India may have already surpassed China as the world’s most populous nation in a milestone that adds urgency for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to create more jobs and ensure the country sustains its world-beating growth.

India’s population stood at 1.417 billion as of the end of 2022, according to estimates from the World Population Review. 

That’s a little over 5 million more than the 1.412 billion reported by China Tuesday when authorities there announced the first decline since the 1960s.

India, where half the population is under the age of 30, is set to be the world’s fastest-growing major economy in the coming years. To make the most of the demographic dividend, Modi needs to create jobs for the millions of people entering the workforce every year as the nation moves away from farm jobs.

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The United Nations had expected the milestone to be reached later this year. As of January 18, India’s population had already climbed to 1.423 billion, according to WPR.

Another estimate by research platform Macrotrends puts the latest number for India at 1.428 billion. The country didn’t publish its once-in-a-decade census data in 2021, after deferring population surveys due to pandemic disruptions.

The government’s move last year to restrict the tenure of soldiers in India’s armed forces to four years illustrated the strain on the administration to create jobs and pay for them. Modi, who is due to seek reelection by May 2024, has been pushing to improve the share of manufacturing in the economy to 25 per cent from the current 14 per cent.

India’s food production

Despite India’s rapid economic growth pre-Covid and its relatively strong recovery from the pandemic, about 800 million people still rely on free food rations from the government, the largest program of its kind in the world.

For now, Asia’s third-largest economy is self-sufficient in food production. It is the second-largest producer of rice, wheat and sugar. It is also the biggest consumer of sugar, while being the top importer of edible oils. As a market, India is the second-largest consumer of gold and steel and the third-biggest buyer of crude oil. It is also home to the world’s third-largest domestic aviation market.

Although India’s population growth has slowed, WPR expects the number to continue to rise until at least 2050. 

China’s contraction

China, on the other hand, is currently seeing a slight contraction, which Bloomberg Economist Eric Zhu described as a “growth-crushing headwind for a long time” in his January 18 note. China’s population shrank by 850,000 in 2022 compared to a year ago, according to data released by the National Statistics Bureau.

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The UN estimates that more than half of the projected increase in the global population between 2022 and 2050 to be concentrated in just eight countries: the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania.