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Demographic Shifts

What India becoming the world’s most populous country means

Dr. Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba  |  Photos by Reuters

Continued population growth in India and depopulation in China mean that India has assumed the title as the world’s most populous country. From population size alone, not much can be inferred about India’s future, but a deeper dive into its demographic dynamics shows that the country’s leaders need to move quickly to make the most of their favorable age structure and maximize the country’s opportunity for accelerated economic growth.

Today, India’s population of 1.429 billion is nearly four times larger than the 361 million counted in the 1951 census, just a few years after the Partition of India and Pakistan. 

That’s the India most people know, the “population bomb” that biologist Paul Ehrlich described after visiting the country in the mid-1960s. Despite its overall growth, India’s population dynamics today are little like those Ehrlich described. The average number of children per woman was nearly six in the 1960s, but today the average is only two, which is considered below replacement level. United Nations demographers put India’s replacement level — the average number of children a woman gives birth to for a population to sustain its size from one generation to the next — at 2.19. The average masks some internal differences, but only five Indian states have a fertility rate above 2, and the highest, Bihar, is just under 3. 

India’s rapid fertility decline is emblematic of a global trend. As of 2022, 71% of countries had fertility rates below three children per woman; in 2000, only 56% did.

People crowd Central Vista Avenue near Kartavya Path in New Delhi in April 2023. That’s the month India’s population surpassed China’s, according to the United Nations.

India’s Age Composition Is Shifting

Decades of below-replacement fertility will set any country on the path toward shrinking, barring a large volume of immigration. China’s population has already begun to shrink, but even with low fertility, India’s population grows by 1 million each month, and it will be after midcentury before the numbers begin to decline. That is because much of India’s growth is driven by “population momentum,” which is the tendency of a population to keep growing even if fertility falls because the size of childbearing cohorts is relatively larger than when fertility was higher (more potential mothers). In fact, India’s population is so large that it will drive much of the expected increase in global population between now and midcentury. When the world hits 9 billion people sometime about 2037, 1.6 billion will be Indian.

But the age structure of India’s population is drastically changing. India’s median age in 25 years will be about 33 years, up from 28 years today and 21 years in 1998. That increase of 12 years over a 50-year timespan is just a shade behind increases in the global median age. Most of the people who will give birth between now and 2048 are already born, and there is a good sense of their reproductive tendencies. Indian women say they want about two children on average, so fertility will likely continue to trend downward. Given the size of those childbearing cohorts, plus modest life expectancy increases, India’s population will add 230 million over the next 25 years. This is significant, but India has added 430 million over the past 25 years. India will stay relatively young for a while, but the number of young people aging into India’s workforce peaked a few years ago.

A mother holds her baby, left, and women wait for checkups at a maternity hospital in Mumbai, India.

India’s Demographic Dividend Is Not Guaranteed

With its demographic profile, India has the conditions to reap a demographic dividend — a boost in economic growth from higher proportions of working-age people — if the right government policies are in place, such as investments in human capital. As in China, India’s leaders saw slower population growth as a prerequisite for economic development. Unlike China, however, India has not made the same investments in human capital to achieve those goals. Literacy, particularly for women, trails global averages and the country must also step up investments in health, as shown by its high infant mortality rate.

And India needs to hurry. Western nations saw fertility decline because of economic development; India’s decline came from family planning. That means the pace of demographic change has been faster, and the window of opportunity for India to reap its demographic dividend is shorter. It will have taken 75 years for the 60-plus population to grow from 15% to 30% in Western Europe. The same shift will take India only 34 years.

India is still relatively rural, although its cities are steadily growing. Delhi has been one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, but on the whole, urbanization has lagged compared to what is expected given India’s global prominence. The U.N. places India’s urbanization at only 33% — China’s urbanization, in contrast, is 65%. Urbanization has historically been a key indicator of economic potential because it concentrates services, ideas and jobs, so India’s low urbanization places a ceiling on its economic growth. One recent study projected five key Indian cities will grow an average of 1.5 to 2 times in the next decade. India’s National Commission on Population expects the nation’s urban population, which is 31.8%, to increase to over 38% by the middle of the next decade, but that is still quite low. So, India has high urban growth potential but is far behind the curve.

There Are Really Two Indias

Due to differences in fertility and emigration rates between the north and south, India is both a young country and an aging one, a microcosm of the global demographic divide. India’s northern states struggle more with poor health and illiteracy, while in the south, Kerala is already finding it difficult to staff assisted living homes for the elderly. It is tough to set policy priorities when the country must address two very different population issues simultaneously.

There is also the India for men and the India for women. According to the World Bank, just 23% of Indian women perform paid work, compared with 37% in Bangladesh and 63% in China. In India, much of this work is in the informal economy, which puts women at greater risk for financial insecurity in old age. Indian women enroll in higher education at higher rates than Indian men, but India’s economy remains male-dominated. For India to maximize economic growth, the country needs better alignment between skills and jobs.

Population Dynamics Will Be Central For India’s Future

India’s population dynamics lay the groundwork for its future, but there is no guarantee that slower population growth and a higher median age will translate to strong economic growth. Likewise, there is no guarantee that slower population growth will lead to a cleaner, more sustainable environment. If all goes as planned, India’s
1.4 billion and counting people will see rising living standards over the coming decades. That means affordable and realistic options for consumption are imperative, and India can model a greener path for other dynamic economies that will be following on this demographic path. Environmental goals can support economic goals, too, if they include investments in green labor markets and industries.  

The Center for Strategic and International Studies originally published this article April 28, 2023. It has been edited to fit FORUM’s format. To read the original article, visit www.csis.org/analysis/what-india-becoming-worlds-most-populous-country-means

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