India has embarked on a tumultuous 2023 on a note of celebration, marking both the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence and its assumption of the G-20 Presidency amid much fanfare. But now we have hit a new landmark, and whether celebrations are due is much more debatable. Demographers had long estimated that 2023 will be the year that India officially overtakes China to become the most populous country in the world. UN experts announced that has happened around April 24.
As a controversial German cartoon (which shows India as an old, chugging, overcrowded train, with people thronging its roof and hanging from its windows, overtaking a modern, sleek, Chinese bullet train) suggested, that news is less of a cause for celebration. China occupies 9,596,960 km of land area to India’s 3,287,263 square kilometres and generates more than four times our GDP. The average Chinese makes $13,000 a year while the average Indian makes do with $2,500. This makes India three times as densely populated as its famously populous northern neighbour, and – despite impressive economic growth over the last three decades – less able to feed, educate and nurture its more than 1.4 billion people.
There is another problem with this demographic dividend – it is the result of grossly skewed patterns within the country. The overall total, at around 1.42 billion, will keep on growing this century, to finally stabilize around 1.65 billion in the 2060s before plunging to some 1.1 billion by the year 2100. But within India, the north continues to grow, while the south has already stabilized and some states, like Kerala and Nagaland, have begun to shed population. This means that parts of India will be experiencing baby booms while other regions grapple with ageing populations and school closures.
These predictions could be further complicated by the unpredictable consequences of climate change, which is already altering weather patterns and causing extreme events like cyclones, heatwaves, droughts and floods with alarming irregularity. Many rivers are sometimes in spate and run dry at other times. Water scarcity is already a feature of the lives of millions. Mass displacement and migration away from unviable areas to teeming cities could further skew India’s demography.
There are also political implications to population patterns. Between 1947 and 1997, India’s population grew from 350 million to 1 billion, with a population explosion particularly in the poorer, less educated, largely Hindi-speaking states of the north, whereas the South, with far better human development and education numbers, curbed population size more effectively. While northerners had an average family size of six to seven children for decades, the South dropped quickly to two children per couple.
In India’s democracy, this would normally have meant more parliamentary seats and therefore more political power to the more populous north. But, anxious not to reward poor performance in population control with increased political benefits, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1976 froze parliamentary representation at the levels of the 1971 census. When the constitutional amendment that effected that freeze was to expire 25 years later, it was renewed for another quarter century by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
As a result, most southern Members of Parliament represent about 2 million voters in their constituencies while some in the north represent as many as 2.7 to 2.9 million. Prime Minister Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which derives overwhelming support from voters in the northern Hindi-speaking “cow belt” states, appears set to end this anomaly when the amendment lapses again in 2026.
That could create serious political issues for us, with additional parliamentary seats giving the north a two-thirds majority that would enable the ruling party to amend the constitution at will, without regard to the wishes of the southern states. The hard-won political unity of this vast sub-continent of a nation, with its multiple languages, ethnicities and religions, could then be threatened by political decisions that the less-populated states may find unpalatable or discriminatory.
Currently, much of India’s population increase comes from just two northern states, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. UP, with 220 million people, would already be the fifth most populous country in the world if it were independent. Both will continue to grow for at least a decade since they are not yet near the 2.1 children per woman norm that ensures demographic stability. These states, which already have a disproportionate impact on Indian politics, will grow further in influence, even as many deplore the prevalence of religious bigotry and identity politics in the politics of those states.
Between 2001 and 2011, Bihar’s population grew by 25.4%, while Kerala’s grew at 4.9%. The 2021 census was not held because of the Covid pandemic, but the differential is estimated as likely to have grown greater in the following decade.
Ignorance about family planning and the benefits of smaller family size in the less-literate north is the principal factor behind this uneven population growth, while southern states with superior human development indicators have already transformed themselves. As women become more educated (female literacy in the north is still far below the national average), they tend to be more receptive to population-control initiatives.
But everywhere in India people face the challenge of not finding enough jobs to support themselves.
In 2021 India’s unemployment figures reached the highest levels ever recorded. Youth unemployment is especially worrying, ranging from a national average of 23% for those between 19 and 25, to 40% in Kerala and Kashmir. Female participation in the labour force, which had once increased in keeping with global trends, has now plunged, especially after Covid.
At the other end of the spectrum, the South is already witnessing a proliferation of assisted-living facilities for the old, especially those whose children have emigrated in quest of better work opportunities and are no longer around to look after their ageing parents.
The worsening north-south divide, uncontrolled urbanisation of a hitherto predominantly rural country, water shortages and resource scarcities, ageing in some areas, and mounting youth unemployment paint a grim picture at the year’s end.
Still, India’s impressive track record of growth and development against all these odds in the last three decades gives cause for some hope that its resilient people will somehow prevail against the odds. And there is great room to grow: India is still a country where a monthly income of just $300 (which would put you below the poverty line in the USA) is enough to place you in the top 10% income bracket.
It would help if politicians refrained from politicising demography. BJP politicians claiming that Muslims are outbreeding Hindus are simply wrong: there is no statistical basis for such a claim. Going on to urge Hindu women to have more children is even more fatuous, given the grim realities summarised above.
Doomsday scenarios have been painted for India over the years, and the country is still standing and prospering. But the challenges of governance require a clear-eyed appreciation of the problems we are already facing, and which are, inevitably, only going to get worse.