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Poonam Muttreja: ‘We don’t understand why Indian census data has not been used’

'Muslims can't outnumber Hindus even in 100 years'

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: May. 24, 2024
Updated: May. 28, 2024

A paper that emanated from the Economic Advisory Council of the Prime Minister (EAC-PM) in May stirred up a storm with researchers, NGOs and legal experts questioning its assertions on religious minorities and accusing its authors of fear mongering during election time.

The paper, titled “Share of Religious Minorities: A cross-country analysis (1950-2015)”, examined the religious composition of populations of 167 countries since 1950 based on datasets. Countries where 50 percent or more of people belonged to a particular religion were analyzed. Thirty-five were OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries and 25 were from Europe.

In India, from 1950 to 2015, said the paper, the share of the Hindu population declined by 7.82 percent, whereas the share of the Muslim population increased from 9.84 percent to 14.09 percent. The share of the Christian population increased from 2.24 percent to 2.36 percent and the Sikh population rose from 1.24 percent to 1.85 percent. The Buddhist population went from 0.05 percent to 0.81 percent, the highest increase among minority groups. However, the share of the Jain population declined from 0.45 percent to 0.36 percent, and the Parsis from 0.03 percent to 0.0004 percent.

The report concluded that, as in other countries, in India the dip in majority populations and the rise in minority populations was part of a global trend.

The paper admitted it hadn’t delved into the reason for such demographic changes. Its ostensible purpose for analyzing such data was to prove that policies, politics and social norms had created “a conducive atmosphere for increasing diversity in society”.

Hindus make up 79.80 percent of India’s population and Muslims constitute 14.23 percent according to the 2011 census. Critics pointed out that the report was stoking bizarre fears that Muslims would in due course outnumber Hindus and that a ‘population jihad’ was taking place. Demographic experts see no such danger whatsoever.

Civil Society spoke to Poonam Muttreja, director of the Population Foundation of India (PFI) which has been tracking population trends. She pointed out that the media was misinterpreting the findings of the report and creating a fear psychosis. PFI issued a press release clarifying population data.


Q: You say this paper by the EAC on the share of the population of religious minorities misrepresents demographic trends.

Yes, because they have used data only till 2015. They haven’t used census data for the past three decades. If they had, they would have found that the decrease in the Muslim growth rate is faster than the decrease in the Hindu growth rate.

The data that they have used is nothing new. It’s been used by the Pew (Charitable) Trusts. What’s the purpose in using it again? It is global data. We don’t understand why Indian census data has not been used. The population of Hindus has in fact gone up since 1950-51 by
70 crore, while that of Muslims has gone up by 14 crore. The decline of the Muslim population started later than that of Hindus because they were far behind in all parameters, be it health, education or income, as per the Sachar Committee report. And the census hasn’t even been carried out this time.

Why create this fear psychosis is the question. That’s the reason we put out a statement countering their conclusion that Muslims have done well in India.

Of course they’re making it political. They are saying Muslims are being treated specially well with access to education, health and jobs, which is not so.

Education, jobs and good family planning services result in a decline in population. In the past decade we had a very good programme, called Mission Parivar Vikas, which went to 146 high-fertility districts in India, mostly in UP which has a large Muslim population, mostly backward. Our mission contributed to decreasing the population in these 146 districts. So not using the data after 2015 is misleading. 


Q: What you are saying is that the decline in population is secular. It is related to better education, health and so on and has nothing to do with religion?

Yes. In Kerala birth rates, whether Hindu or Muslim, are much lower than Hindu-Muslim birth rates in UP and Bihar. It is also misleading to say that because Muslims were given more support by previous governments therefore their growth rate was high.

Actually, it is the opposite. If access to education and health services had been high, the share of the Muslim population would have seen an even bigger decline.

Like in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Better governance, better access to family planning services, better education and income decreases population growth.  It is so the world over and India knows that too.

We have invested in education, health and targetted family planning services for the most backward communities. Use of family planning or access to health services is always where you live. There are urban-rural differentials. If you are in a state that is not well administered or you belong to the poorest quintile you will have less access.

Girls have less autonomy but now, through the media, the aspirations of girls, whatever their religion, have changed. They wish to study, marry later, have fewer children. And this is not related to religion.

