Population projections by the United Nations indicate that India, with 1.4 billion people, has recently surpassed China to become the world’s most populous country. Whereas China’s population has reached its peak size and experienced a decline during 2022, India’s population is virtually certain to continue growing for several decades.
The divergent demographic futures of the world’s two ‘population billionaires’ are the result of different fertility trends since the 1970s. In 1971, China and India had nearly identical levels of total fertility, with just under six births per woman over a lifetime. Fertility in China fell sharply to fewer than three births per woman by the end of the 1970s. By contrast, the fertility decline in India has been more gradual: it took three and a half decades for India to experience the same fertility reduction that occurred in China over just seven years in the 1970s.
In 2022, at 1.2 births per woman, China had one of the world’s lowest fertility rates; India’s fertility rate, at 2.0 births per woman, was just below the ‘replacement’ threshold of 2.1—the level required for population stabilisation in the long run in the absence of migration.
India’s slower pace of fertility decline is related, in part, to regional differences in implementing its national family welfare programme and other policies intended to reduce fertility and slow population growth. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, for example, where state governments emphasised socio-economic development and women’s empowerment, fertility declined earlier and more rapidly, falling below the replacement level two decades before the country as a whole. States that invested less in human development, especially for girls and women, experienced slower reductions in fertility, despite controversial mass sterilisation campaigns and other coercive measures in some locations. Lower human capital investment and slower economic growth in India during the 1970s and 1980s contributed to a more gradual fertility decline than in China and, consequently, to more rapid and persistent population growth. According to the latest United Nations projections, India’s population is expected to reach its peak size around 2064 and then to decline gradually.
India’s new status as the world’s most populous country spurs questions about the implications of its population size for its economy and the well-being of its people. On the one hand, population growth can slow progress, since increasing numbers pose challenges to efforts to meet people’s needs, including for their nutrition, health care, water and sanitation, housing, education and prospects for decent work. On the other hand, India’s changing demographic profile, shaped by several decades of falling fertility rates, offers a time-bound opportunity to accelerate economic growth by leveraging the potential of a growing labour force.
Whether India’s demographic trajectory proves a drag or a boost to progress depends critically on the country’s success in valuing and investing in its people. Sustained reductions in fertility have produced a shift in the age structure of the population, wherein the proportion of children is declining while the proportion of adults of working age is growing. Today, the number of adults aged 25-64 years in India exceeds the number of children and youth under age 25 by around 20 per cent. The number of adults of working age is projected to continue increasing both in number and as a proportion of the total population through mid-century, ensuring a continuing positive contribution of demographic change to per capita economic growth, known as a ‘demographic dividend.’ Moreover, labour migration from the youthful northern and eastern states could bolster the size of the workforce in the relatively older southern states, prolonging the demographic dividend in those regions.
However, the benefits of a favourable demographic situation are only one factor. The pace of economic growth in India will depend also on investments in the education and health of adolescents and youth and on policies to facilitate their productive employment and ensure equal opportunities for women and girls. At around 23 per cent, the labour force participation of Indian women is much lower than in many other countries at comparable levels of economic development. Increasing women’s employment offers a promising avenue to amplify the boost to economic growth provided by the demographic dividend.
A number of policy measures can enhance women’s labour force participation. Universal access to sexual and reproductive health care, including for family planning, is critical for ensuring that women and couples can decide how many children to have and when to have them, and that they have the information and means to do so. Family-friendly policies that provide support to parents and promote gender equality within households can ease some of the challenges of child-rearing, especially for working women. Establishing safe transportation and workplaces is essential to ensure that women who wish to join the labour force can participate fully and without fear of harassment, discrimination, or violence.
Time is of the essence in making the investments needed to reap the benefits of a demographic dividend. Declining fertility rates, together with improved longevity, mean that the share of older persons in the population is growing. Projections indicate that the share of total population that is between 25 and 64 years of age could peak in the 2040s, closing the window of opportunity created by the changing age distribution.
India’s ageing population demands not only increased investment in young people, but also attention to the health, education, skills and well-being of the growing number of older persons. Between 2023 and 2050, the number of persons aged 65 or over is expected to more than double in India, posing significant challenges to the capacity of health care and social insurance systems. Efforts are needed to develop equitable and sustainable systems to support an ageing population.
Today, India is home to more than 17 per cent of the world’s 8 billion people. For many decades, the size and growth of the Indian population have been a focus of global concerns about the rapid growth of the human population and its implications for sustainable development.
Meeting people’s needs in the world’s most populous country is critical for achieving the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In particular, the success of global efforts to ensure environmental sustainability will depend critically on developments in India. As the country continues to pursue sustained economic growth and prosperity for its people, it is essential that increasing per capita incomes does not undermine efforts to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production. To protect and preserve the planet for future generations, India—and the world—must transition away from the current over-dependence on fossil-fuel energy.
Accurate, timely and disaggregated data from population censuses and vital registration systems are essential for taking into account current and future demographic trends in national development planning. Due to challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s planned 2021 census was delayed and is now scheduled for 2024. The results of that critically important exercise will assist policy makers in identifying areas where programmes can be scaled up to reach growing numbers of people in need, as well as areas where the shifting demographic profile offers opportunities to accelerate progress towards sustainable development while ensuring that no one is left behind.
(Views expressed are personal)
(This appeared in the print as 'Fertile Ground')
Sara Hertog is the population affairs officer at the United Nations