This piece originally appeared on Livemint.com
The population share of Muslims in India drops as they age, according to Census 2011. While Muslims account for about 17.3% of the population below four years of age, their share plummets to 12.3% in the 40-44 years age group and below 11% after 65 years. In contrast, Hindus and Christians don’t show such a decline with age. And this trend holds across the top six states by Muslim population.
Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the government body that conducts surveys on various aspects of the life of Indians, shows that, in 2011-12, compared to Hindus, a greater percentage of Muslims in urban areas spent less than Rs1,757 per month—the lowest expenditure band in the survey.
Lower spending, the likely result of lower incomes, means less access to nutritious meals and healthcare, and therefore shorter lifespans.
According to Census 2011, about 40% of Muslims live in urban areas, compared to 30% Hindus. However, any hypothesis that Muslims, on average, die at a younger age than other religious groupings, fails if we go by rural incomes: an equal percentage of Hindus and Muslims are at this lowest spending threshold of Rs1,075 per month.
The hypothesis also fails by a more direct measure: life expectancy. According to data from the International Institute for Population Sciences, in 2005-06, the overall life expectancy of Muslims was higher than the national average and that for Hindus. Even among the poor, defined here as those in the lowest wealth quintile, the life expectancy among Muslims was the same as the national average and higher than Hindus.
Could outbound migration be the reason? However, experts say, inbound migration among Muslims is more likely, which is one of the reasons for the overall growth of the Muslim population. Could it be that fertility rates are increasing? Again, broad trends show fertility rates coming down, though the rate of decrease is slower for Muslims.
A more plausible reason is how the Muslim share has grown over the decades. In 1950, Muslims made up about 10% of India’s population, according to a paper by Houssain Kettani titled Muslim Population in Asia: 1950-2020. Indian Muslims born around that time would be crossing 65 years now. And Census 2011 estimates the Muslim population above 65 years at around 11%.
Younger age groups for Muslims also show a similar correspondence to the overall Muslim share over the years. Overall Muslim share in the population, as per the same paper, has increased from about 10% in 1950 to 13.4% in 2010. Thus, it is more likely that this age-based decline in the Muslim share has less to do with death and more to do with birth: a construct of their overall population share increasing over the decades.