India's population is booming, but the tiny Sikkim state is bucking the trend

Fertility rate dropped by more than half between 1999 and 2020

The state's total fertility rate has dropped in recent years. Taniya Dutta / The National
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Jikme Norbu Bhutia and his wife Tsering Diki are expecting their first child after five years of marriage, thanks to a helping hand from the government in India's small Himalayan state of Sikkim.

The couple, from Maling village, were losing hope after three miscarriages and exhausting their savings on fertility treatments and two unsuccessful attempts at in vitro fertilisation.

Thanks to financial support from the state government for those seeking to conceive, they are looking forward to becoming parents next month.

“We are extremely thankful to the government for this initiative. It is because of the government that people like us can dream of having children,” Mr Bhutia, a social activist, told The National.

While India is now thought to have overtaken China as the world’s most populous country with 1.425 billion people and is trying to contain population growth, the local government in Sikkim is faced with the opposite problem.

The state's total fertility rate – the average number of children born per woman – dropped from 2.75 in 1999 to 1.1 in 2020, according to the National Family Health Survey.

This is almost half the national rate, and well below the population replacement rate of 2.1.

The state government says the shrinking population poses a unique challenge to Sikkim and has introduced a number of measures since last year to increase the fertility rate and safeguard its unique demography and culture.

“India is a big country but you have to see the indigenous people in the state. In a small place like Sikkim, it is important to protect the people, traditions, values and ethos. If population decreases, these will also not remain,” said S D Dhakal, the secretary to state's chief minister.

“We are trying to protect the indigenous values, tribes, intangible heritage. It is most necessary to make the fertility rate at par with the country,” he told The National.

Unique demographic

A former kingdom ruled by Buddhist priest kings known as Chogyal, Sikkim became a part of India in 1975.

The state shares borders with Tibetan Autonomous Region, Bhutan, Nepal, and India’s West Bengal state and has a multi-ethnic society comprising indigenous communities such as Bhutias, who migrated from southern Tibet; Lepchas, who migrated from the lower eastern Himalayas, and Limbus, a Tibeto-Burman tribe, Among others.

Over the decades, the state has become one of the most developed and cleanest regions in the country, with high literacy rates and living standards. It is India’s first state to allow only organic farming.

Paying for IVF treatment

Sikkim had a population of fewer than 700,000 people, according to the last national census taken in 2011, accounting for merely 0.5 per cent of the national population.

In the latest bid to boost numbers, the state government this month announced a special increment for women employees who have a second child, and two accruments for a third child.

Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang also said his government was setting up IVF facilities in hospitals across the state and offering a grant of 300,000 rupees ($3,600) to all women who opted for the procedure.

The government already gives its employees one year of paid maternity leave and one month of paid paternity leave, as well as an attendant to take care of children in their first year.

The Sikkim government's incentives are at odds with the federal government's policy of reducing population growth amid concerns about a lack of jobs and the strain on the country's resources, health care and education.

Career over family

Winkeyla Bhutia, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Sikkim Government College, says the decline in population in Sikkim over the past two decades could be attributed to a range of social factors including education, career aspirations and limited access to childcare.

“Sikkim has historically had a smaller population, but recently we have witnessed a decline in the family size.

“I have observed that both women and men are now pursuing higher education and are choosing to focus on their careers, leading to a noticeable trend of marrying later in life,” Ms Bhutia told The National.

“In particular, the empowerment of women through education, followed by their desire for financial independence through employment has contributed to the delay in marriage and therefore, a likely reduction in her reproductive span,” she said.

Ms Bhutia said the shift also reflected evolving gender roles, challenging traditional expectations and emphasising personal fulfilment before marriage.

She said the decision of married couples to have only one child was influenced by the high cost of living and that the lack of adequate childcare services was also a crucial factor.

“Many women are educated and independent, but we face a dilemma when it comes to having a second child.

“While some of us may have the financial means to afford it, the challenge lies in finding someone to care for the child,” she said.

“With most women actively working, it becomes difficult to manage without any childcare assistance, and quitting our jobs is often not a viable option. As a result, we're choosing to have fewer children overall.”

She echoed the government's concern that the declining fertility rate could pose a threat to the populations of ethnic communities in the state.

“If this trend continues, it could have negative implications for both the economy and the cultural fabric of these communities in Sikkim,” she said.

Updated: June 04, 2023, 3:15 AM