India to Be Most Populous Country – But That's Not a 'Doomsday Scenario'

Just having the population does not mean that the 'golden period' will be achieved. What should be done?

5 min read

(This article was first published on 11 July 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives as India overtook China as the most populated country.)

The 2019 edition of United Nations' World Population Prospects (WPP) predicted that India was projected to surpass China as the world's most populous country by 2027. But the 2022 edition, released on Monday, 11 July, has projected India to cross the milestone four years earlier – becoming the world's most populous country by 2023.

For now, China remains the most populated country in the world with 1,426 million people – and India only slightly behind with 1,412 million. But this scenario is far from the 'doomsday-like' scenario it is being portrayed as, experts tell The Quint.

"I would strongly suggest that India overtaking China should not be projected as a doomsday scenario. We need to do what China did back in the day. They invested in their young population. It has turned their demographic into their advantage – and that is the approach we need to take," Sanghamitra Singh, Lead, Policy and Programmes, Population Foundation of India (PFI), told The Quint.

India's Population Expanding in Absolute Terms

To put things into perspective – the world population will touch 8 billion by the end of this year, 9.7 billion by 2050, and 10.4 billion 2100, the UN report stated. But this is also happening at a time when the pace of population growth is slowing significantly – as a result of falling fertility rates in various parts of the globe.

In India, for example, the National Family Health Survey 5 released in 2021 found that India attained a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 2.0 for the first time. This is less than the replacement level of 2.1.

Replacement level of fertility is the level at which a population replaces itself from one generation to the other.

"Imagine, India is a country of 10 couples. And eight of them decide to have two children. Then, India will have 16 children. Whereas, Bangladesh is a country of only four couples. Out of which three of them have two children each. Despite falling fertility rate, India's population is bound to increase in absolute terms in the coming years," Singh said.

But this does not mean India starts thinking along the lines of 'Population Control Bills' – ones that aim to enforce a two-child policy, and penalise those who violate the rule. Instead we should focus on demographic dividend and health infrastructure.


Demographic Dividend: Time For Growth is Now?

A demographic dividend occurs when the ratio of the working-age population is higher, while the dependency ratio in terms of the proportion of children and elderly people is low. When the demographic dividend of the country is higher, it means that more people are there to engage in economic productivity.

"India entered the demographic dividend opportunity window in 2005-06 and will remain there till 2055-56. This is the period when the working age ratio is equal to or more than 150 percent and the dependency ratio is equal to or lower than 66.7 percent, generally taken as the cut-off for the demographic dividend window. The highest working age ratio will be between 2021 and 2041, with the peak in the working-age ratio occurring in 2031," Devender Singh, a former UN Staffer and a visiting Senior Fellow with the Impact and Policy Research Institute, wrote on The Wire.

But just having the population does not mean that the 'golden period' will be achieved. This needs focused investment in education, skill building, and also creating the right opportunities for the population.

According to a Confederation of Indian Industry report on ‘Harnessing India’s Demographic Dividend for Boosting Growth’, published in April 2022, only 3 percent of the workforce in India have received formal vocational training.

"One way this could already be done is by harnessing India's digital footprint to ensure that India's youth are gainfully employed. Policies and programmes that connect, say, a farmer with technology, mindfully investing in technology for small and medium businesses are some aspects that the government can focus on," Neera Nundy, Managing Partner, Dasra, an NGO that works to help India achieve sustainable development goals, told The Quint.


Focus on Women in Workforce

Ignoring women in workforce, and the lack of policies to encourage them, or to build their skill – will also lead to ineffective utilisation of the demographic dividend.

"There have been several estimates on how India has the lowest women in workforce. It has more to do with gender inequalities in the country, the social and patriarchal norms in our society. But again, now is the time to fix that as well," Singh said.

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of women in India's workforce had already dropped to 19 percent from 26 percent, according to data compiled by the World Bank. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown announced by the Narendra Modi government in March 2020 accelerated the rate of decrease steeply with more than 100 million jobs lost during this period.

“Employers should be brought into the conversation. Because there is a whole range of jobs that women can do. So if, for example, they are not able to do a set of jobs right now because there is no bus, literally to take them to the place of work, maybe buses can be arranged. You have to go down to the local level to see what the local constraints are. But also we should rethink this whole notion that women should only be trained as tailors or beauticians. Why can't women be electricians?”
Ashwini Deshpande had told The Quint in 2021

Policies to Focus on Ageing Population

However, it is not to be forgotten that while India may be a 'young' country right now, the case may not be so in the next 20-30 decades – especially in certain states where the fertility rates have already fallen drastically.

According to ‘Youth in India 2022’ report released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Himachal Pradesh are projected to see a higher elderly population than the youth by 2036.

"Having a large elderly population, at some point in a country's journey, is a natural phenomenon for any country. India is a young country today with an average Indian being 28 years. But this will change in the next 20 to 30 years. But after that, we will enter the next stage of demographic transition – where our majority of the population will be elderly. So, it's not something that we can really avoid. But that means we also have that much time to device human-centric approach to population."
Sanghamitra Singh, Lead, Policy and Programmes, Population Foundation of India

Nundy asserted that India should start devising strong policies and infrastructure for palliative care and community health facilities. She added that while COVID-19 pandemic led to the strengthening of frontline like the ASHA who were most effective in stopping spread of infections, India may have to think along similar lines for caregivers for an ageing population.

"See, as a result of a growing population and the proportion of terminal illness and diseases, there has to be a way to approach it, and the first step is to start thinking in terms of policy. How are our hospitals going to handle it? What is our health infrastructure like after COVID? How we must start thinking about strengthening our community health systems? The needs of an ageing population may be different than the one India is used to," Nundy told The Quint.

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