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Very soon, in 2023, India will have the most people on the planet, says a UN report. And India’s population will keep growing for another four decades, says the World Population Prospects 2022, before it starts ebbing. It holds out the hope of a “demographic dividend"—of India emerging as the world’s industrial hub as China tries to reduce its dependence on foreign markets and become a domestic-consumption-led economy. But for that to happen, India needs to skill its young population rapidly to keep its tryst with the demographic dividend. The UN report, however, contradicts the recent National Health Family Survey (NHFS -5) which suggests India’s population is stabilising. The upcoming census in 2024 will have the final say.

What does the UN report say?

On July 1, 2023, India will become the most populous country in the world. India will have 1.428 billion people on that day, fractionally ahead of China’s 1.426 billion people. India will elbow out China even earlier than previously thought (in 2027). Even though the pace of growth will slow down, India’s population would continue rising till 2064 when it would peak at 1.697 billion before it will start declining and drop to 1.53 billion in 2100. China’s population will almost halve in this period, sliding to about 0.77 billion in 2100. That explains why China has adopted a three-child policy.

India’s population will jump 25%, between 2011 and 2026, from 1.21 billion in 2011 to 1.52 billion. India’s share of the global population has remained the same since 2011, at about 17%, and is expected to stay there, dipping fractionally to about 15% in 2100. In contrast, India’s share of global GDP is just about 7%, though growing at a steady clip, demonstrating economic growth and income disparities in the world.

China’s population will almost halve in this period. That explains why China has adopted a three-child policy.
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China’s population will almost halve in this period. That explains why China has adopted a three-child policy.

Meanwhile, the pace of growth in global population has dipped. It will cross the 8-billion mark on November 15, 2022 and will cross 9 billion in 2038. This will be the longest the world has taken to add a billion people to its tally since 1950. Almost half of the global population growth will be accounted for by poor sub-Saharan Africa along with India, Pakistan and Philippines in Asia. It will pose a challenge in ensuring equitable growth in the years ahead. Interestingly, Pakistan’s population is on a tear and will double to 400 million in 2050, making it the fifth most-populated country in the world, though only 33rd by land size.

Is the population explosion a liability for India?

Clearly, a mammoth population makes equitable growth a challenging proposition. “Rapid population growth makes eradicating poverty, combating hunger and malnutrition, and increasing the coverage of health and education systems, more difficult," said Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, in a statement. India, for all its economic progress, after 1991, still lags on social indicators.

A high percentage of working-class population in India, as the UN report suggests, puts India on the cusp of a demographic dividend, with the young expected to catalyse an economic boom. The potential is enormous. India will add another 183 million people to its working age-group of 15-64 years between 2020 and 2050, according to the UN Population Statistics database. That’s a staggering 22% of the incremental global workforce. In fact, India’s working-age population will continue growing till 2050, offering India an opportunity to emerge as a global manufacturing hub and a giant consumer market for the world at large. But India needs to overhaul its basic and higher education providing relevant skills to its workforce. A CII report revealed in 2019-20 that only 73 million of India’s 542 million workforce received any form of vocational training (formal or informal). The Modi government has now taken a raft of measures to overhaul the educational framework and skill India's youth through initiatives such as the New Education Policy, Skill India and Digital India.

For a demographic dividend, India needs to lay greater emphasis on social development. In 2021, India’s rank on UN Human Development Index was 131. India’s literacy levels at 77%—while a dramatic improvement since levels of 12% at the time of Independence, India lags the global average of 85%. Extreme poverty has halved over the past decade or so to about 10%, but on the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, India ranks a lowly 66 among 109 countries. And unemployment remains a problem, particularly in rural India. The rural economy still has massive hidden unemployment in agriculture, accentuated by fragmenting land holdings. All this factors create yawning income inequalities in India, with the top 10% of India’s population owning about 65% of the country’s wealth

The lesson from China

China became “the world’s factory" with its focus on labour-intensive industries such as automobiles, IT hardware and toys. Cheap labour, a technically skilled workforce, and thrust on infrastructure powered China’s economy, which grew in double digits for almost three decades, lifting millions out of poverty. India too has ambitions to become a manufacturing powerhouse with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis on 'Make in India'—already efforts are on to skill the youth and transform basic infrastructure, from ports to roads to power.

Meanwhile, China has quietly moved to the next stage of its evolution, point out experts. For long an export-driven market, it is reducing its dependence on the world, and quietly shifting gears to become a domestic-consumption-led economy, more so as the world attempts a transition to “near-shoring" in a post-pandemic world to ensure smooth supplies. In fact, even before the pandemic, between 2010 and 2019, exports as a share of China’s GDP dropped from 27% to 18.5% while domestic consumption rose from 35% to 39%. Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat may be a step in that direction.

Which is correct? The UN survey or the NHFS-5?

Does the UN survey, revealing that India’s population would continue growing for decades, contradict the findings of the fifth round of the National Health Family Survey (NHFS -5), as some suggest? According to NHFS-5, India’s total fertility rate (TFR) had declined from 2.2 in 2015-16 to 2.0 in 2019-21. TFR is the average number of children born to a woman–a TFR of 2.1 is widely accepted globally as the level at which population starts stabilising. India’s TFR indicates its population would soon stop growing, settling at a replacement level–or even dropping below it–soon. But, as experts point out, NHFS surveys may not give an accurate picture because their sample sizes are quite small for a country of India’s population. Consider, for example, how NHFS-5 seemed to suggest that women now outnumber men in India but many experts see the finding as inaccurate. The census is the final word on India’s demographics because it covers every single Indian. The next round of census is expected in 2024 as it was put off from 2021 due to the pandemic.

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