Counting millions of people is never an easy task, but India now has more people than China, according to the United Nations, a groundbreaking shift in global demographics that happened sometime in late April.
Most of the world grew up with China holding the title of the world’s most populous country, but decades of restrictive policies limiting families to one child have dramatically slowed China’s birth rate, helping India to move forward.
But a workforce that tops the charts isn’t necessarily a title most countries covet.
A few years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed concern over India’s “population explosion” and heaped praise on families who carefully considered the impact of more babies – on themselves and on the nation.
“In 21st century India, the ability to fulfill dreams starts with a person, with a family. If the population is not educated, not healthy, neither the house nor the country can be happy,” Modi said.
So how did India’s population get so big and how long will it last?
CNN analyzed the UN’s World Population Prospects data and spoke to experts to dig deeper into the details surrounding India’s demographic shift under the headlines.
How did India get so big?
Not surprisingly, fertility is key to understanding what drives the rise or fall of a country’s population. It is generally accepted that a country’s average fertility rate – children per woman – needs to be 2.1 to keep the population alive – and even more to grow.
In the 1960s, when today’s grandparents were having children, India’s fertility rate was 6, about the same rate as some African countries today.
But according to the government, India’s total fertility rate fell to 2.0 in the latest nationwide assessment period from 2019 to 2021, down from 3.4 from 1992 to 1993. The rise in population despite a drop in fertility rate can be explained by “demographic momentum.”
“If the fertility rate falls, the population will continue to grow for decades. And that’s because younger, large cohorts still reach that age when they become parents,” said Frank Swiaczny, a senior researcher at the Federal Institute for Population Research.
So even with a replacement or sub-replacement fertility rate, India’s population will continue to grow slowly due to the significant number of women entering their childbearing years.
Not surprisingly for a nation of its size, India’s fertility rate is uneven across the country, contributing to a north-south divide that causes more babies to be produced in the north. But even there, the numbers aren’t off the charts.
“What really surprised us is that the highest fertility rate in India — 3.0 in Bihar — isn’t even that high,” said Barbara Seligman, chief strategy and growth officer and senior vice president at PRB, a nonprofit focused on on demographic data and population studies.
“It’s really striking to see how many states are below replacement levels,” Seligman added. All but five states – Bihar, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Manipur – are at that level, and notably all are in the north.
A different pattern emerges in southern states.
Goa, for example, has a fertility rate comparable to certain countries in southern Europe, which are currently struggling to support an aging population with a shrinking workforce. It’s a trend that experts say India’s leaders would be wise not to ignore.
According to the UN classification, India is now an “aging society”, meaning 7% of the population is 65 years or older. In some states, for example in Kerala in South India, the population over 65 has doubled in the last 30 years and now stands at 12%.
The same pattern will extend to more states given low total fertility rates.
“We will see more and more states age the way Kerala is now over the course of the next 30 years,” Seligman said.
Population growth in India is slowing
India may have overtaken China in terms of total population, but UN data also shows that the rate of growth has slowed.
Between 1971 and 1981, India’s population grew at an average annual rate of 2.2%. Between 2001 and 2011 that had fallen to 1.5% and is even lower now. According to UN projections, India’s population is expected to peak at around 1.7 billion by 2064.
Currently, more than 40% of the country’s residents are under the age of 25, and the estimated median age in 2023 is 28 – nearly a decade younger than China’s – according to UN data.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), India’s working-age population will exceed 900 million by 2021 and is expected to reach 1 billion in the next decade.
Not only is this massive — and relatively low-paid — workforce young, it is largely English-speaking, digitally savvy and has a reputation for entrepreneurship, making the country a major draw for Western companies seeking an alternative manufacturing center to China.
But India’s contribution to the share of the world’s working-age population is expected to decline in the coming decades, making way for a younger population of workers coming from Africa.
India may have the lion’s share of the current workforce, experts say the country needs strong policies to capitalize on its youth.
“A large number of people is not enough, we have to come up with a holistic plan,” Sonalde Desai, director of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and professor at the University of Maryland, told CNN.
“We need people who have the skills to fill some of the high-quality jobs and an economy that produces these high-quality jobs.”
Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the Population Foundation of India, said tackling the gap is
“absolutely necessary for India to make progress in fulfilling its aspirations of being a developed country.”
What’s next for India?
While still one of the world’s poorest countries per capita, India is rising in global economic rankings – its nearly $3.5 trillion economy is now the fifth largest in the world and one of the fastest growing.
In 2023, the World Bank expects India to outperform all other major economies with growth of 6.6% – compared to 4.3% for China and just 0.5% for the United States, while some projections point to is expected to take the number 3 position within the next 10 years and become only the third country with a GDP of USD 10 trillion by 2035.
But despite its fortune, India’s wealth is not evenly distributed.
Poverty remains a daily reality for millions of Indians, and experts say that while the country has a large population of young people willing and ready to work, compared to other countries, the numbers show that there are not enough jobs for them.
The problem is worse in economically disadvantaged regions in the north, which rely heavily on agriculture. Uttar Pradesh, for example, is home to 17% of India’s population but has only 9% of industrial jobs.
Sabina Dewan, senior visiting fellow at the Center for Policy Research, says population growth can be a “tremendous productive force for the economy” but that economic growth “depends on providing quality, productive and well-paid jobs”.
And that starts with investing more in education beyond primary school, especially for women.
“We need to strengthen our high school system, make it safer and closer to where the girls are, because many parents don’t send their daughters to high schools, which are far away, due to safety concerns,” Muttreja said.
Once they leave school, women’s participation rate in the labor force — the estimate of the active labor force and those looking for work — will be just 19% by 2021, World Bank data shows. That is less than half of the overall employment rate of 46%, already one of the lowest in Asia. Comparative rates for China and the United States were 68% and 61%.
Not only does India need better policies to get women into work, they also need to make sure they can stay there, Desai said. That requires more options for temporary birth control to give women more control over having children, she said.
Education is the best birth control pill a woman can get, Muttreja added.
Dewan, from the Center for Policy Research, said that if India fails to strike the right balance, it risks squandering the significant advantage of being the world’s most populous country with the highest share of working-age human capital.
“The challenge of education, training and enough quality jobs is huge,” she said.
“If we don’t create enough good jobs, we’re wasting the enormous potential of our employees. And we could be looking at a youth population that has bigger aspirations than ever before, but few opportunities to generate income.
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