Muslims in Assam have recorded the most dramatic decline in fertility since NFHS-3, which was conducted 14 years earlier. While the number of children who would be born per woman — or the total fertility rate (TFR) — of the Muslim community in Assam at 2.4 is higher than the 1.6 for Hindus and 1.5 for Christians, the reduction in fertility among Muslims has been from 3.6 in 2005-06 to 2.4 in 2019-20, a drop of 1.3 compared to 0.4 among Hindus for the same period, although from a lower base.
The TFR of 2.4 among Muslims in Assam is only a little over what demographers call replacement level fertility, or the TFR level at which just enough babies are born to maintain population levels constant.
This is pegged at 2.1 and India’s overall TFR is 2.2. NFHS-5 data also shows that cultural and geographical factors as well as level of development are more important determinants of fertility than religion.
Thus, in Bihar with poor development indices, the fertility rate of all communities including Hindus (2.9) is higher than that of Muslims in Assam and most other states. On the flip side of this, in Jammu and Kashmir, with high development indices and the lowest fertility rate among the eight large states for which NFHS-5 data has been released, the fertility rate of Muslims (1.45) is lower than the fertility rate of Hindus in any of the other states.
The TFR for Hindus too is low in Jammu & Kashmir at 1.32. Of the nine states in NFHS-5, the TFR is above replacement level in the Muslim community in just two states, Kerala (2.3) and Bihar (3.6), which are at two ends of the development spectrum. This shows that beyond just cultural and geographic factors, the level of development of a specific community is also a determinant of its TFR.
In Kerala, despite its overall high literacy, the literacy of Muslim women is poor. Similarly, in Assam, Muslims are the most socio-economically backward religious community. The NFHS-5 state reports show that women in rural areas have higher fertility than their urban counterparts in every state including Assam. And Muslims in Assam are found in a greater proportion in rural areas where they constituted 36.6% in NFHS-5, than in urban areas, where they were just 18.6% of the population. Lower educational levels too have an impact.
According to the NFHS-5 report on Assam, women with no schooling would have an average of 0.8 more children than women with 12 or more years of schooling. The 2011 census recorded that the literacy level of Muslims in Assam was 62% compared to 78% among Hindus and that barely 1.7% of Muslims were graduates or above compared to 5% among Hindus. A study by Dibrugarh University on the connection between education and fertility with reference to the Assamese Muslim community, published in March last year, concluded that the mother’s level of education affected fertility significantly and that fertility in Assamese Muslims could be brought down by improving the education level of the community, especially of the women. The NFHS-4 report on India examined the fertility rate of the different wealth quintiles (one fifths of the population) and showed that the section with the lowest income had the highest number of children at 3.2 and the richest had the least, 1.5. Thus, fertility is more about social determinants than just ‘population control