World Population Day 2020: India set to overtake China by 2027, but its population problem has a silver lining

India’s total fertility rate fell from 5.9 children per woman in 1950 to 2.2 children per woman in 2020. This is very close to the replacement level fertility of 2.1 children per woman

FP Staff July 11, 2020 18:33:52 IST
World Population Day 2020: India set to overtake China by 2027, but its population problem has a silver lining

The United Nations (UN) began observing World Population Day every year from 1989 to bring attention to the increasing global population and the associated factors. The date was chosen to commemorate 11 July, 1987, the day when the global population hit the 5 billion mark.

Thirty-three years later, the world is staring at a population explosion with the current 770 crore population expected to reach 970 crore in 2050 and 1,100 core by the year 2100. This growth has been linked to an increasing number of people reaching the reproductive age today, which is aided by some "major changes in fertility rates, increasing urbanisation and accelerating migration".

India with its population of 139 crore, along with China which has a population of 144 crore, are among the most populous nations in the world. If this was not alarming enough, according to the UN data, India is expected to overtake China as the most populous country by the year 2027. This is in stark contrast to China’s trajectory that predicts the country’s population to decrease by around 3.14 crore by the year 2050.

According to the national census of 2011, India recorded a population of 121 crore people. The data also showed that Uttar Pradesh was the most populous state with a population of 199,812,341 people. Maharashtra came second with 112,374,333 people followed by Bihar (104,099,452), West Bengal (91,276,115) and Andhra Pradesh (84,580,777).

When we compare these massive numbers with the geographical area under Indian borders, the figure becomes even more worrying.

India has just 2 percent of the world's land mass but is home to 16 percent of the global population, which means our natural and mineral resources are under acute stress as we struggle to meet the needs of our growing population. The increasing population, in theory, also causes stress on socioeconomic development (per capita income and poverty) employment rate, and on the fertility of the soil as the pressure remains on increasing the food grain production.

But do these unimaginable numbers put India at a disadvantage? Evidence suggests a mixed outcome, especially when the country is battling a global catastrophe like the coronavirus pandemic.

Firstly, the rate at which the population was growing has decreased substantially.

UN Projections (2019) suggest India’s total fertility rate fell from 5.9 children per woman in 1950 to 2.2 children per woman in 2020. This is very close to the replacement level fertility of 2.1 children per woman; replacement level fertility is the total fertility rate at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, without migration.

An article in The Wire suggests that considering how close as we are to the replacement level fertility rate, policy intervention to better equip our young population with access to better education and healthcare may be more helpful than state-backed initiatives to control births.

India also enjoys one of the youngest global population with average national age at around 29 years, while 41 percent of our population is under 18 years of age, according to the last census. This means that most Indians are yet to hit their peak wages and have a majority of their working years ahead of them. This population can contribute to nation-building and economy, if equipped with the right skills, training and jobs.

If the fertility rate of a nation drops below the replacement rate, it means its population is ageing faster than the young ones reaching the age where they can join the active workforce.

"Once fertility decline is underway, it’s hard to flip it back. Europe’s population is greying continuously, and their pro-population-growth measures – such as incentives to have children – are not working," The Wire article states.

Likewise, a young population was India's biggest shield in times of coronavirus in keeping the mortality rates low, according to some reports.

According to News18, one of the major reasons speculated for the low COVID-19 fatality rate in India, which lies well below 3 percent, is the country's large percentage of young population.

"There seems to be a high correlation between percentage of above-65 population and the mortality rate. Italy, Spain, France, UK, Sweden and Belgium – all have a very high percentage of their population in this category with alarmingly high fatality rates. In contrast, India has just 6 percent of its population above-65 with a relatively low overall mortality rate of just 2.71 percent," the article notes.

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