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Seminar on Comparative Perspectives on Fertility Transition in South Asia

Islamabad, Pakistan, 17-20 December 1996
Organised by the IUSSP Committee on Fertility and Family Planning


The seminar on Fertility Transition in South Asia was sponsored by the IUSSP Committee on Fertility and Family Planning chaired by Jim Phillips. It was the first scheduled activity of the Committee in its four year programme for 1995-99. The seminar was held on 17-20 December 1996 in Islamabad, Pakistan and was co-sponsored by the Population Council and uNFPA Islamabad. The main funding for the seminar was provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, New York.

The seminar was comprised of seven substantive sessions, two plenary sessions, the inaugural and concluding sessions. A total of 33 papers were included in the programme in addition to the presentations at the two plenary sessions. The inaugural session was chaired by the Minister of Health, Population Welfare and Railways, Muhammad Afzal Khan and the inaugural address was delivered by Dr Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the united Nations Population Fund. The insightful speech set the stage for the importance of studying the fertility transition in this important region. She highlighted the importance of empowerment of women and their education as important factors in the slow transition in South Asia. She pointed to important differences in the region such as the successful experience of Bangladesh in bringing down fertility. The co-sponsors of the seminar spoke briefly to welcome the 50 plus participants to this seminar.

The first substantive session of the seminar was on Fertility Levels and Trends in South Asia. The session was chaired by Dr John Kekovole, a member of the Fertility and Family Planning Committee. The discussant who provided a provocative critique of all the papers was Professor Tim Dyson of the London School of Economics. Andrew Kantner's paper entitled 'Levels and Trends in Fertility and Mortality in South Asia: A Review of Recent Evidence' launched the seminar by investigating the exact levels and trends in fertility in the various countries of this region using the most recent available data. The main challenge of the data sources of this region is disentangling the real trends from some of the artefactual findings and to assert which of the various data sources which often present conflicting evidence are actually more reliable. Almost all the papers in this session dealt with data reliability and consistency. The R. L. Narasimhan and colleagues paper entitled 'Comparison of Fertility Estimates from Indian National Family Health Survey and Sample Registration System', focused particularly on the reliability of the most recent National Family and Health Survey of 1992-93 its consistency with the sample registration surveys. The B.M. Ramesh paper on 'Fertility Transition among similar ethnic groups across national borders' used the NFHS and the Pakistan Demographic and Health Surveys, and the Martine Collumbien, Ian Timaeus and Laxmi Acharya paper, 'The onset of fertility decline in Nepal: a reinterpretation' utilized the Nepal Fertility Survey, the Mohammad Kabir and ubaidur Rob paper used the 1993-94 Bangladesh DHS and the 1991 Census for investigating similar themes. There are commonalties in these paper which address the data inaccuracies regarding age and event reporting which lead to a biased presentation of fertility levels and trends. However, data from all the countries, particularly Bangladesh and India but even Nepal and Pakistan, does show that the fertility transition, at different speeds has begun in South Asia.

The second session was on Challenging Conventional Explanations for Fertility Transition in South Asia. This session was chaired by Tariq Banuri, Director of the Sustainable Development Institute and the discussant was Ian Diamond. The five papers presented in this session sometimes challenged and at times confirmed 'conventional' explanations for fertility transition. Tim Dyson presented a historical perspective 'Birth rate trends in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan: A Long Comparative View' which mainly showed similarities across sub-regions which are culturally homogenous, such as the two Punjabs and the two Bengals. Krishanan Namboodiri in his paper on 'Lessons from South Asian Fertility Transition' applied some interesting models to question the role of economic explanations for fertility change in this region. The paper by Monica Das Gupta on 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité: the demise of feudalism and establishment of modern governance as causes of fertility decline' also addressed differences across politically different but culturally homogenous areas. In particular she looked at the differences across East and West Bengal and focusing her argument on recent data from Bangladesh argues that it is not such a great success story from the point of view of what are considered laggardly states of uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The paper by Bhanu Niraula and Devendra Shresthra entitled 'Does Caste-Ethnicity Matter in Fertility Transition? An Analysis of Nepalese Data' looked at the ethnic differences in Nepalese fertility levels after controlling for other important socio-economic factors. The paper by Mehtab Karim, 'Explaining Differentials in Reproductive Behaviour of Muslims in India and Pakistan', had as its focus the religious differentials in fertility comparing India, NFHS and Pakistan Demographic and Health survey data.

The third session was on Gender Roles as Explanations for Fertility Transition where four papers were presented. The session was chaired by Muzaffar Mahmood Qureshi, the Secretary of the Ministry of Women's Development and was discussed by Sajeda Amin of the Population Council. The paper by Shireen Jejeebhoy, entitled 'Women's Autonomy and Reproductive Behaviour in India: Linkages and Influence of Socio-cultural context' used some recently collected data from Tamil Nadu and uttar Pradesh to look at the influences of various measures of women's autonomy and mobility on their fertility. The paper by Shahnaz Kazi and Zeba Sathar on 'Gender and Development: Searching for explanations for fertility change in rural Pakistan' also used similar data collected in Punjab, Pakistan to look at the role of migration, education and family and its relationship with women's autonomy impacting on fertility. The paper by Abdelhallel Hadi and colleagues on 'Credit Programme, Women's Autonomy and Reproductive Behaviour: Evidence from BRAC villages, Bangladesh' dealt with the important issue of the empowering effects of accreditation to NGO's such as BRAC and its concurrent influence on fertility. The paper by Anju Malhotra on 'Reproductive Preferences, Spousal Agreement and Gender Inequality: the Case of Sri Lanka', provided insights into couple relationships and the negotiation for reproductive control.

