That India may become the most populous country in 2023 isn’t necessarily bad news
The 27th edition of the United Nations’ World Population Prospects 2022, which projects India to become the most populous country surpassing China in 2023, brings focus on the subject in the country. Population has been a major issue in India. Children were taught in schools that rising population was a big, if not the biggest, problem. Successive Governments carried out programmes to check its growth, which became coercive during the Emergency in the mid-1970s; the infamous vasectomy drive played a role in the fall of the Indira Gandhi Government in 1977. After liberalisation in 1991, however, the population issue receded from public discourse as well as political debate, though politicians, mainly from the Bharatiya Janata Party, intermittently raised the issue. In fact, top leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have even talked about ‘demographic dividend’. One reason for the declining importance of population as a political and public issue has been the progress made by our country in checking its growth. The total fertility rate (TFR) — or the average number of children born to any woman in her lifetime — declined to two in 2019-21 from 2.2 in 2015-16, as per the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey, or NFHS-5. Since the replacement level of fertility (suggesting no population growth) is 2.1, a TRF of 2 indicates a decline in population in the future. In other words, population is no longer a threat to prosperity as it was decades ago when rapid rise in numbers was eroding the gains of economic growth and development.
Indeed it was growth and development that made population a non-problem, thus suggesting a great national feat: India has managed to escape the vicious circle of extreme poverty and fast-growing population. So, the report by the population division of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, saying that both China and India would have over 1.4 billion people in 2022 doesn’t ring any alarm bells. India’s feat is more impressive than China’s, which also succeeded in controlling its population, because it was done by persuasion, the excesses during the Emergency being an exception. India should stay the course and not come with a law to control population, which the Government may be planning, as a Union Minister said a few weeks ago. Such an endeavour would be worse than unnecessary, for discussion about population in our country often turns divisive; Muslims are accused of being careless about the number of children. While it is true that the population growth rate among them is higher than that of the national rate, it is declining, which is a good sign. At the same time, the Government has to ensure that the demographic dividend doesn’t become a liability. It must strive harder to do away with the supply-side constraints which are impeding economic growth. For only growth can generate the conditions to make the dividend to work for national advantage.