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India’s Population Prospects

Demographic constraints will continue to weigh down on growth and development.

The World Population Prospects (WPP) 2022 published by the United Nations has revived the debate on India’s population problems. This is because the revised estimates show that in 2023, India’s population of 1.428 billion will exceed China’s 1.425 billion, four years earlier than anticipated. At the global level, the WPP 2022 revised the global population numbers for 2022 to 7.9 billion.

Trends show that the global population growth will continue through most of the century and will turn negative only after it reaches 10.4 billion in 2086. However, some countries with large populations would see their populaces decline much earlier. This would include China (in 2024), Brazil (2047), Indonesia (2061), and India (2064). Other populous nations like Pakistan and Nigeria will see their population grow even in the next century, while the United States’s (US) population will largely stabilise from 2085.

A major consequence of India’s growing populace is the continued increase in population density. This is a major hurdle as it severely limits the per capita resource availability, especially land, water, minerals, energy and so on, and constrains growth. Today, India’s population density of 477 people per square kilometre is around eight times higher than the global population density. In contrast, the population density of China and Indonesia was around one-third that of India. And the population density in both the US and Brazil has less than a tenth than that of India. India’s growth will continue to be hampered by this high population density, which will remain six to 12 times larger than that of China and the US by the turn of the century. The only consolation is that the population density of Pakistan and Nigeria will exceed that of India by then.

Another reason for caution is that India’s advantage of a relatively young population will slowly get eroded over the coming decades. The median age of the Indian population has gone up from 20 years in 1950 to 21.6 years in 2000 and further to 27.9 years in 2022. It will increase to 38.1 years by 2050 and touch 47.5 years by the turn of the century. The average age of the Indian population will exceed that of the global population by 2037. Though India’s average age will remain significantly lower than that of China, it will almost come at par with that of the US by the end of the century. India’s ageing population would certainly reduce the competitive edge provided by a relatively younger workforce in the early decades of the century.

The WPP 2022 also contains a few other indicators of the long-term demographic trends that affect the quality of life of people, especially women. This would include the total fertility rate (TFR), infant mortality rate (IMR), the crude death rate (CDR), and the life expectancy of people. The TFR or live births per woman in India has always exceeded the global average right from the 1950s. Though India’s TFR fell from 5.7 to 3.3 during the second half of the last century, it was only in 2011 that it went below the global average. Today China, the US, Indonesia, and Brazil still have lower TFRs than India and Pakistan and Nigeria have higher TFRs. However, India’s TFR is expected to edge closer to that of China, the US, and Indonesia by 2050 and will remain so till the end of the century. The continued reduction in India’s TFR will hopefully help increase female work participation in income-earning activities, reduce inequalities, and boost growth.

As regards IMR or the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births, the Indian numbers were much higher than the global average with the gap even widening to around half during the 1960s and the 1970s. However, the Indian IMR has dipped sharply since then and even gone below the global average by 2019. Today, India’s IMR (26.3) is still around four to five times higher than that of China and the US, but is substantially lower than that of Pakistan and Nigeria. However, the gap between India’s IMR and that of the US and China is expected to narrow significantly by the turn of the century. This would imply a slow and steady enhancement in the nutritive and health status of women and improved availability of medical services and childcare.

Coming to the CDR or the deaths per 1,000 population, India’s numbers have fallen sharply by around two-thirds since independence and even dropped below the global rate of around eight by 2003. Though COVID-19 has increased India’s CDR marginally above the global average, it is now lower than that of the US but higher than China. By 2050, India’s CDR is expected to be lower than most of the other nations with large population. The fall in CDR has improved India’s life expectancy at birth, which had been around one-tenth lower than the global average till the early 1980s. However, the disparities have come down and India’s life expectancy is expected to exceed the global average in 2043. But it will continue to remain lower than that of China, the US, and Brazil by the end of the century.

To sum up, the slowdown and decline in population growth over the century will be a major gain for India. But the huge population density and the ageing population will weigh down development efforts. The continued reduction in IMR and TFR will hopefully encourage more women to join the workforce, reduce inequalities, and even stimulate growth. India’s low life-expectancy levels, however, call for urgent interventions to implement new social welfare initiatives.


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Updated On : 30th Jul, 2022
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