Essay on the History of Mortality Rate in India


The history of population growth in India before 1921 is the history of a great fight against death. Up to 1921, population growth in this subcontinent was very often marked by the heavy toll taken by famines and epidemics.

Millions of lives were lost during these massive calamities. Despite the fact that death rates are of central importance in the study of population growth in India, it is unfortunate that the actual death rates during those early periods, when these rates were very high and fluctuating, are not available, for the death registration system was highly inadequate.

Demographers have, however, attempted to estimate the death rates and the infant mortality rates and have constructed Life Tables for India on the basis of census statistics and other available material.


The trends in mortality in India may therefore be studied with the help of these three measures. The two most striking facts about this Table are: (1) the higher level of the Indian rate prior to 1921 (that is, between 40 and 50 per thousand populations) and (2) the decline in the death rates after 1921.

It may be noted, however, that the average annual death rates tend to give a false impression as the decline in the death rates fluctuated a great deal.

During the decade 1911-1921, the disastrous influenza epidemic swept over India in 1918 and, according to the estimates of Kingsley Davis, this epidemic wiped out more than 15 million people.

That is the reason for the highest average annual death rate (48.6 per thousand populations) for that decade. It is also evident from Table 7.10 that India had made an impressive progress in her fight against death.


From 1911-1921 to 1971-1981, that is in 60 years, the average annual Indian death rate has declined from 48.6 per thousand populations to 14.9, a reduction of more than 69 per cent.

It may be observed from, which presents the estimated crude death rates from 1970 onwards, that there have been wide fluctuations in the crude death rates of India up to 1975, and that over a period of five years, a decline of only one point was achieved. In 1988, the death rate for India was 11, a decline of 3.2 points from 1978.

Two decades of the present century was very low because of poor mortality conditions. During 1911-1921, it was 19.4 years for males, 20.9 years for females and 20.1 years when both sexes were considered together.

These figures may be considered to be the lowest for the country, and one of the lowest anywhere in the world, (it may be recalled that in European countries even during the pre-Greek period in 3500 B.C., the average life span was 31 years.)


The mortality conditions in India have, however, improved over the years, and the average life expectancy has increased in each successive decade.

The main reason for the low life expectancy in India has been high infant mortality rates. During 1901-1911, these rates per thousand for males and females were 290.0 and 284.6 respectively.

In other words, one-fourth of the babies died before they completed their first year of life. Over the years, infant mortality rates in India have also declined, though they are still quite high. In 1982, this rate was 104.8 per thousand live births.

In the past, the fight against death in India was undertake in three important fields, namely, the elimination of wars and banditry, the control of famines and of epidemics.


The gains of these three points were “slow, hard and lengthy.” The fight however, is not yet over, though substantial reductions in mortality have been achieved.

Although the death rate in India has been considerably reduce it still remains very high as compared to that of other developing countries of Asia.

During 1980-85, the crude death rates per thousand populations for some Asian countries were as follows: Sri Lanka: 6.6; the Philippines: 8.4; West Malaysia: 6.5; and Singapore- 5.4. This rate for India in the same period was 12.3 per thousand populations.

The average expectation of life at birth for both and females is still very low in India, as compared to that in otherdeveloping Asian countries.


For instance, the average life span formales and females in Sri Lanka during 1980-85 was 67.0 years at 70.0 years respectively. Infant mortality rates in India, as has beenpointed out earlier, are much higher than those in many developing countries of the world.

It may be concluded from this discussion that though the present mortality conditions in India are much better than they were in the past, they are far from satisfactory, and there is much scope for improvements.

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