The spectre of the population bomb, as narrated in Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, haunted and mobilised many policies and behaviours that shaped the world. But the world no longer buys that kind of neo-Malthusian theory that a large population could lead to a humanitarian and ecological disaster.

In contrast, the recent State of World Population (SOWP) report of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is titled “8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities,” and Andrea Wojnar, the Representative UNFPA India, has described “India’s 1.4 billion people as 1.4 billion opportunities.”

As India is set to overtake China as the world’s most populous country sometime in mid-2023, should we be worried? It can’t be explained in a clearly binary way — a boon or a bane, though. Instead, it’s a mixture of them — a combination of opportunities and responsibilities. To explore the impact of such a “paradigm shift,” one must first gain some insight into the underlying dynamics of the Indian population.

The average number of children a female would have over her lifetime, or total fertility rate (TFR), is a key indicator of population growth. A TFR value of 2.1 is widely perceived as the replacement rate; at this rate, each generation will precisely replace itself, and the population will essentially remain constant. India’s fertility rate has significantly decreased over the years, dropping from 5.7 in 1950 to 2.139 in the present.

However, because a sizeable section of the population is in reproductive age, it’s predicted that India’s population will increase gradually to 1.7 billion by 2064 before falling sharply after that. Such a prediction is obviously heavily model-dependent.

Young population

The median age of India’s population is 28.2 years. An average Indian is 10 years younger than the average Chinese, whose median age is 39 years, and also an average North American, whose median age is 38.4. India’s growth story may be becoming more and more entwined with its young population because more than two-thirds of its population is of working age. The young Indians might also serve as the largest consumer and labour source in the knowledge and network goods economy.

As one might expect that the “most populous” status might even strengthen India’s claim of getting a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, the challenges concerning such a huge population are also pertinent. India’s labour force participation rate, which measures the proportion of the country’s working-age population that is employed or actively seeking employment, is merely 40 per cent. The unemployment rate has hovered around 7-8 per cent recently, leading to a shrinking workforce.

The dependency ratio, i.e., the ratio of children plus the elderly (who are economically non-productive) to those who are productive, has declined drastically over the past decades. The current proportion of people 65 and older in India is 7 per cent, compared to 14 per cent in China.

Rising elderly population

The huge proportion of youths would grow older over time, and the structure of India’s Population Pyramid would change — its centre of gravity would shift upwards as the proportion of elderly people would significantly increase in 20 to 30 years.

Despite having fewer children, dependency ratio would rise, placing pressure on the economy.

India launched a family planning programme as early as 1952 and laid out a national population policy in 1976. In response to the Malthusian hysteria of the 1960s, China and India both had to rein in population growth. However, India’s democracy provided a tick: the fallout from nasbandi during the 1975 Emergency period quickly made people realise that any pressure on family planning would be “counter-productive.”

China’s one-child policy, put in place by Deng Xiaoping in 1981, undoubtedly assisted them in controlling population growth, but they are currently having trouble boosting it.

The gross population figure is insufficient, though. Understanding the nature of population increases across various socio-economic categories, religions, and geographic regions is necessary for effective planning. Different experts have noted that while the urban, affluent population is responsible for the increase in income, the majority of India’s population growth originates in rural, underdeveloped areas along the Ganges basin.

Large populations frequently show greater disparity. And according to Wojnar, “[e]nsuring gender equality, empowerment and advancing greater bodily autonomy for women and girls — is one of the key determinants of a sustainable future.”

North vs South

India’s demographic dividend, importantly, has two peaks since fertility rates have declined unevenly in the country’s northern and southern States. A number of northern States have TFRs that are significantly greater than those of a number of southern States. As a result, certain northern States are experiencing a substantially faster population increase than southern States. Over the following two decades, the North would continue to be strikingly young as the South rapidly grew older.

Paul Ehlrich’s visit to Delhi in 1966 forms the opening of his book: “People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrust their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people... [S]ince that night, I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.”

Well, Delhi’s 1966 population was fewer than 3 million, which was significantly smaller than that of Paris (8 million) or London (7.8 million). However, Paris in 1966 was portrayed as a picture of sophistication and elegance, and London’s defining characteristic was an absence of overall form. Clearly, lifestyle and life quality are crucial. Perception matters.

Again, and importantly, India’s gradual ascent to overtake China as the world’s most populous country didn’t occur overnight. The majority of population benefits are already being reaped, and many issues related to the growing population are already being addressed.

To handle other important issues, policymakers must examine the entire demographic picture pixel-by-pixel. But in any case, that’s a daunting task.

The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata