parts of the country.

The Sikkim Human Development Report revealed that the state had the best gender parity performance among the north-eastern states, with female labour force participation at 40 per cent, much higher than the national average of around 26 per cent. In recent times, with the support of the state, they have played an active role in various spheres of life. Sikkim, along with Meghalaya, occupies the top two positions in the best performing region of Northeast on women's empowerment index comprising of participation of women in household decisions, ownership of land, cell phones and bank account, and instances of spousal violence. Women in Sikkim are more empowered to take decisions than women in other parts of the country.

In Sikkim where the present study has been undertaken, the recent demographic scenario reveals that the state is heading towards a steady decline in the growth rate of the population. During the last couple of decades, the state has achieved noteworthy success on demographic front. As per the 2011 Census of India, its total population is 6,10,577 out of which 3,23,070 are males and 2,87,507 are females (Directorate of census Operations Sikkim, 2011). Between the years 2001- 2011, the decadal growth of population has decreased from 33.06 to 12.89 (Department of Economics, Statistics, Monitoring and Evaluation, 2013). As per NFHS-3 report, Sikkim is one of only seven states in India where fertility is below replacement level and as per current fertility level, a woman in Sikkim will have an average of only 2.0 children in her lifetime. Fertility in Sikkim, which was 2.8 children per woman at the time of NFHS-2 decreased by three-quarters of a child between NFHS-2 and NFHS-3.

The fertility rate is almost one child lower in urban areas than in rural areas. However, even in rural areas, the fertility rate of 2.2 children per woman is approaching the replacement level (International Institute of Population Science and Macro International, 2008). According to NFHS-5 the total fertility rate of Sikkim is now 1.1 children per woman, which is less than half of the replacement level of fertility. This unique demographic feature of Sikkim offers a glaring scope of research since the state’s demographic composition has undergone a phenomenal change over the decades. In Sikkim, studies on fertility have remained almost neglected and whatever little knowledge on fertility is available is limited to macro demographic studies such as the National Family and Health Surveys, which only offer explanations of data.

Sikkim has, however, many things to worry about. This includes creating jobs for its young people within the state, improving the quality of education, protecting residents from natural disasters, expanding infrastructure and so on. Equally worrisome is the sharp decline in total fertility rate (TFR) - 1.1 in 2019-2020 (NHFS-5) - which is less than half of the replacement level of fertility. The reduced TFR is not good news as it may result in an age-structural transformation wherein Sikkim, like Kerala, will have to address the challenges of an aging population. This could get manifested in the short supply of workers as well as a further decline in the sex ratio. With shrinking active labour force, Sikkim's economy could experience loss in economic output and possibly a decline in income levels. There could also be an increase in the elderly dependency ratio and morbidity levels on account of a rise in non-communicable diseases. Sikkim will have to mobilize the resources needed to extend financial support of the elderly and make provisions to address, in particular, their health care needs. It will also have to deal with the challenge of declining fertility rates.

The colossal decline in the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in Sikkim is a critical matter to ponder on. It’s subject to discussion and debate as people of Sikkim has lost a generation in the past two decades due to various undeniable reasons.

There is a concern about declining birth rates in both the developing and developed world. Fertility rates tend to be higher in poorly resourced countries but due to high maternal and perinatal mortality, there is a reduction in birth rates. In developing countries like India’s population might shrink to 1 billion due to decline in fertility rate. The global population is also expected to dip by a further 2 billion from earlier United Nations Population Division estimates, research led by the University of Washington and published in medical journal The Lancet suggests. As India has already been witnessing a significant decline in total fertility (TFR) over the past 70 years from 5.6 births per woman in 1950 to 2.14 in 2017. Reference forecast suggested that India reached a TFR lower than replacement level in 2018. After that, India was forecasted to have a continued steep decline until about 2040, reaching a THR of 1.29 in 2100.

The present world population is 7.8 billion. This number is projected to reach a peak of 9.7 billion in 2064, after which it will decline to 8.8 billion by the end of the century. Last year the United Nations had estimated that the world population would reach at least 10.9 billion in 2100.

Likely, focusing India children are needed as a labour force and to provide care for their parents in old age due to poverty. In these countries, fertility rates are higher due to the lack of access to contraceptives and generally lower levels of female education. The social structure, religious beliefs, economic prosperity and urbanisation within each country are likely to affect birth rates as well as abortion rates, in Sikkim it tends to have a lower fertility rate due to lifestyle choices associated with economic affluence where mortality rates are low, birth control is easily accessible and children often can become an economic drain caused by housing, education cost and other cost involved in bringing up children.

Higher education and professional careers often mean that women have children late in life. In Sikkim as per NHFS-5 sons are preferred more than girls, somewhere or the other there are still the chronology of misogynist/patriarchal are maintained where female are treated as “other” and are given less importance but subsequently, we can see the women are coming up to the level of man in all sector and credit goes to the feminist warriors. But the sad part is fertility rate in Sikkim are declining massively where contraceptive users have increased and is prevalent in rural than urban, women with no schooling uses more sterilization. Married women they also use pills and condoms etc. Infertility is also a common problem worldwide. Childlessness could be male infertility, female infertility or combined infertility.

The most common cause of female infertility is ovulatory problems which generally manifest themselves by sparse or absent menstrual periods. Male infertility due to deficiencies in the semen, and semen quality is used as surrogate measure of male fecundity. Mostly, we can imbibe the educated people are the ones who decide to have baby lately when their life is stable, like they plan to marry late having only one child which is more than enough. It is good to have a plan to have a sustained lifestyle, and the population rate can also be balanced and unemployment can also be reduced if we see from one side. But if we see from the other sides, we as a Sikkimese people will slowly lose our identity and our homeland will be land for someone else. So, fertility in Sikkim should not be less or more but it should be balanced, which will lead to balance in population and stability in societies functioning perpetually. Hence, whatever are happening around the globe the problems like declining of fertility rate, environment degradation, racism, gender inequality, war and conflict, diseases (COVID-19) behind all these are we humans.

 Causes of decline in fertility rate

There has been a shift in behaviour in many societies. This can be seen in many factors such as: postponement of marriage, increasing age of first birth, increasing divorce rates, lower marriage rates, more births outside marriage, an increasing number of women in the labor force, greater levels of education for women, a decreasing need for children to support elderly parents, a shift from rural to urban societies and government programs to encourage or discourage having children. Together with these factors, general mortality rates have declined, leading to improvements in life expectancy which continue in most countries. Also, many advances in medical technologies are being realized including improvements in birth control methods and progress in the cure or successful treatment of many diseases.

A combination of all of these factors has resulted in three main demographic trends: reductions in infant mortality, increasing life expectancy and decreasing fertility rates. And a small state Sikkim is going through an issue ‘decline in fertility’ which must be looked after by all of us being a native people of Sikkim before it becomes too late to realize. In Capitalist stage, Sikkimese are quite busy and instrumental to have a viable life where they have alienated themselves from the friends, families, and from self which Karl Marx has also invoked in his ‘Theory of Alienation.’ We as a living creature existed on this earth with two souls and bible has also talked about how god has made both male and female as intertwined. But uncertainly there is disparity between man and woman.

As male has been dominating female since the society has existed like sati system though it’s not prevalent now but that was one of the hilarious thing women has to go through. There are perceptions that woman is for raring and caring and man are for bread earners. But now everything has been subverted like women are as equal to those of man. But still, most of the woman are not being able to breath freely like in India still the women are being subjugated, tortured, molested etc.  But now, such issue is being much alleviated, as women are coming up to the level of men and credit also goes to all the feminist for bringing the ray of emancipation. Thus, Antony Giddens mentioned structure and society are inextricable linked which cannot be separated. On the contrary, woman as a child bearer is an indispensable component in fertility studies where women and fertility are inseparable.

 Suggestions

I believe there are needs of help from government side. So, it is necessary for governments to provide adequate publicly funded reproductive health and social care in order to achieve required birth rates and have a younger population to contribute to nations and global progress. It can be argued that women now contribute more to the total workforce and social welfare agenda (tax and national insurance) than ever before and deserve to get reproductive benefits from the public purse.

In parallel, it is also necessary to have a national and an international initiative for the prevention of infertility and protection of fertility. The projects will need to be focussed at the specific needs of the local population. It is necessary for governments to work in close partnership with the voluntary sector to achieve the maximum effect. The most important project will have to address raising awareness at an individual, family, community and social level as well as at primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare level regarding factors affecting male and female fertility. A regular and open education programme for women and men would empower them with knowledge required to protect their fertility.

Nevertheless, Sikkim has been following the guidelines of the Government of India for implementation of MCH and Family Planning services. Hope in a decade, there will be a balance in fertility.

Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer and not of the Sikkim Chronicle. For any queries or contradictions, the author can be contacted in his/her email id.

By Ajbin Mukhia. The writer is M.A. program  student at Department of Sociology, Sikkim University. He can be contacted at ajbinmukhia98@gmail.com