13 July 2013

Changing Perspectives of Demography and Roles of Demographers: Convocation address delivered at the 55 th convocation of the International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai on 8 June 2013

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you as the Chief Guest at the 55th Convocation of this prestigious Institute which I had the unique opportunity to serve from 1978 to 1992 as its Director and Senior Professor. I thank Prof. Faujdar Ram the present Director and Senior Professor and Prof. Ladu Singh to have invited me to be the Chief Guest on this occasion and deliver the Convocation address. I thank Shri A.H.Khan Choudhury, Hon’ble Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare, Government of India to have found time to be present here, preside over this function and distribute the degrees and certificates to the successful candidates. I congratulate the students who have successfully passed out of this Institute this year and wish them all success in their professional and personal life.  Special mention should be made of those who have won medals for their outstanding performance.

As IIPS alumni, you have joined a net work of almost 2500 members distributed world- wide and occupying key positions in their countries and organizations. You have joined an elite group of intellectuals. Jocularly we call them IIPS mafia! Just as an illustration, I can tell you that Dr. Jiang Zhenghua from Peoples Republic of China, who was my student at IIPS 1981-83, for the Certificate Course, under a UN fellowship program,  later became a Minister and Chief of State Family Planning Commission in China in the ‘eighties and early ‘nineties,  at a time when they formulated the one child policy and launched successful programs to achieve their goals. There are many more well known scholars in the population field and administrators in the population arena working in developed and many developing countries who had their training in demography/population studies in IIPS.  

Personally, I have been in the population field for over five decades and I have witnessed  the rise of India’ population three times from around 420 million in 1959 ( when I first took a job as a Statistician in Pilot Health Project in Gandhigram in Tamil Nadu) to 1210 million in 2011 census. I am not responsible for this rise, though myself and a devoted group worked hard to control the rise! Family planning and fertility regulation was the preoccupying demographic endeavors supported by the governments at the state and national level in those times and we were all a part to it.  The ecstasies and agonies we faced in aligning ourselves to making the Indian Family Planning Programs successful and effective is a story that I would share with you some other day. There were more agonies than ecstasies when census after census from 1961 to 2001 revealed that population of India continued to grow at unacceptable levels, though with varying rates in different states, in spite of large sums of money, men and other technical and demographic resources invested in these programs. Only in the 2011 census, the absolute number added during 2001-2011  was marginally less than in the earlier decade. However, still what we have added during 2001-2011, was 181.1 million, which is the combined population of France, United Kingdom, and Italy. Many developing countries that started their national programs of family planning much later than India, taking the signals from the Indian program, such as Brazil, Indonesia, Korea, Thailand and Singapore, achieved much faster declines in fertility and have already realized replacement levels of fertility. We are yet to achieve it at the national level. That is really agonizing. We can talk and discuss about these topics at a later date but for to-day I would like to talk about the topic that should interest the young outgoing demographers sitting here, on changing perspectives of demography and roles of demographers.

Demography, as you all know, is relatively a new and evolving discipline, compared to other major established disciplines, such as economics, sociology, statistics, with which it has developed more or less as an appendage. The word itself was coined only in 1855 by a Belgian statistician Achille Guillard and was used in the article entitled 'Elements de statistique humaine, ou demographique comparee' (Elements of human statistics or comparative demography) (Shryock and Siegel, 1971). Like all other disciplines, as it is defined now ‘demography’ admits of a narrow and a wider definition. In narrow terms, demography is defined in the Multilingual Demographic Dictionary brought out by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population ( IUSSP)  as “the scientific study of human populations, primarily with respect to their size,  structure and development; it takes into account the quantitative aspects of their general characteristics” (Van de Walle, IUSSP, 1982). Thus, it is a scientific study of human populations in their aggregate with regard to their size, com­position or structure, spatial distributions and developments or changes in these over time. In its wider definition, when it is also called Population Studies, it not only deals with levels and changes in the size, composition and distribution of the population but also with the causes and consequences of the levels and changes. It seeks to answer the questions of “why” and “so what” than just describe the phenomena. In this wider perspective, demography overlaps with a number of other disciplines such as econom­ics, sociology, social psychology, law, political science and reproductive physiology (Bogue, 1969; UN, 1958). Thus de­mography, in its wider definition as population studies, is multi-disciplinary in nature and in recent years has attracted scholars from various other disciplines especially economics and sociology who have made valuable contributions to its devel­opment, but is still a part of social science. The social scientists are primarily associated with their parent discipline but interested in the population phenomena.

