India is set to become the most populous nation in the world in 2023, according to a UN report. Sarthak Ray looks at the projections and the implications.
What is the World Population Prospects report? The Population Division of the UN Secretariat’s department of economic and social affairs prepares a biennial population estimate and projection at the global level. The latest edition is the 27th such. That India will surpass China has been known for quite some time, though no one expected it to happen so soon. The fertility rate in China has long been on a decline though it has risen marginally recently. “Fertility in India has also declined significantly over the past few years. But India continues to add significant numbers due to its young age structure,” says Chetan Choithani, assistant professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. “Also, another important aspect missing in the India-overtaking-China discussions is mortality decline and improved life expectancy”.
What are the main findings? Longer life expectancy seems a key factor behind global population growth. Life expectancy at birth stood at 72.8 years in 2019, a sharp jump of nine years from 2019. Average longevity is expected to reach 77.2 years by 2050. The second factor is fertility levels. The average fertility rate, in 2021, stood at 2.3 births per woman, having declined from five births in 1950.
Clear rich-poor divide?Just 8 countries — Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania—will account for half the project-ed population growth till 2050. Sub-Saharan Africa will continue growing till 2100. Australia & New Zealand, Northern Africa & Western Asia, and Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand) will experience slow but positive growth. There is a clear rich-poor divide, with the 46 least developed nations among those with the fastest growth rates.
What are the broad policy implications? Interventions by governments to push down fertility rates will not yield a large delta. Instead, governments should reserve their energies and resources for interventions that help improve the quality of life for their governed populations. Countries with continued high levels of fertility will face a resource challenge —for instance, a growing school-age population will claw away resources for infrastructure, from, say, improving the quality of education delivered within the existing infrastructure.These countries will do well to focus on achieving Sustainable Development Goals on health, education and, most importantly, gender. Those that stare at rapidly ageing populations will need to create public programmes that serve this cohort’s needs — more so with dropping fertility meaning leaner contribution of the working age population towards such support. Given that the above-65-years population is set to increase, countries with ageing population have to beef up social security and pension systems, and establish universal healthcare and long-term care systems.