Should India Have a One Child Policy?

The downsides of a one-child policy could outweigh any benefit in terms of reducing carbon emissions

Published: Jun 10, 2010
Should India Have a One Child Policy?
Image: Illustration by Minal Shetty

Do you like the sound of the slogan ‘Hum Do, Hamara Ek’? Many people who are concerned about India’s fast-rising per capita emissions certainly like the sound of it. Earlier this year, India’s pre-budget economic survey declared that per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will increase by nearly three-fold to 3.5 tonnes by 2030. From time to time, it has been suggested that if India implemented the one-child policy, it would have a marked benefit for the country. But will it actually?

A Fine Balance
No one discussing the subject can ignore the China evidence. Since the policy was implemented in 1979, China has seen 400 million fewer births, which has resulted in 18 million fewer tonnes of CO2 emissions a year.

In 1979, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in China was approximately 2.75. TFR is the number of children, on average, born to each woman in the country during her lifetime. While fertility measures in China are still highly uncertain, most experts agree that the TFR is now well below 2.1.

But there is also the US evidence to consider. In 2006, the US emitted 19.7 tonnes of CO2 per capita and had a TFR of just 2.07. In fact, population is growing slowly or even declining in most G20 countries that have the highest per capita emissions. This is because the impact of a large population on emissions is determined by not just the number of people consuming goods, but also the intensity of that consumption. Currently, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), India is very low on consumption. As many as 17 Indians use as much as just one American citizen in terms of carbon and environmental resources. So “more people” does not necessarily mean “more emissions”!

Professor Charles Hall, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, New York, says, “Look at what happened in China. They reduced their population, but enormously increased the affluence of their population. It’s got to be about achieving balance.”

Other Implications
Proponents of India’s one-child policy also believe fewer children will help speed up economic progress. In this respect they point once again, to the China example. But critics of the policy say it could have unintended consequences for India.

An April 2009 study published in the British Medical Journal found that in 2005, China had 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20 and for the next 20 years, China will have increasingly more men than women of reproductive age. That skewed sex ratio is because Chinese families prefer boys. Crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, even female suicide rates are all rising and will rise further as the lopsided generations reach their maturity. Already, despite no one-child policy, India is emulating China; according to Super-Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, our country currently has 35 million more men than women.

The declining number of young people in China is also a growing economic concern. Over the last few years factories have reported youth-labour shortages and it’s likely to only get worse. “We forget that a large population can also be an asset. The trouble with a one child family is that it distorts the population pyramid — and then hell breaks loose 30 years down the line, which is what’s happened in China, where all social security is largely family based,” says Bibek Debroy, noted economist and professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

A Different Way
Recent population policies in India focus on the advancement of women economically, academically and socially, as independent women are more likely to have small families. And it’s working. India has also seen its birth rate plummet over a generation. From a TFR of 6.3 in1960, it has fallen to 2.68 according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) for 2006-2007. States like Tamil Nadu (1.9), Andhra Pradesh (1.79) and even Punjab (1.99) are already below replacement levels.

Even the Hindi hinterland is not without hope: TFR in UP has fallen from 4.06 to 3.8 in just five years. Economist Debroy puts it well: “A one-child policy is a terrible idea. Ultimately the best form of contraceptive is development.”

(This story appears in the 18 June, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Mr.modak

    This article is very good for students in Economics field, for Oral Presentation. keep it up.

    on Feb 21, 2014
  • Sonal

    More People More Asset but Anyhow..One child policy is certainly the present time Requirement. Everything said and done but development can only and only be possible when the population problem is handled. Advancement of women without prosperity makes no sense. Growing Population is a hindrance and needs to be curbed immediately.

    on Jun 23, 2010
  • Denby

    Rick - i think you've misunderstood this article completely - the whole idea is that prosperity & development in India will result in women's empowerment and naturally lower fertility. Forcing a one-child policy on Indians will be socially disastrous, as it was in China. It is also a gross violation of human rights.

    on Jun 22, 2010
  • Rick

    This article makes absolutely no sense. How can you have development for women without prosperity. So what if the CO2 emissions for India are low now. So I guess India's population are assumed not to become more prosperous then. At India's current population it is absolutely irresponsible for it not to institute a one-child policy. It's also very misguided, foolish and selfish.

    on Jun 17, 2010

    Name two fast growing countries & the only one common thing between them? it is population. <br /> Why we mention 2.1 replacement rate? 0.1 children will definitely die within 5yrs, but not considering dying youth on roads or suicides, not only that it is to maintain the work force of the country(youth). Better family planning has destroyed the entire world by increasing old age homes. First make sure of the old aged people welfare (now it is the major problem in developed ones) then reduce the no. of children. After 25 years only children shall bring some income to a family, increased children increases emotional health of them. Scientifically 4th one has the max. E.Q..<br /> <br /> About carbon emission, God has sent man with a powerful brain, I predict in coming 20 years no oil fueled vehicles, will last, all will give way to the new cheaper, or cheapest fuels like gas, electricity, H2, water then to solar energy (definitely, now it is there in plenty not commercialized ). Many more to write, in short if there is a man there is solution for every problem. But cutting him down cause every problem in the world especially economy is concerned, since nothing will flare without consumers, we can produce with machines, unfortunately cannot consume!

    on Jun 13, 2010
  • Savreen Gadhoke

    A thought provoking contrarian view...

    on Jun 10, 2010
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