Demography is still considered a part of social sciences.  Most of the fundamental works contributed to the field of demography are by scholars from other disciplines who have accidentally wandered into this field of study of human numbers, its growth, distribution and characteristics. The hard core of demography, viz the basic demographic techniques,  such as analysis of age structures, life table construction, standardization, fertility analysis have all been developed by  statisticians, economists and sociologists and is a small part of population studies. Formal demography or technical demography, as the core of  demography - the techniques that are the armamentaria of a trained demographer - can be taught rather easily for students of other disciplines in a one or two semester course on demographic techniques. It  is a very narrow field, though the techniques have wider applications in other fields.

As you all know this institute itself was started  in 1956 as a joint effort of the United Nations, Government of India, and Sir Dorabji Tata Trust  to train scholars in the field of demography, to study the population size, trends, distribution, demographic processes, causes and consequences of population size and growth  in their own countries after their training. It was named as Demographic Training and Research Center (DTRC), Bombay and was one of the four regional institutes started in the late ’50s and early ‘60s  by the United Nations  to train persons to work on the demography of developing countries. The other centers were Cairo, Accra (Ghana), Santiago (Chile). DTRC, Bombay was responsible for training persons from countries of ECAFE region ( presently called ESCAP ). We ran one year certificate and two year diploma courses in demography for over three decades and we have trained more than 2000 scholars from different countries of the region. The teaching in these two courses, research and applications focused on  quantitative demographic  techniques in the estimation of fertility, mortality, migration, population projections and assessment of quality of population data. In the pre computer era this was an arduous task. For example the construction  of a life table from a given set of age specific death rates, using calculators, took half a day’s work even in the 1970s and 1980s. The development of computer technology, especially the desk top and personal computers and the package program that have been developed to analyze demographic data  have reduced the time in the analysis of large scale population data dramatically, and nowadays with the input of age specific death rates and some assumptions, the life table can be printed out in a few minutes. Time spent on quantitative analysis of data has come down significantly. There is no need to spend as much time as one did in the past in the teaching of demographic techniques and even persons without quantitative backgrounds can be initiated to use the various soft ware programs such as PAS, Mortpak, and Spectrum  being used  in demographic analyses.

Since the mid-1960s this emphasis on teaching the ‘techniques’ was reduced and greater emphasis was given to analysis of population survey data, with the data available from the Bombay Migration Study  conducted in the early 1960s  and the Mysore Population Study conducted in the 1950s, and various other surveys.  Studies on “substantive demography,”  i.e. studies on trends and differentials in fertility, mortality and migration with focus on fertility began to emerge. Taking this shift in emphasis into consideration, the DTRC was renamed as International Institute for Population Studies by the then Director, Dr. S. N. Agarwala. With this name IIPS continued for quite some time until in 1985  when it was made a “Deemed University” with the name reregistered  as “ International Institute for Population Sciences”. I joined the institute in June 1978 and soon after wards I initiated steps to convert the Institute into a separate University, “ Deemed University” under Section 3 of UGC Act. The efforts I took in convincing and battling my own bosses in the Ministry Of Health and Family Welfare are a legion and a book can be written on it. After seven long years of struggle with UGC, Ministry of Human Resource Development and Ministry of Health and Family welfare it was declared as a Deemed University on August 14, 1985. My joy as well as well of the others at the Institute, faculty, teachers and students knew no bounds, though in the same year I suffered a personal calamity.

The reason why I am sharing some personal memories on the Institute is that when we were checking and discussing on various names for the Institute we decided on International Institute for Population Sciences rather than on Studies because we felt the term ‘studies’ has a connotation of a project or ‘a time bound operation rather than an enduring scientific appeal of ‘sciences’. Looking back on this decision,  I feel now, with a hind sight of over 28 years, that the decision was right and we should capitalize and work on it.

 In  1990 as a part of its policy on liberalization and globalization of the Indian economy ,the Government of India also gave permission to launch the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) on lines similar to the Demographic Health Surveys conducted by the USAID in different countries of the world and place in public access the data collected in the survey. Before 1990, no data collected from any surveys in India can leave the Indian shores  or be given access to institutions outside India without permission from the home ministry. There was a strict restriction on primary data on India leaving the country. This was a part of “command and control” economy. With liberalization of the economy, international access  to data was also liberalized. NFHS-1 conducted during 1992-93 was the first large scale survey conducted in  all the states in India with international cooperation and support and the data collected from the survey has been analyzed in great detail by Indian and foreign scholars and reported and quoted widely. The health, economic and demographic conditions of the Indian people were known in detail to the outside world. I was privileged to be the first Director of IIPS to get the necessary approval for the survey, design the same and launch the field work in 1992. This survey was the precursor of a series of national level surveys on health and population parameters: NFHS-2 (1998-99), NFHS-3 (2005-6) and the various rounds of District Level House hold Surveys and the Annual health Surveys. There was literally an explosion of large scale surveys since 1992 and  it is still continuing.

