The recently released Chinese national census revealed a fall in its average annual population growth rate and a growing elderly population which may slow economic growth. This is a challenge that India might face in the near future as well, say experts.
China’s average annual population growth rate has receded to 0.53 percent during 2010 to 2020, lower than 0.57 percent during the previous decade (2000 to 2010), according to the country’s seventh national census. It is still the most populous nation in the world with 1.41 billion denizens in 2020.
Strict population control measures like a one-child policy over the last several decades have affected China’s annual population growth rate. As a result, the share of elderly population (aged above 60 years) has increased to 18.7 percent in 2020 from 13.26 percent a decade ago, while the number of new births has reported a fall.
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“The harsh family planning policies of China in the past had many unexpected adverse outcomes,” said Dr T.V. Sekher, Professor & Head at Department of Population Policies and Programs, International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai.
“With increasing urbanization and changing aspirations of the new middle class in China, the trend is towards lower fertility. But the Chinese census also showed certain positive trends such as an increasingly educated workforce and rapid urbanization,” he added.
The Chinese experience holds some lessons for India as well.
While India’s next decadal population census for 2021 is awaited, policy makers need to be aware and well equipped to address such challenges given the similar population profile.
A 2019 United Nations report had projected India to overtake China as the most populous country by 2027. India is expected to add nearly 273 million people between 2019 and 2050, it added.
Experts now suggest that this could happen even before the said time period.
“With all projections, including the United Nations, India will overtake China in population size by 2025, much earlier than the earlier projections,” said Sekher of IIPS.
Over the next three decades, India’s elderly population is also going to increase significantly, he said.
“From only 8 percent of total population in the 2011 census, it will be around 20 percent by 2050 -- that is about 320 million senior citizens in India. This is going to be a major challenge for the country, for which we are least prepared.”
The 2019-20 Economic Survey too has forewarned this upcoming challenge, stating: “India’s age-structure by 2041 will resemble that of China and Thailand as seen during the current decade.”
The population, 60 years and above, is expected to double from 8.6 percent in 2011 to 16 percent by 2041, it noted. It also said that the demographic dividend would peak about that time, with the share of working age population (20-59 years) hitting 59 percent.
In the context of a rising population, especially the elderly, India will need to strengthen and fool-proof its existing health infrastructure keeping in mind any future eventualities like the ongoing pandemic.
“If India’s hospital facilities remain at current levels, rising population over the next two decades (even with slowing population growth rates) will sharply reduce the per capita availability of hospital beds in India across all major states,” the Economic Survey 2019-20 has pointed out.
At present, India has 1.3 hospital beds per 1,000 population less than half the global average of three hospital beds per 1,000 population, highlighted a 2021 Niti Aayog report. To meet the demand, India will need 2.2 million beds over the next 15 years, it said.
Based on the population projections, India’s population is estimated to be over 1.36 billion as of March 2021, indicating an estimated 12.4 percent growth over the last decade. That is lower than the 17.7 percent between 2001 and 2011.
“India's population growth rate shows a consistent and gradual decline over the last three decades,” said Sekher. This, he attributed, to the family planning methods adopted by couples and realising the benefits of small family norms, even by those in the rural districts.
“The total fertility rate (TFR- average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime) has come down to 2.1 in most states, though bigger states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it is close to three children. In fact, in urban areas, the percentage of single child families (one child) is increasing. We need to strengthen our family planning programs, particularly in rural areas by meeting the unmet needs for contraceptive services. By educating and providing required contraceptive services, we can achieve the desired results, without any stringent measures to curb the population growth,” said Sekher.
Further, India’s working age-population is expected to grow by an estimated 9.7 million per year during 2021-31 and 4.2 million per year between 2031 and 2041. This calls for generating more employment opportunities for the youth.
“It will be a great achievement to make use of this demographic dividend available to us for the next 30 years,” said Sekher.
“We need to provide quality education and skills to our youth as well as create employment opportunities. If we fail to do this, then the demographic dividend will turn into a demographic disaster for India.”