The RSS is riding its old hobbyhorse again. Addressing the Yuva Dampati Sammelan attended reportedly by 2,000 young couples organised by the RSS’s Kutumb Prabhodan in Agra on August 21, RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, apparently concerned about the “declining Hindu population”, exhorted young Hindu couples to have more children.

He asked: “Which law says that the population of Hindus should not rise? There is nothing like that. What is stopping them when the population of others is rising? The issue is not related to the system. It is because the social environment is like this.”

The apparent provocation for this is in the Census 2011 findings that the “Population growth rate of various religions has come down in the last decade (2001-2011). Hindu population growth rate slowed down to 16.76% from previous decade figure of 19.92%, while Muslims witnessed a sharp fall in growth rate to 24.60% (2001-2011) from the previous figure of 29.52% (1991-2001).”

Though such a sharp fall in Muslims’ population growth rate hadn’t happened in the last six decades, apparently it was not enough of a silver lining to cheer up Bhagwat. Meanwhile, the Christian population growth rate was at 15.5% and the Sikh population growth rate stood at 8.4%.

The most educated and wealthy Jain community registered the lowest growth rate in 2001-2011, with a figure of just 5.4%.

Bhagwat should be heartened that while the growth rate of Hindus has declined by just 3.16 percentage points, the corresponding decline for Muslims was a sharper 4.92.

But clearly he is not.

It’s true that India’s Muslims - much poorer on average than Hindus - are growing in number at a slightly faster pace. According to Census 2001 there were 138 million Muslim Indians or 13.4% of the population. In 2011 that rose to 172 million or 14.2%.

Is this cause for worry? Are Muslim Indians not Indians like the others? Unfortunately this basic question seems out of place in the current discourse.

Not surprisingly fears are being stoked about Hindus being swamped by Muslims. That of course is a ridiculous notion, for the population growth of all groups in India will cease by the end of this century. And it has been calculated that even if present trends were to continue, it would take 247 years for Muslim Indians to catch up with Hindu Indians in terms of numbers.

It’s not as if the RSS is not capable of getting its math right, but logic is not the issue here.

Most demographers project that India’s population growth will taper off around 2060. But the growth of population in the BIMARU belt will continue till 2091. This rather appropriate acronym - it means sickly - stands for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The population growth of Muslims will also level off about then, by which time they will constitute a good 18.8% of Indians.

What should be a matter of concern is the implication that if the BIMARU population keeps growing till century’s end, then the proportionate populations of the other regions will actually be contracting. This may have even graver political consequences.

But this does not seem to concern the Sangh Parivar, which seems perturbed only by Muslim fecundity.

On the whole both China and India have had a phenomenal expansion of populations combined with economic growth. Quite clearly population growth is not necessarily a brake on economic growth.

In fact, there is much to suggest that population growth contributes much to economic growth. The critical factor here is the dependency ratio, which is the ratio of “dependent” people aged 0-14 and over 65, as against “productive” people in the 15-64 age group. The lower the dependency ratio the better, in money terms.

By 2020 India will have more than 270 million people in the 15-35 age segment, when economic productivity and contributions are the highest. If savings rates improve and with productive potential at its peak in 2020, we will have a great window of opportunity to make it as a developed and prosperous economy by 2050 - if we are able to educate and empower the masses.

Such a demographic constellation will never appear again. It’s just too bad our leaders are preoccupied with their individual constellations, and not the nation’s.

There are other trends, some disquieting, also visible now. Foremost among them is the sharp increase in the number of agricultural labourers. This is the classification reserved for “the poorest of the poor.” Their numbers rose to 144.3 million in 2011 posting a decadal growth of 34.2%, while the number of landowning cultivators decreased by 9 million.

This is a severe indictment of the policies pursued in the decade after so-called liberalisation. The entire spectrum of political power has held office during the last two decades. Naturally we will see no fingers pointed inward.

Muslims are generally poorer than Hindus. Poorer people have more children. And quite clearly there are other segmental factors impacting population growth. The literacy levels of both rural and urban Muslims are lower than Hindus, but not by much. Perhaps what is more significant is that more than twice as many uneducated Hindu women are employed than similarly disadvantaged Muslim women - 44% compared to 18%.

According to the NSSO there is a wide spectrum of household incomes for the communities. At the two ends are Muslims and Sikhs. The average monthly per capita expenditure of a Sikh household in 2010 was Rs.1,659 while that of a Muslim household was Rs.980. The average expenditures for Hindus and Christians were Rs.1,125 and Rs.1,543 respectively.

There is no significant difference between the average rural Muslim and Hindu by household monthly per capita expenditures, which were Rs.833 and Rs.888 respectively.

There is one area where Muslims fare much better. More than half the Indian population, over 600 million people, defecate in the open, without the use of a latrine or toilet. The prevalence of open defecation is particularly high among Hindus. Data from the most recent round of the National Health and Family Survey show that as of 2005, 67% of Hindu households were defecating in the open - in fields, near streets, or behind bushes - while only 42% of the relatively poor Muslim households were doing so.

This is not without consequences for population growth. In India, Muslim children are substantially more likely than Hindu children to survive until their fifth birthday, despite Muslim parents being poorer and less educated on average than Hindu parents. This phenomenon, which has been well documented, reveals that by age five, mortality among Muslims is about 18% lower than among Hindus, with an additional 1.7 children per 100 surviving till the age of five.

Clearly, if Hindu infant mortality is reduced, their population growth rate will come to approach the Muslim rate.

So, fittingly enough, it seems that how Hindu population growth shapes up depends much on how many of them take to the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat campaign to build more toilets and encourage their use. The RSS has its work cut out.