1.4 billion and counting: How did India’s population ’explode’ and get so big?

  • According to UN projections, India’s population is expected peak at about 1.7 billion in 2064.

Edited By Sayantani Biswas
Updated30 Apr 2023
India's annual population growth has averaged 1.2% since 2011, compared with 1.7% in the 10 years previously, according to government data.
India’s annual population growth has averaged 1.2% since 2011, compared with 1.7% in the 10 years previously, according to government data.(AFP)

After decades of knowing that China bore the title of being the most populous country in the world, things are about to change. India, who had the title of second highest populations has taken over the top spot citing a ‘population explosion’. 

A couple of years ago Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pointed out India’s “population explosion”, expressing concern. He also lavished praise on families who carefully considered the impact of more babies — on themselves, and the nation.

However, data has shown that despite the population explosion, India's population growth pace has reduced, according to UN data.

Between 1971 and 1981, India’s population was growing on average 2.2% each year. By 2001 to 2011, that had slowed to 1.5% and is even lower now. According to UN projections, India’s population is expected peak at about 1.7 billion in 2064.

According to reports, at present more than 40% of the country’s residents are younger than 25, and the estimated median age in 2023 is 28 — nearly a decade younger than China’s — according to UN data.

What led to India's ‘population explosion’?

The fertility gambit

Without much hullabaloo it is to be understood that fertility is key to understanding the rise of a country’s population. 

While it is commonly accepted that a country’s average fertility rate — children per woman — must be 2.1 for the population to sustain itself — and even more to grow, notably India's fertility rate in the 1960s was 6 children per woman. This is talking about the generation who are grandparents now!

That was the same rate as some African countries now!

However. government data has shown that India’s total fertility rate dropped to 2.0 in the latest nationwide assessment period from 2019 to 2021. 

The fertility rate was 3.4 from 1992 to 1993. 

This could also explain the reducing population growth rate for India. 

The rise in population despite a drop in the fertility rate can be explained by “demographic momentum.”

“When the fertility rate drops, the population continues to grow for several decades. And that is because younger, large cohorts are still growing into that age when they become parents,” Frank Swiaczny, senior researcher at the Federal Institute for Population Research told CNN

Therefore, India’s population will continue to grow slowly because of the considerable number of women entering their reproductive years.

Understanding fertility rate in India

It is to be noted that the fertility rate in India is uneven throughout the country. The imbalance contributes to a north-south divide that sees more babies produced in the north. But even there, the numbers aren’t off the charts.

North India

“What really surprised us is that the highest fertility rate in India — 3.0 in Bihar — is not even that high,” CNN quoted Barbara Seligman, chief strategy and growth officer and senior vice president at PRB, a nonprofit group that focuses on demographic data and population research.

“It is really striking to see just how many states are below replacement level,” Seligman added. All but five states — Bihar, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Manipur — are at that level, and notably, they’re all in the north.

South India

In southern states, a different pattern emerges.

Goa has a fertility rate similar to certain countries in southern Europe, which are currently struggling to support an aging population with a shrinking workforce.

India plagued by older population

According to the UN’s classification, India is now an “ageing society” meaning that 7% of its population is age 65 or older. In some states, for example in Kerala in southern India, the population over 65 has doubled in the last 30 years and is now at 12%.

The same pattern will extend to more states given the low total fertility rate.

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