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Earlier this month the United Nations published data which showed that India would surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2023. Even more, India will keep on widening the gap. While India will have 1.412 billion people by the end of 2022 compared to China’s 1.426 billion, by 2050, China will shrink to 1.317 billion while India will rise to touch 1.668 billion.

At around the same time, many Indian politicians, especially from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party were discussing how to control India’s population. On Friday, for example, BJP MP Ravi Kishan claimed he was going to introduce a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha to “bring the population under control”.

Wild goose chase

Earlier on July 11, World Population Day, Union minister Giriraj Singh had made a demand for a population control law, arguing that its big population was holding India back from becoming a “vishwa guru” or world leader.

At the same time, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath argued that any efforts at population control should ensure that there is no “population imbalance”, referring to a common Hindutva fear that any measures at population control will result in Muslim birth rates outstripping the corresponding figure for Hindus.

Population projections (numbers in brackets refer to population in millions). Credit: World Population Prospects 2022, United Nations.

As is clear, there is a lot to unpack when it comes to Indian attitudes to population control. There is a long history of the government worrying that high growth rates will hold back India’s development. At the same time, this is accompanied by majoritarian fear mongering around minority birth rates.

Wrong end of the stick

In the end, both of these fears are based on a poor understanding of how growth rates will play out and, even more fundamentally, that population by itself could be an asset for a country.

For one, India’s birth rates have already dropped significantly. The total fertility rate or the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime has halved since 1990. In fact, latest data from the National Family Health Survey shows that India’s total fertility rate is currently at two – below replacement level. This means that eventually, India’s population will not only stabilise, it will fall, since new births will not be able to match deaths.

Similarly, data does not support the right-wing political claims that Hindus will be reduced to a minority in India. In fact, between 2005-’06 and 2019-’21, the reduction in fertility was the highest among Muslims, compared to other religious groups. As numerous studies have shown, projections of India’s Muslim population overtaking Hindus is not based on fact.

Demographic dividend

In fact by expending so much time and energy discussing population control, India is missing the wood for the trees. India’s problem isn’t that its population is too large, but that the population is not being put to productive use. In effect, India is wasting its demographic dividend – the “potential resulting from a country’s working-age population being larger than its non-working-age population”.

The 2018-’19 Economic Survey released by the Union government had some statistics that illustrate how India’s current population is actually a net positive when it comes to economic growth. As of 2011, working age people formed more than half of India’s total population. This is projected to increase even further, hitting nearly 60% by 2041.

Thus, for three decades, India will have a population primed to work and, hence, grow the economy.

However, India might be in danger of squandering this demographic dividend and missing a golden shot at rapidly making itself more prosperous.

Wasted youth

For one, even as India’s working age population is increasing, the size of its workforce is not: the Indian economy is unable to absorb the young men and women who want jobs.

The situation is so bad that often Indian workers do not even bother to look for jobs. In the words of Mahesh Vyas, the managing director at the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, these potential workers get “dejected” since “they come to the labour markets, they don’t find enough jobs, can’t hang around there for too long and finally say that they’re not looking for a job”.

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy has, of late, produced some of the most detailed statistics around employment even as official sources have been stifled.

It’s not only the economy. Even cultural factors contribute to this state of affairs. Given that India is one of the most patriarchal cultures in the world, female workers are disproportionately affected by this trend. Female workforce participation is the bedrock of the success stories of many countries in Asia such as China, the tiger economies of Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and even relative late comers such as Vietnam or Bangladesh. Missing out on half of its productive workforce will be a massive loss for India.

Manufacturing discontent

As we have written about several times on the India Fix, much of this crisis flows from the fact that India is unable to develop manufacturing jobs that provide mass employment (as opposed to, say, high-paying coding jobs that provide very few people jobs). Incredibly, manufacturing employment is actually falling in India. “Never in India’s history had there been an absolute fall in manufacturing employment, but the government succeeded in doing that,” economist Santosh Mehrotra told the South China Morning Post.

In theory, India’s demographic dividend of more and more young people entering the workforce could have been coupled with a vibrant manufacturing sector, offering mass employment, to provide an enormous boost to the economy. Instead, India has a growing number of citizens either unemployed or stuck in very low paying jobs such as agriculture.

While large number of young, employed people are a boon for a country, if those same people are unemployed and dissatisfied, the social effects could be damaging – even disastrous. This fear of missing its demographic dividend is the real population problem India’s policy makers need to worry about.