What it means for India and the world that the country surpasses China and becomes the most populous country by 2023

What it means for India and the world that the country surpasses China and becomes the most populous country by 2023
What it means for India and the world that the country surpasses China and becomes the most populous country by 2023
Khushbu Kumari

The UN predicts that by mid-April next the South Asian giant will have 1.425 million inhabitants.

By mid-April, the forecast is for India to overtake China as the world's most populous country.

The Asian giants already have more than 1.4 billion people each, and for more than 70 years they have represented 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 drop in the birth rate.

India's birth rate has also fallen substantially in recent decades, from 5.7 births per woman in 1950 to 2 today, but the rate of decline has been slower.

So what does it mean when India overtakes China as the world's most populous country?

A faster reduction

China cut its population growth rate in half, from 2% in 1973 to 1.1% in 1983.

Demographers say much of this was achieved by trampling on human rights - two separate campaigns promoting one child and then later marriages, fewer children and longer gaps between them - in what was a predominantly rural and overwhelmingly poor country without education.

India experienced rapid population growth, nearly 2% per year, for much of the second half of the last century.

Over time, death rates fell, life expectancy increased, and incomes grew.

More people, especially those living in cities, have access to clean drinking water and modern sewage.

“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 established a national population policy for the first time in 1976, when China was busy reducing its birth rate.

But the forced sterilizations of millions of poor people in an overzealous family planning program during the 1975 emergency, when civil liberties were suspended, sparked a social backlash against family planning.

“The decline in birth rates would have been faster for India if the emergency had not happened and if politicians had been more proactive. It also meant that all subsequent governments acted cautiously when it came to family planning,” says Dyson.

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

No population explosion

India has added more than 1 billion people since independence in 1947, and its population is expected to grow for another 40 years.

But its population growth rate has been declining for decades and the country has defied dire predictions of a “demographic disaster.”

So that India has more people than China is no longer significant in a “concerning” way, demographers argue.

Rising income 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 federally administered territories (a replacement level is one 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 that in most of India what hasn't happened in the south,” says Dyson. “All else being equal, rapid population growth in parts of northern India has depressed living standards,” he adds.

Overtaking China could be significant

India coming to have a larger population than China could, for example, strengthen its claim 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 certain rights over things (as the country with the largest population),” says John Wilmoth, director of the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

The way India's demography is changing is also significant, according to KS James of the Mumbai-based International Institute of Population Sciences.

Despite the drawbacks, India deserves some credit for managing a “healthy demographic transition” through the use of family planning in a democracy that was poor and largely uneducated, James says.

“Most countries did this after they had reached higher levels of literacy and living,” he adds.

More good news: one in five people under the age of 25 in the world is from India and 47% of Indians are under the age of 25.

Two-thirds of Indians were born after their country liberalized its economy in the early 1990s.

This group of Indian youth has some unique characteristics, says economist Shruti Rajagopalan in a recent academic article.

“This generation of young Indians will be the largest source of consumption and labor in the knowledge and network goods economy. Indians will be the largest pool of global talent,” she asserts.

The challenges

India needs to create enough jobs for its young working-age population to reap a demographic dividend.

But only 40% of India's working-age population works or wants to work, according to the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE).

More women would need jobs, since they spend less time in their working age giving birth and caring for children.

The picture here is bleaker: Just 10% of working-age women were participating in the labor force in October, according to the CMIE, compared with 69% in China.

Then there is the migration. Some 200 million Indians have migrated within the country, between states and districts, and their number is set to grow. Most are workers who leave the towns for the cities to find work.

“Our cities will grow as migration increases due to lack of employment and low wages in the towns. Can they provide immigrants with a reasonable standard of living? Otherwise we will end up with more slums and disease,” says S. Irudaya Rajan, a migration expert at the Kerala International Institute for Migration and Development.

Demographers say India also needs to stop child marriages, prevent early marriages and properly register births and deaths.

Additionally, a skewed sex ratio at birth, meaning more boys are born than girls, remains a concern.

Political rhetoric about “population control” appears to be directed at Muslims, the country's largest minority when, in reality, “childbearing gaps between religious groups in India are generally much smaller than they used to be.”, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

The aging of India

Demographers say India's aging receives little attention.

In 1947, the average age in the country was 21 years and a scant 5% of the population was over 60 years of age.

Today, the average age is over 28 years and more than 10% of Indians are over 60 years of age.

Southern states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu reached replacement levels at least 20 years ago.

“As the working-age population declines, supporting an older population will become an increasing burden on government resources,” says Rukmini S., author of “Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data can and cannot tell us about modern India.

“Family structures will have to be rethought and older people living alone will become a growing source of concern,” he says.

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