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Can India cope? What being the world's most-populous nation means

Not only does India have more people, it also has one of the youngest populations, UN data shows. More than half its population is under the age of 30, with a median age of 28

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Photo: Bloomberg

Bloomberg
By Bibhudatta Pradhan and Adrija Chatterjee 

(Bloomberg) -- India has overtaken China as the most populous country in the world, according to the United Nations. With roughly 2.4% of the world’s land mass, India is now home to nearly a fifth of humanity — over 1.4 billion people, or more than the entire population of the Americas or Africa or Europe. Of course such comparisons still ring true for China, which is also roughly three times India’s size. But India’s population is relatively young and growing, while China’s is aging and shrinking. Such demographic shifts pose major economic and social challenges for the Asian giants as they struggle to adapt.

1. How is India’s population counted?

India’s population surpassed 1.4286 billion, slightly higher than China’s 1.4257 billion people, according to mid-2023 estimates by the UN’s World Population dashboard. The last census was completed in 2011, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government deferred the once-a-decade exercise in 2021 citing pandemic disruptions. There’s been no indication when the vast, complicated effort to count the South Asian nation’s inhabitants will resume. So current data are based on estimates and projections. India added about 23 million babies in 2022, though its birth rate — the number of live births per 1,000 population — has slowed, to 19.7 in 2019 from 24.1 in 2004. The country’s population  continues to grow, albeit at a slower pace. Last year, China registered only about 9.56 million newborns, the lowest since at least 1950. Because more deaths were recorded, the population figure there dropped for the first time since the 1960s. India is predicted to continue on an upward trend until its population peaks in the early to mid 2060s, while the forecast for China is a steady headcount decline.

2. What are the pros and cons of a burgeoning population for India?

Not only does India have more people, it also has one of the youngest populations, UN data shows. More than half its population is under the age of 30, with a median age of 28. That compares with about 38 in both the US and in China. This youth advantage could play a critical role in unlocking economic growth. With over two-third of its people of working age — between 15 to 64 years old — India could both produce and consume more goods and services, drive innovation and keep pace with the constant technological changes. That’s if it’s able to deliver the vast number of jobs it needs as it transitions to an industrialized economy and people move off the farm. Modi, who is expected to seek a third term next year, has been pushing to improve the share of manufacturing in the economy to 25% from the 14% it’s currently stuck at.

4. Can India cope?

India faces many challenges: it needs to effectively address core problems of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, provide better health and education, build infrastructure and make villages and towns livable.  
 
* Climate change is making it harder to deliver food security — and electricity — across the still largely agrarian nation. 
Prolonged heat waves in recent years have caused widespread suffering and strained power supplies. 

* The country also is facing acute water problems, including shortages and pollution. About 40% of rural households don’t have running water indoors.

* Federal and state government spending on health care is around 2% of GDP, among the lowest in the world. More than one-third of children below five years are stunted, half of women in the age group of 15-49 years are anemic.

* The country ranked last out of 180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index 2022 released by Yale University.

* Close to a third of the nation’s youth are not in any employment, education or training. Only 5% of the country’s workforce is recognized as formally skilled, and country’s schools and universities have poor infrastructure and lack qualified teachers.


5. What about population control?

In the 1970s India’s government began to seriously promote smaller families. A Hindi slogan —  ‘hum do, humare do’ —loosely translating to ‘the two of us and our two children’ —first coined in the 1950s — became ubiquitous in ads on state-run TV and radio stations and across newspapers and magazines. Female sterilization, male vasectomies and contraception were all made cheaply or freely available through government-run hospitals and clinics. In recent years that program has petered out, but it may have had an effect. Fertility rates had already begun to trend lower in the 1960s, World Bank data shows, and has now dropped to 2, just below the replacement level of fertility of 2.1 children per woman, according to government data. The UN projected India will have a population of 1.668 billion by 2050.China has gone back and forth over the years as it shifted from trying to limit births to encouraging more, fearing the economic repercussions of a shrinking workforce. The UN earlier predicted China will have 1.317 billion people by 2050.

6. What does being No. 1 mean for India politically?

Aside from bragging rights, the country’s new status as not only the world’s biggest democracy, but the most populous, could
bolster its claim for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. (Only five countries have the status now — the US, UK,
France, Russia and China.) India is already using its growing market power to position itself as a significant geopolitical
player — building close relations with the US, Japan and Australia in the Quad grouping — but also charting a contrary
foreign policy. It has held back against joining global sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and
continued to snap up cheap Russian crude. 
The Reference Shelf

* China is not alone: QuickTakes on lower fertility rates worldwide and how Japan is handling its shrinking population.
 
* A Big Take on India’s worthless college degrees.
 
* Browse the UN’s World Population Dashboard.
 
* A National Public Radio report on India’s growing population.


--With assistance from Vrishti Beniwal.

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First Published: Apr 19 2023 | 5:40 PM IST

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