English | Dzongkha Sunday, March 24, 2019

Fertility rate plunges below replacement level

Samten Dolkar, Thimphu
Mar 15, 2018

A growing number of Bhutanese families are going for fewer children and this is taking its toll on the country’s fertility rate.Demographers warn the trend, in the long run, could affect the country in more ways than one.

Up until the 1980’s, the total fertility rate was six children per woman. In other words, a woman would give birth to up to six children on an average.

Today, according to Bhutan Living Standards Survey Report 2017, the total fertility rate has plunged to 1.9, meaning the number of births per woman is less than two. This is below the replacement level of 2.1.

Replacement level, in simple terms, means each couple is replaced by two children. Maintaining the replacement level is crucial for population stabilisation.

“We have gone way below the replacement level and unless we have some policies, sort of program or depending on the government’s decisions, unless we do something, we will have social problems later in the country,” says Tashi Dorjee,  the Chief Statistical Officer of National Statistics Bureau (NSB).

Declining fertility rate is problematic in many ways. A major adverse impact is, that is if the trend continues, it could leave the country with a growing ageing population and a shrinking workforce.

Ageing population in this context refers to people aged 65 and above.

“When we have more number of people living beyond 65 and we have fewer number in the productive segment of the society, then what happens is the dependency ratio increases. This means, we will have more mouths to feed and too few hands at work,” added Tashi Dorjee.

Besides an increased financial and social burden on the working population, labour force contraction would affect the country’s economic growth.

Some think the health ministry’s aggressive family planning programme in the early 1990’s could be partly blamed for the declining fertility rate. To avoid population explosion and its associated problems, the ministry had initiated various population planning activities.

But the Health Secretary, Dr. Ugen Dophu disagrees. He explains that the family planning programme has been misunderstood.

“The main objective of family planning services in Bhutan is to provide healthy mother and healthy child and at that time health ministry has come up with the slogan- delay the first child, space the second and stop after third. So, if you carefully analyze this slogan, Bhutan’s family planning services will never decrease the population.”

The Health Secretary also says that families going for fewer children is largely circumstance-driven.

“Because of other circumstances, age of their marriage, their level of education, their economic positions may be forcing them to marry late or not marry or they decide not to have children. So that is affecting the population growth.”

Women now constitute a significant portion of the national workforce. This is seen as one of the factors contributing to the country’s declining fertility rate.

Yoichiro Ishihara is a Country Economist with the World Bank. According to him, declining fertility rate is an issue affecting most Asian economies too, including his home country Japan. He says it is both good and bad.

One of the advantages he explains is that the available infrastructure per person would be increased.

“Now, you have roads and you have bridges and other infrastructure. In the future, when the population reaches the peak and then declines, the average available infrastructure per person increases,” World Bank’s Yoichiro Ishihara

He added that while he cannot say for sure whether the issue is a cause for concern or not in Bhutan, countries experiencing low fertility rate should plan ways to handle the situation.

As part of efforts to address the issue, the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) Secretariat is in the process of drafting a National Population and Development Policy of Bhutan.

One of the objectives outlined in the draft policy is to ensure the total fertility rate does not fall below the replacement level at all times.

Bholanath Bhattarai, a Senior Research Officer with Research and Evaluation Division of GNHC Secretariat said of the two objectives stated in regard to fertility rate, first one is to promote research on population dynamics including fertility trends and related issues.

When we say population dynamics, it includes fertility, mortality and migration. So all these factors contribute. And second one is to institute appropriate interventions to manage changing fertility trends.”

The draft policy will be reviewed and finalised after the report of the second Population and Housing Census of Bhutan conducted last year is out.

The GNHC Secretariat says only then it can be said for sure if the country’s declining fertility rate really is something to be alarmed of.

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