New Year’s Day in 2021 was a record-breaking day for India, as nearly 67,000 babies were born across the country—the highest number of births given anywhere in the world that day, according to UNICEF. It’s a number that contributed to India’s latest achievement of becoming the world’s most populous country.
On Tuesday, experts raised the possibility that India’s 1.417 billion people may have surpassed China’s population numbers, according to the latest estimates from the World Population Review. The news came after China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that the country’s total population declined by 850,000 between the end of 2021 and the end of 2022.
The development marks a new phase in India’s growth on the global stage, riddled with the challenges of managing a rising population but also an opportunity to “reimagine strategies and build on our successes to provide a healthy and happy life for its people,” Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the Population Foundation of India (PFI), told TIME.
What’s behind India’s growing population?
The biggest factor behind India’s massive population is its young people: 650 million Indians—nearly half the country’s population—are below the age of 25. And experts estimate that India won’t hit its population peak until 2065, which means that even if the younger demographic produces only one or two children per couple, the population size will continue to increase over time before it stabilizes, driving what PFI calls the “population momentum.”
What’s more, many Indian women aren’t able to have smaller families due to India’s historic lack of family-planning services. India was in fact the first nation to adopt family planning as an official policy back in 1952, but during a period of economic and social stagnation in 1975, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched The Emergency, a period of time which suspended all civil liberties in the country. This included a mass drive to sterilize men compulsorily—a population control method that was so unpopular with the masses that thereafter, subsequent governments didn’t broach the topic of family planning at all. Methods of population control have instead focused on women—between 2013 and 2014, India carried out the majority of nearly 4 million sterilizations on women, according to government statistics. Until 2017, India’s public healthcare system also didn’t offer many contraceptive choices to men or women.
“We must empower our women to be able to decide if, when and how many children to have,” Muttreja said.
Contrary to popular perception, however, experts point out that India’s population growth rate has actually slowed down in the last few decades—from a 24.7% growth between 1971 and 1981 to a 17.7% growth between 2001 and 2011—due to the rising levels of education and healthcare, as well as the alleviation of poverty. PFI adds that India can learn from China’s shrinking population by achieving low fertility rates without imposing further population control methods. “India must put an end to the noise around the possible introduction of a two-child norm,” said Muttreja, adding that a few Southern Indian states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh have already achieved low fertility rates by providing better access to education and development opportunities.
What impact will India’s population have on the country—and the rest of the world?
Becoming the world’s most populous country can signal a “paradigm shift” for India’s development, Muttreja said. That’s because the country’s younger population also comes with a huge potential to boost the economy—what economists usually call the “demographic dividend.” In 2021, the working-age population of India stood at a whopping 900 million, according to OECD data.
Almost 40 years ago, India’s population boom was described in menacing terms like “population explosion” and the “brain drain”—a reference to India’s young, skilled labor force that left the country for the West in search of better rewards for their potential. But SY Quraishi, who authored the book, “The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India,” said that both these concepts have changed over time. Today, this same labor force has instead become what he called “human resources,” or a boom to the Indian economy: “They are the CEOs of the world, and the source of an economic revolution that gives back 90 billion dollars in remittances from abroad,” Quraishi said.
This group isn’t just young, it’s also dynamic: it grew up in a market economy with access to the Internet and a hunger to compete on the global stage. Two-thirds of the Indian population has access to smartphones, thanks to cheap data plans in the last decade. “This generation of young Indians will be the largest consumer and labor source in the knowledge and network goods economy,” writes the U.S.-based Indian economist Shruti Rajagopalan.
And with rising tensions between China and the West, India has become an important player on the world stage. It will lead the charge on the G-20 this year, and as a founding member of the U.N., experts suggest it may even eye a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, of which China—but not India—is a permanent member. The country is also boosting production capacity by attracting international conglomerates like Apple, and turning smaller cities like Pune and Chennai into hubs of manufacturing, innovation, and technology.
What’s more, a decreasing skilled population across Europe and America has resulted in a shortage of manpower, making India’s population numbers an asset that’s “politically important and indispensable,” Quraishi said. “Other countries may be hating India, but they love our market.”
But India has its challenges, too
Despite the obvious advantages of having a populous country, Quraishi added that the Indian government has failed to prioritize the upskilling of its young people, given that India’s labor force participation rate—which accounts for how much of the country’s working-age population works or wants to work—is it a mere 40%.
Millions of young Indians feel discouraged by their job prospects and actively decide to opt out of working, choosing instead to continue studying or stay home, or rely on their family members for financial support. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), India’s high unemployment rate has hovered around 7 to 8% in the last year (rising from 5 to 6% in 2021), leading to a shrinking workforce.
To absorb the young working population, India will need to create at least 90 million new non-farming jobs by 2030, a 2020 report by McKinsey Global Institute states. Muttreja and the PFI agree, noting that the government also needs to invest in a “time-bound manner” so that young people are productive and can contribute to the national economy.
“In order to leverage the demographic dividend, the country will have to place the youth at the center of its policies,” she said.
She added that India needs to include those who have traditionally been excluded from its development agenda in order to harness the full potential of its young people—notably, women who continue to have more children than they wish to have and, more broadly, the vast majority of women—by removing barriers to women’s agency and reproductive autonomy.
“India can do better by investing in women’s equity and economy development,” she said.