In Europe, the majority population has decreased because they are better off and more educated. 

I am not going to question the intent of the EAC. The PFI’s problem is with how the media has misinterpreted this data and created a fear psychosis. It’s led to statements which are very divisive. This is not the time to divide the country further.


Q: You say you are not questioning the intent of the EAC?  

I’m not questioning it because that’s not my job. My job is to give the right demographic data. The data is not wrong, but how they have presented it is like lighting a fire on wood.

Instead, can we please have a better understanding of how these kinds of population figures need to be looked at? Take the total fertility rate (TFR) which is declining fast in India. A recent Lancet report showed, and this is true also for other research organizations globally, that their estimates for India are being revised. What they are saying is that the population in India is going to decrease faster than anticipated.

We have a small window of opportunity to capitalize on our demographic dividend because it can become a disaster. If you ignore it, you will have a large unemployed population. That should be our concern.

Secondly, women’s workforce participation. Whatever increase has happened is in farm labour or in unpaid labour. We have to worry about women, their aspirations and giving them opportunities, to benefit the country economically and the women as well. They need skills and paid jobs. They are going to have fewer babies and will have more time and opportunity to join the workforce. So we should capitalize on both the demographic dividend and the gender dividend. 

Thirdly, we have to worry about our aging population whose numbers are rising. About 20 percent of our population will be ageing by 2036. Who is going to pay for their health needs or care for them? We don’t have the health infrastructure or social security.  Also, how can we use our older people productively? Do they need reskilling? The only state in India that is working on ageing populations is Kerala. The rest of India hasn’t woken up to it.

These are the issues that population data globally and in India is throwing up.


Q: So these are the concerns we should be addressing. Population is not one of them?

Even in 100 years from now we are not going to have a Muslim population that outnumbers Hindus. It’s just not possible given the demographic trends. Even if Muslims decide to have more children, it’s not possible.


Q: What is the fertility rate for Hindus?

Look, there is no such thing as a Hindu fertility rate and a Muslim fertility rate and a Christian fertility rate. The fertility rate in India at this point is close to replacement level. Fertility rate depends on your income, education, access to health services, family planning services, and women’s agency — their ability to  make decisions.

If you do want to look at it through the prism of religion then let’s be truthful and bring out the data from our census which is world-class and respected and has shaped our policies.


Q: What does the census data say?

I’m not willing to talk about any Hindu fertility rate or Muslim fertility rate. I’m not going to look at the Christian fertility rate. That’s not the way to see it.  We have to look at our country’s fertility rate.


Q: Then how are people coming to these conclusions about a Hindu, Muslim, Christian fertility rate?  

Because that data exists. They have used global data that exists on a religion basis. We don’t use data based on religion but if you want to know the trends in TFR by religion, I’ll tell you, though that’s not how I look at it.

The TFR for Hindus was 1.9 and for Muslims it was 2.4 in 2019. The TFR for Christians
was 1.9. TFR has been declining among all religious groups. The highest decrease in TFR from 2005-06 to 2019-21 was observed among Muslims, which dropped by 1 percentage point, followed by Hindus at 0.7 percentage points.


Q: As you pointed out earlier, it is impossible for other religious communities to outstrip the majority Hindu population. 

Totally, totally.


Q: Were you consulted for this paper?

Not at all. We had no idea this report was even being considered and we work with the EAC. Even the health ministry didn’t know about it.

This is old data. Nobody in India, neither the health ministry nor the education ministry, uses it. The fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data is the latest information we have. It is there that we see that the decrease in the Muslim population is higher than the decrease in the Hindu population by a few percentage points.

This is a global dataset they have used. I’m not quarrelling with the data, but with how it has been presented. Actually, it unnecessarily fuels irrational fears in the majority community, worldwide. It’s misleading. Its impact will be not just in India but globally and, you know, it gives an opportunity to fundamentalists on all sides to make outrageous statements. 

It distracts us from looking at the right issues — the demographic dividend, the gender dividend and the graying dividend. India could be the provider of human capital to the world that is struggling with not having a working age population.

We were shocked at the media reports we saw. That propelled us to issue a statement. It is essential to present data accurately and contextually. It’s an opportunity to ask for greater investments in health and education. We advocate a policy that promotes inclusive development and gender equality. 


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