India on top in population: the challenge, the opportunity

As everything else in India which is complex and not uniform, the demographic story too will not follow a linear path.

Published: 08th January 2023 08:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th January 2023 08:34 AM   |  A+A-

Population, education

Illustration by Sourav Roy

Express News Service

There’s a watershed moment coming soon for India. In a couple of months, possibly in April, India will surpass China as the most populous country in the World. The race is razor sharp. We are currently touching 1.39 billion, while China has nearly 1.41 billion. India is adding 86,000 babies every day as against China’s 49,400, so the tipping point is close at hand.

It is momentous for the world too which has just surpassed the 8-billion population mark. Figures released by the UN Population Department about 6 weeks ago indicate it took 12 years to get from 7 billion to 8 billion. The global growth rate is at its slowest since 1950, having fallen below 1% in 2020. Going forward, the population expansion is going to slow down till we reach a plateau of 10.4 billion people around 2080.

Growth rate slows

For those in India who have experienced doomsday predictions of the 1970s and 80s – headlines such as: ‘the Population timebomb is ticking’; or we are ‘facing a Population Explosion’ – there has been a dramatic change in the demography story. As we come close to a fertility rate of 2.1 children per family – which is close to zero growth – the old family planning campaigns like the ‘Hum do hamare do’ jingle, the desperate birth control measures and forcible ‘nasbandhi’ camps during the Emergency in 1976, all now seem part of a distant, dark and quixotic past.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres summed up the progress on last year’s World Population Day on November 15: “This is an occasion to…marvel at advancements in health that have extended lifespans and dramatically reduced maternal and child mortality rates.”

We have crossed the Rubicon in the sense that it is no more a galloping number of mouths feeding off a static or diminishing pie. Food productivity has grown while population expansion has slowed to a point where theoretically there is no shortage. This doesn’t mean there is no hunger or poverty. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, the divide between the rich and the developing world, and the failure to ensure equitable distribution will continue to haunt us.

In fact, population expansion too will continue as a challenge. India is one of the 8 countries that will account for more than half the projected increase in the global population by 2050. The other 7 are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania.

Commenting on the link between population growth and poverty, Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, says: “Rapid population growth makes eradicating poverty, combatting hunger and malnutrition, and increasing the coverage of health and education systems more difficult.

“Conversely, achieving sustainable development goals, especially those related to health, education and gender equality, will contribute to reducing fertility levels and slowing global population growth.”
Young India can shine

As with everything else in India is complex and not uniform, the demographic story too will not follow a linear path. What seems to be unfolding is a continuing population boom in the North, where health and cultural backwardness is still an issue. Meanwhile, in the South, where education is widespread, and women go to work, fertility levels are lower.

From an average of 6 children in the 1950s, an aggressive primary education and health programme has brought down the average fertility rate to something like 2.5 children. However, there is a skew.UP and Bihar alone will contribute one-third of the population expansion, and population stability of 2.1 children per family may be reached as late as 2039. On the other hand, Kerala with the highest reach of education has already hit zero growth in 1998. 

In these tectonic shifts, India’s population growth curve has ensured that it has the youngest population in the world. One-fourth of the country is under 15 while about 52% of the population is below 30 years. Says Andrea Wojnar of the UN Population Fund:

“With the largest number of young people anywhere in the world, there’s a huge opportunity — a huge potential — to tap into, to enjoy greater economic growth and development.” The significance of the new generation is: It is not only literate but has been schooled on the internet and has developed far-reaching aspirations.

It is hugely productive with better skills, and millions are migrating from rural out-backs to cities looking for jobs and better life. If their skills and aspirations are harnessed they can drive the economy to new heights.

On the other hand, industry and services are yet to plug into this mountain of energy. Unemployment among youth continues to be very high at about 23%, while among graduates only one in four is gainfully employed. Women as a class are still out of the system and only 25% are part of the workforce.

Poonam Muttreja of the Population Foundation of India told The Guardian it was “a fantastic window of opportunity”; but if the country didn’t tap into the youth population by investing in education and training, “our demographic dividend could turn into a demographic disaster.”


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