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How will India's growing population impact its progress?

Murali Krishnan
November 18, 2022

As the global population passes the milestone of 8 billion people, experts say it brings both opportunities and challenges for India, a nation that's projected to pass China as the world's most populous country.

People shop at a crowded market in the old quarters of Delhi, India
India witnessed a sharp increase in people migrating overseas — nearly 10 million between 2000 and 2020Image: Adnan Abidi/REUTERS

In another major milestone for humanity, the global population hit 8 billion this week. The latest billion people were added during the last 12 years. India contributed the most towards the most recent billion, to the tune of 177 million people, while China added 73 million people during the same period.

India is projected to surpass China as the world's most populous country in 2023, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). It put India's population at 1.41 billion in 2022, compared to China's 1.43 billion for the same year.

By 2050, India is projected to have a population of 1.67 billion, higher than the 1.32 billion people forecast for China by the middle of the century.

However, the UN report said that China's contribution to the next billion will be negative. More than half of the projected global population increase by 2050 is expected to be concentrated in eight countries, one of which is India.

It's not just about the numbers

Rapid population growth can exacerbate challenges related to hunger and poverty, according to Liu Zhenmin, the UN's Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs.

"Rapid population growth makes eradicating poverty, combating hunger and malnutrition, and increasing the coverage of health and education systems more difficult," Zhenmin said in a report.

Population experts and economists believe that focusing solely on numbers would distract from the real challenges faced by India. They say that in order for progress to be enjoyed equally and sustainably, the focus needs to shift onto reforming the government's education, economic and social policies.

"For countries with large populations like India, the challenge is to plan better for a happy and healthy future for all," Poonam Muttreja, executive director of Population Foundation of India, told DW.

"Going forward, India needs to put in place public measures to address the needs of the growing aging population. These would include attaining universal health care and improving social security systems."

Elder concerns

Last year, India's aging population stood at 138 million and a report prepared by the National Statistical Office projected that the number of people in this demographic would rise to 194 million in 2030 — a 41% increase over a decade.

The big concerns on the minds of India's older population include increased cases of elder abuse, abandonment, loneliness and financial concerns.

Research shows that currently, only 26.3% of elderly people are financially independent, 20.3% are partially dependent on others for financial assistance and 53.4% are dependent on their adult children.

India is a young country with about 55% of its population under the age of 30 and over a quarter below 15 years of age. However, experts say demographic dividend phases do not automatically translate into economic growth, and without effective policy making, they may increase the number of people who are unemployed.

According to a recent Confederation of Indian Industry report, if India's demographic dividend was productively employed, growth prospects would brighten, helping it to leapfrog its GDP from the current $3 trillion to $9 trillion by 2030 and $40 trillion by 2047.

An elderly porter waits for work at a market in Lucknow, India
Many older Indians are concerned about abuse, abandonment and loneliness Image: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP/picture alliance

Youth dividend

Unemployment would only be a problem if the pace of skills development does not increase proportionately, according to Professor Aparajita Chattopadhyay from the International Institute for Population Sciences, who pointed out that more people need to be absorbed in industry in the future.

"For now, unemployment of 7% is not something to worry about. Many developed countries have a rate of unemployment more than that of India," Chattopadhyay told DW.

"But the concern is about the reservation policy that has become a political game changer and the proportion of reservation is increasing," she added.

"While brain drain is increasing steadfastly and 3 in 4 Indians are going abroad and is among the highest in developing world. If it continues, India's future can be catastrophic."

Various studies have found that 23,000 Indian millionaires have left India since 2014 and that nearly 7,000 millionaires left in 2019 alone, costing the country billions in tax revenue. Since 2015, nearly 900,000 Indians have given up their citizenship.

India witnessed the sharpest increase in people migrating overseas, at nearly 10 million between 2000 and 2020, according to "International Migration 2020 Highlights," a report by the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. As of 2020, India's diaspora stood at about 18 million.

People perform Yoga in front of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai, India
India's population growth appears to be stabilizing Image: Rafiq Maqbool/AP/picture alliance

Growth slowdown

While the UN report noted that it took about 12 years for the world population to grow from 7 billion to 8 billion, the next billion is expected to take about 14.5 years (2037), reflecting a slowdown in global growth.

The UNFPA said India's population growth appears to be stabilizing which shows that the country's national population policies and health systems are working. India's fertility rate — more or less the average number of children born per woman — had declined from 2.2 to 2.0 at the national level. It estimated that the average must be 2.1 for the population to sustain itself.

"In the last couple of decades, many indices on the quality of life, such as average life expectancy and maternal mortality have improved," Akhila Sivadas, executive director of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, told DW.

Sivadas has worked with communities on the ground for three decades, and pointed out that often the poor and socially marginalized — who are considered victims of inequality and injustice — are also perceived as adding to the issues of a rising population, which is often one-sided.

"On a different trajectory, we are seeing across the country, many communities in very resource poor settings and in the face of crisis using community processes and collective assertion to develop alternatives," said Sivadas.

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Edited by: Keith Walker