Brazil’s Population Growth Rate Fell Faster than India’s: Why?

A recent National Geographic article grabbed my attention: Brazil’s population growth rate fell sharply in the last three decades.

The article started with a list of names: Jose Alberto; Murilo; Geraldo; Angela; Paulo; Edwiges; Vicente; Rita; Lucia; Marcellino; Teresinha. These were the 11 children of the interviewee, the mother of Professor Jose Alberto Carvalho, one of Brazil’s most eminent demographers. But as for Professor Carvalho himself — well, he and his siblings had a total of 26 children, slightly over 2 each.

With different names, that could have been my story. My father was one of 8 children, two of whom didn’t make it into adulthood. But none of his siblings had more than 2 kids, and some had only one.

It could have been the story of most of my friends in urban India.

Of course, the countries aren’t precisely comparable. Brazil’s GDP at $1.6 trillion in 2009, is similar to India’s $1.4 trillion. (World Bank numbers.)  But Brazil’s population, estimated at 190.8 million in its 2010 census, is one-sixth of India’s.

And yet. It was pretty remarkable. I dug around for the numbers, and here they are:

Brazil is a Catholic country, and large families were the norm. As this graph shows, its population growth through the early 1980s exceeded India’s. And then something happened.


The article focused on three factors: female education; electricity; and TV, specifically “novelas” — lengthy and gripping serials about families.  In a nifty graphic, it related the decline in fertility to these three things.

  • In 1960, women averaged 2 years of schooling and 6.3 children. Only 19% of households had electricity; and very few had TV.
  • In 1980, women were up to 3.5 years of school, and down to 4.4 children. More than half of households, 54%, had electricity. Around a third, 36% had TV access.
  • In 2000, women got 8.5 years of education (more than the 7.3 years men averaged), and had only 2.4 children. Nearly all households — 95% — had power, and 90% had TV.

Again, how come?


One underlying factor — people moved into cities, fast.  In 1960, more than half Brazil’s population lived in the countryside. By 1980, only a third did. Now it’s nearly 90% urban.

In India, more than 2/3 of the population is still rural. It’s a lot harder to bring electricity, television, and education to hundreds of thousands of villages than to a few big cities. The graph below shows the percentage of people living in cities in the two countries.

I wondered if this could be replicated in India, and the answer is, probably not. The article touched on the military dictatorship that forced the pace of urban growth, pushing the population into the cities. It had its social costs in cramped housing and dangerous streets and women commuting long distances to work.


I remember when people used to half-joke that the best way to reduce India’s population would be to introduce TV to the villages, so people would be too busy watching to make babies. In Brazil, it’s nearly true.

But not, according the the National Geographic, in quite that way. It’s the role models provided by the novelas. These soap operas present glamorous women (because women like to watch stories about glamorous women, and men don’t exactly mind either), with small families.

Why small families? Well, presumably because it’s difficult to be glamorous when you’re caring for 6.3 children. But also for a much simpler reason: It’s easier to manage a storyline with a reasonable-sized cast of characters. Not to mention a lot easier to film.

The women viewing these programs took the point. Asked why they wanted smaller families than their mothers or grandmothers, they said: Too much work; too much expense.

What’s India watching?

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I'm an international Business Consultant; author of "India Business Checklists" published by John Wiley
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1 Response to Brazil’s Population Growth Rate Fell Faster than India’s: Why?

  1. Pingback: India’s Population, the Decennial Census, and me | Rupa Bose's Blog

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