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India’s population growth: Explosion or slowdown?

Is the government planning to bring in a law on population regulation? Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements cautioning India over what he called its ‘reckless population explosion’ may be a hint. Does India need such a law when it is staring at a slowdown?

“Population explosion has been occuring at an unrestrained pace. This population explosion is creating innumerable challenges for us and the coming generations,” Modi stated during his Independence Day speech last week, linking ‘family planning to patriotism.’

His comments on an alleged population explosion has raised questions why his views are contrary to the data published by the Economic Survey, which surprisingly hints at a population slowdown. The Economic Survey 2018-19 observed that the population growth has slowed down for the last few decades from an annual growth rate of 2.5 per woman during 1971-81 to an estimated 1.3 per woman as of 2011-16. Contrary to common view, major states have witnessed a deceleration in growth during this period. 

To be clear, India is going to be home to more people in the coming years. India is expected to supplant China as the world’s most populous nation by 2027. The next 32 years will witness an estimated 300 million more Indians. It was also welcome that the Prime Minister drew attention to family planning, at a time when the proportion of the population using modern forms of contraceptives is relatively low and sterilisation typically accounts for a disproportionate amount of family planning services offered in the country. However, when considering the Prime Minister’s warnings of a ‘population explosion’, it is worth noting that population growth itself will slow as data shows. 

This is potentially indicative of a phenomenon known as ‘population momentum’. The Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs defines this as being where “a youthful population with constant levels of mortality and a net migration of zero continues to grow even when fertility remains constant at the replacement level. In this situation, a relatively youthful age structure promotes a more rapid growth, because the births being produced by the relatively large number of women of reproductive age outnumber the deaths occurring in the total population, even if the fertility of the average woman stands at the replacement level.”

As such, the UN goes on to state, “an additional 1.5 billion persons would thus be added to the world’s population by 2050, even if fertility were to reach the replacement level instantly and if mortality were to remain constant at levels observed in 2010-2015.”

In India, total fertility rate – which indicates the average number of children expected to be born to a woman during her reproductive span of 15-49 years – stands at 2.2 per woman. The figure is just ten basis points above the replacement level of 2.1 per woman which represents the number of children needed to replace the parents, after accounting for factors such as fatalities, skewed sex ratio, and infant mortality. Population starts falling below this level.

The Hindi heartland states – including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana – showed impressive progress, whereas their southern counterparts – West Bengal, Punjab, Maharashtra, Odisha – along with Assam and Himachal Pradesh grew below one percent. The survey predicts a sharp slowdown in the next twenty years with multiple states transitioning into an ageing society by the 2030s. The working-age population is expected to grow by roughly 9.7 million per year during the 2021-31 period and drop by more than half to 4.2 million per year in 2031-41.

Currently half of India’s population is below twenty five years of age and more than sixty five percent below thirty five years. In the coming years our young population (0-19 years) is projected to drop from 41 percent in 2011 to 25 percent by 2041. On the other hand, the share of the elderly – those aged sixty years and above – population will continue to rise steadily, nearly doubling from 8.6 percent in 2011 to 16 percent by 2041.

Is the Prime Minister hinting at India’s population momentum that could be reduced with family planning by following China’s example of one child policy. That would, though, lead to very rapidly-ageing society which, as China is discovering, brings its own problems, in line with Economic Survey’s suggestions asking policymakers to prepare for an ageing population and invest in healthcare instead of population control. 


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