Is becoming the most populous country a boon or curse?

Crowded platform at New Delhi railway station.. (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

The UN predicts that India’s population will surpass China’s in mid-April

In mid-April, India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country.

The giants of Asia already have more than 1.4 billion people, and for more than 70 years they have been more than a third of the world’s population.

China’s population is likely to start shrinking next year. Last year, 10.6 million people were born, slightly more than the number of deaths, thanks to a rapid decline in the fertility rate. India’s fertility rate has also fallen significantly in recent decades – from 5.7 births per woman in 1950 to two births per woman today – but the decline has been slower.

So what does it mean for India to overtake China as the world’s most populous country?

China shrank its population faster than India

China’s population growth rate halved from 2% in 1973 to 1.1% in 1983.

According to demographers, this was achieved by violating many human rights – two separate campaigns promoting one child and later marriages, longer intervals between children and fewer of them – in what was a predominantly rural, uneducated and poor country.

Population control measures have some support in India

Population control measures have some support in India

India experienced rapid population growth – nearly 2% annually – for much of the second half of the last century. Over time, death rates fell, life expectancy rose, and incomes rose. More people – especially those living in cities – had access to clean drinking water and modern sewerage. “However, the birth rate remained high,” says Tim Dyson, a demographer at the London School of Economics.

India launched a family planning program in 1952 and only implemented a national population policy for the first time in 1976, at a time when China’s birth rate was declining.

But the forced sterilization of millions of poor people during the Emergency of 1975 in a passionate family planning program – when civil liberties were suspended – caused a social backlash against family planning. “Fertility decline would have been faster for India if the Emergency had not happened and if politicians had been more proactive. Also, all successive governments have been cautious about family planning,” says Professor Dyson.

East Asian countries such as Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand, which started population programs much later than India, achieved lower fertility rates, reduced infant and maternal mortality rates, increased incomes and improved human development than India. earlier

However, India is not experiencing a population explosion

India has added more than a billion people since Independence in 1947, and its population is expected to grow for another 40 years. But its population growth rate has been falling for decades, and the country has weathered dire predictions of a “demographic catastrophe”.

So the fact that India has more people than China is not “worryingly” significant, demographers say.

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India launched a family planning program in 1952

Rising incomes and improved access to health and education have helped Indian women have fewer children than before, effectively flattening the growth curve. Fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels – two births per woman – in 17 of the 22 states and federal territories. (The replacement level is the level at which new births are sufficient to maintain a stable population.)

The decline in birth rates has been faster in southern India than in the more populous north. “It’s a shame India couldn’t be more like south India,” says Professor Dyson. “All things being equal, rapid population growth has depressed the standard of living in the northern parts of India.”

However, surpassing China could be significant

For example, it could strengthen India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which has five permanent members, including China.

India is a founding member of the UN and has always insisted that its claim to a permanent seat is fair. “I think you have some reservations about things [by being the country with largest population]”says John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

The way India’s demographics are changing is also significant, according to KS James of the International Institute of Population Sciences in Mumbai.

India's population is expected to peak at 1.6 to 1.8 billion around 2060

India’s population is expected to peak at 1.6 to 1.8 billion around 2060

Despite the drawbacks, India deserves to manage a “healthy demographic transition” using family planning in a poor and undereducated democracy, says Mr James. “Most countries did this after achieving higher literacy and living standards.”

More good news. One in five people in the world under the age of 25 is from India and 47% of Indians are under the age of 25. Two-thirds of Indians were born after India liberalized its economy in the early 1990s. This group of young Indians has some unique characteristics, says economist Shruti Rajagopalan in a new article. “This generation of young Indians will be the largest consumer and source of employment in the knowledge and networked goods economy. Indians will be the largest pool of global talent,” he says.

But there are also challenges

India needs to create enough jobs for its young working-age population to achieve a demographic dividend. But only 40% of India’s working-age population is working or wants to work, according to the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE).

More women would need work, as they spend less time in working age giving birth and caring for children. Here the picture is grimmer: only 10% of working-age women participated in the labor force in October, according to the CMIE, compared to 69% in China.

Then there is migration. About 200 million Indians have migrated within the country – between states and districts – and their numbers will grow. Most of them are workers who leave the villages to find work in the cities. “Our cities will grow as migration increases because of the lack of jobs and low wages in the villages. Can they offer immigrants a reasonable standard of living? Otherwise we will end up with more slums and disease,” says S Irudaya Rajan, a migration expert. Kerala Center for Development Studies.

Elderly men walk over a bridge on a cold winter's day as residential houses are seen in the background in Baramulla, Jammu and Kashmir, India on November 25, 2022

More than 10% of Indians are over 60 years of age

Demographers say India also needs to stop child marriage, prevent early marriages and properly register births and deaths. Improper sex ratio at birth (meaning more boys than girls are born) remains a concern. Political rhetoric about “population control” appears to be aimed at Muslims, the country’s largest minority, when in fact, “pregnancy gaps between religious groups in India are generally much smaller than they used to be,” according to a Pew Research Center study. .

And then there is the aging of India

Demographers say India’s aging is getting little attention.

In 1947, the median age in India was 21 years. Barely 5% of people were over 60 years old. Today, the average age is over 28, and more than 10% of Indians are over 60. Southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu achieved replacement levels at least 20 years ago.

“As the working-age population shrinks, supporting the elderly population will become an increasing burden on government resources,” says Rukmini S, Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India.

“Family structures will have to be renewed and elderly people living alone will increasingly become a source of concern,” he says.

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