The fourth session, on a theme closely related to gender was on the role of Son Preference in South Asia's Fertility Transition. The strong son preference in this region was documented and related to fertility preferences and behaviour in the four papers presented. The session was chaired by Sultan Hashmi and the discussant was Rafiqul Huda Chaudury. Fred Arnold's paper on 'Son Preference in South Asia' dealt with all countries of South Asia while Sharon Stash's paper entitled 'Son Preference and the Dynamics of Fertility Decision-Making among Wives and Their Husbands in Rural Nepal' was on Nepal. Naushin Mahmood's entitled 'Gender Differences in Fertility Desires and Son Preference in Pakistan: Implications for Reproductive Control Behaviour' was based on Pakistan and Sumanti Kulkarni's entitled 'Son Preference and Fertility Decline' was on India. The papers collectively did find strong evidence on son preference in this region and this was found to impact of preferences and contraceptive adoption.

The fifth session was on Family Planning and Contraceptive use and comprised four papers on this theme. The session was chaired by Nesim Tumkaya and the official discussant was John Cleland. The first paper by Fiona Steele and Ian Diamond, was on 'Contraceptive Switching in Bangladesh' focused on how Bangladeshi women switch between a variety of methods. The second paper was on 'understanding quality of Service in Family Planning in Nepal' by Jean Baker and colleagues dealt with the importance of aspects beyond just the provision of services. The paper by Abdul Hakim and Peter Miller discussed 'Family Planning in Pakistan: Have we reached a turning Point?' and reviewed recent developments in population policy and their impacts. On a similar theme the paper by Warren Robinson questioned 'Common Beginnings but different outcomes: the family planning programmes in Pakistan and Bangladesh' and looked at the quite distinctly different demographic scenarios which emerged for these two countries in the 90's despite their being one nation in the 70's.

The sixth session on Policy Issues grappled with the role of policy in shaping the current fertility transition. The session was chaired by M. S. Jillani and the discussants were Monica Das Gupta and Warren Robinson. The paper by Paul Demeny on 'Intellectual Origins of Post-World War II Population Policies in South Asia' took a broad brush cut at how South Asia's population problems and policies configure internationally and historically. The paper by Anrudh Jain on 'The Need and Contents of a Population Policy in the light of recommendations made at the ICPD' is a general view of what the directives are for policy keeping in view the new international agenda adopted at Cairo. Sonalde Desai's paper on the 'Beyond Cairo: The Politics of Indian Population Policy' more specifically addressed possible shifts in India's population policy post-Cairo. The paper by John Kantner and Jason Finkle examined 'Polity and Population Policy in South Asia: A comparative Analysis' and visited recent developments in population policy in each of the main South Asian states.

The last substantive session was on the Prospects for Further Fertility Decline. It was chaired by Sarfaraz Qureshi, Director Pakistan Institute of Development Economics and the discussant was Ian Timaeus. The stage setting paper was by John Bongaarts and Sajeda Amin on the 'Prospects for future fertility decline and implications for population growth in South Asia' which presented projections with certain assumptions about future trends. The paper by Barkat-e-Khuda and colleagues on 'The Global fertility transition: New Light from the Bangladesh experience' drew on the unusual transition in Bangladesh to draw some broad inferences about transition theory. The paper by Chris Langford on 'Fertility decline in Sri Lanka: Could Fertility now be about replacement level?' asked the important question of whether the South Asian forerunner country is about to reach replacement level. The papers by Leela Visaria on 'Fertility transition in India, an exploration of proximate determinants' and the one by Abusalleh Shariff on 'Determinants of Fertility Differentials in Indian States: New evidence from cross-sectional data' reviewed sub-national data to look at differential trends within the vast country of India.

The concluding session was organized in the form of a panel comprised of John Cleland, Shireen Jejeebhoy, M. Nizamuddin, John Kekovole and Paul Demeny. The panel was presided over by Dr Attiya Inayatullah, the President of the IPPF. The panelists presented their own respective perspectives on fertility in this region. Dr Kekovole presented a comparative perspective with Africa; Dr Nizamuddin presented the international donors perspective; Dr Jejeebhoy talked about reproductive health; Professor Cleland discussed comparative policies and their impacts on future scenarios for contrasting countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan; and Dr Demeny focused on the roles and responsibility of the State in providing services to the population. The session ended with a summation from Dr Inayatullah and a vote of thanks by Zeba Sathar, Jane Verrall, Monica Das Gupta and Ian Diamond.

The seminar was considered a success in terms of assessing the current demographic situation in South Asia. At times there was heated debate about the explanations presented for changes particularly in places such as Bangladesh. The role of policy was questioned and the future trends were addressed. But mainly the collective wisdom of the papers presented documented fertility change in the region, depicted extreme diversity in fertility levels and trends and concluded that no one theory could be utilized to explain the unevenness of fertility transitions in the various sub-regions.

Zeba Sathar