For doing analysis of such large scale data available from surveys, the course content at IIPS was suitably modified to include methods of application of  commonly used soft ware programs such as SPSS,  STATA, and SAS.  Training in the use of these soft ware packages can be done in two to three weeks time.

Since  1994 after the International Conference on Population and Development organized by the United Nations at Cairo, the scope of demography or population studies has been extended to realms that were not thought of earlier. The topics of “Reproductive and Child Health” ( RCH), “Gender Equity”, “HIV/AIDs,” “Women’s Rights”  are now considered legitimate areas of study in demography and population studies. Demography has ceased to be a narrow discipline of social sciences limited to  fast and efficient crunching  of large volume of population data that is pouring forth from periodical censuses across the world and various large scale surveys carried out at regular intervals of time in India and other countries.

In this context of changing global scenario of globalization of the market economy, global monitoring of human development through (HDI) and other indices, and especially in the context of global warming portending a global threat to human survival, what is the scope of ‘demography” and that of a “demographer”. This is a question each one of us should ask ourselves and come to a common agreement. That will help to reorganize the course content and methods of teaching of the various courses in population studies not only at IIPS but globally in other institutions.

Let me share my thoughts on these matters with you.

1)     Demography or in its wider definition as Population Studies is no longer just a branch of “Social Sciences” but also of “Management Sciences” and “Basic “Sciences”. It is not only a study of ‘fertility”, “mortality”, “migration” and “age distributions” of populations, their causes and consequences but also of their proximate determinants. All the proximate determinants  of each of the demographic processes can be broadly categorized into three groups: biological, environmental and societal. We have been largely concentrating in population studies so far only on the societal part and almost ignored the biological and environmental factors. For example, there is  growing evidence that sperm counts among young men are falling rapidly because of environmental pollution and life style diseases. Primary sterility is on the increase and so is secondary sterility due to poor reproductive health in developing countries. When an important  proximate determinant of fertility is “sperm count,” can a demographer ignore studying its causes and consequences, in collaboration with an andrologist or reproductive biologist? Demography is to overlap with biological and environmental sciences. Many other illustrations can be given on the potential possibilities of a rise in mortality rates due to environmental and other factors. Recently an excellent article has appeared in the “Lancet” analyzing the extent to which the organization and implementation of public health programs have contributed to  rapid declines in the maternal mortality ratios and infant mortality rates during the past two decades in Tamil Nadu. Can a demographer isolate  himself  from such studies? Demography in its wider definition has to include appreciation and understanding of related biological and organizational sciences. Population Studies should become Population Sciences.

2)     The future demographer should be a part of a team of scientists to work on current life threatening issues facing populations at large, such as global warming and its effects on demographic processes, transfer of funds across generations, effects of environmental pollution on morbidity and mortality, organizational issues connected with various public health programs,  etc.

3)     There is an imperative need to make changes in the academic degree structures widening the topics taught in various courses at IIPS to include reproductive biology, organizational behavior and making the degree in Population Sciences rather than in “Population Studies.”

4)     The problem of optimum population that the planet can take and sustainably endure is once gain raising its ugly head in the context of rapid dwindling of non renewable resources, global warming, deforestation and the media informing everyone in the developing world what the life  style of a person the developed world can be. What can be the population of India, if the average Indian has the standard or quality of life of a Korean, Japanese, British or American. Obviously India can sustain less people with the standard of living of a person in the US compared to the standard of living of a person in Korea. This may require that globally, population can and need to have negative growth in the future for some countries, with the fertility levels continuing to fall well below replacement levels, if they aspire for a higher standard of living. When the Chinese planned their one child family policy, they projected that their population size may eventually go down with a negative growth and even come down to 800 million before it reaches the ZPG or zero population growth. I personally feel that with the available resources it is difficult for India with a population of 1.2 billion to have the same standard of living even of that in Korea.  I may be wrong and I hope I am proved wrong.

5)     The environmental restraint on human population and other species is becoming a major problem for the survival of many species and it is time that demographers consider their field of study as more than a social science topic. It is multidisciplinary, with its perspectives in biology, environment and management as much as in social science.

6)     It is high time that Population Studies is viewed as Population Sciences and IIPS is the right place to have such multi disciplinary work started in collaboration with other institutions, in keeping with its name as International Institute for Population Sciences.

I hope the IIPS, the alumni and the concerned authorities ponder over these issues and take appropriate action. Let me once again wish the newly passed out degree and diploma holders all success in their lives.

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