In June last year a United Nations report projected that India would overtake China as the world’s most populous country by the year 2024, earlier than what some previous projections had indicated. In this year, India and China are projected to have a population of 1.44 billion which in India’s case is expected to increase to 1.5 billion by 2030 and to around 1.7 billion by the middle of the century. About a fifth of the increase in world population between now and 2050 will be accounted for by India alone. China’s population, on the other hand, is expected to remain stable till the mid 2030s and thereafter begin to decline.

In the past few years it has become fashionable in our country to speak about the “demographic dividend”. That is perhaps one reason why this report hardly caused a flutter in this country barring the headline for a day in the media. There is nothing automatic about such a dividend. If not planned for, the so-called dividend can very well end up becoming a nightmare. India of course will have to contend not only with its population increase but also that of other countries in the region like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. It is not inconceivable that South Asia would account for anywhere between a fifth and a quarter of the world’s population by the middle of the century. Yet this is one subject that never gets discussed in forums like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. There is much we can learn from each other.

Good news

Two months back, the Census Commissioner’s Office released the annual Sample Registration Survey Report for the year 2015. This gives great insights into what is happening in individual states of our country. Demographers use the concept of Total Fertility Rate or TFR as the key indicator of population growth. TFR=2.1 is the tipping point, the level at which the population replaces itself. Experience demonstrates that some two generations after TFR=2.1 population begins to decline.

What the latest survey data reveals is that India will reach TFR=2.1 much earlier than expected or projected. This is good news. In 2015, India’s TFR stood at 2.3 and going by the pace of decline observed in recent years India would reach replacement levels very shortly – perhaps even by the end of this decade itself. This is a significant development given the fact that just a decade ago, some respectable institutions were projecting TFR=2.1 for India as a whole only by the year 2040 or 2050. Let me add here that Bangladesh is, in all probability, already at replacement levels of fertility at a level of economic development lower than that of India – an achievement which we must acknowledge and applaud.

Let us look at some individual states.

The two pioneers were, of course, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kerala reached TFR=2.1 in 1988 and Tamil Nadu did so five years later. By the turn of the previous century, the two other south Indian states – Karnataka and undivided Andhra Pradesh – also reached TFR=2.1.

So far so good. The south Indian states were always expected to be trend-setters. What the latest survey data reveals is that the south Indian achievement is now a pan-Indian phenomenon. Maharashtra, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal now all have TFR lower than 2.1. Gujarat, Assam and Haryana should follow before the end of this decade.

Incidentally, please do note that one of the states that has not yet reached TFR=2.1 is the state which is held out as a model for the rest of the country. Its all-knowing former chief minister had some time back compared Kerala to Somalia not knowing that in almost all basic demographic and in many social indicators Kerala has reached developed country standards at developing country income levels. Gujarat will have reached TFR=2.1 some 30 years after Kerala did even though in purely income terms it is a richer state.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh clearly are the laggards. Going by what was achieved in these states between 2005 and 2015 and even after accounting for the fact that coming down from TFR over 5 to something close to 3 is relatively easy but further declines are difficult, it would not be an exaggeration to say that these six laggards would also reach TFR=2.1 by the year 2025 or 2026 at the outside limit. There is no other word other than remarkable to describe this. In 1996, a Planning Commission expert committee had concluded that Bihar would reach TFR=2.1 only by 2039, Madhya Pradesh by 2060 and Uttar Pradesh only by 2100. A projection made by the Population Foundation of India in the year 2007 placed UP’S TFR=2.1 around the year 2050.

What is behind this success? Clearly, accelerated economic growth, faster urbanisation and very significant expansion in education levels have helped in ensuring that replacements levels of fertility are reached much earlier than anticipated. But there are two other factors that have had a great influence on the trajectory of TFRs.

First, the decline in infant mortality which has been the priority of successive governments has played a role. This is particularly true of the period after the late 1990s. The infant mortality has dropped from 72 deaths per 1,000 births in 1998 to 34 deaths per 1,000 births in 2016. Declines have been appreciable even in the north Indian states although they have a long way to go to match Kerala’s achievement of 10 deaths per 1,000 births or even Tamil Nadu’s at 17 deaths per 1,000 births, both in 2016.

Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Not-so-good news

Second, whether we like it or not terminal methods have been pushed by almost all state governments. Sterilisations in 2015/16 were about 4 million which were about half of the figure for 1976/77 the peak Emergency year. The undivided state of Andhra Pradesh, for instance, reached TFR=2.1 by the beginning of this century largely because of a super-aggressive sterilisation campaign. Over 97% of the sterilisations have been tubectomies and this does remain somewhat of a blot on the manner of achieving replacement levels of fertility and sustaining further declines.

What I found surprising in the National Family Health Survey-IV data for the year 2015 was the fact that even in Kerala and Tamil Nadu sterilisations account for slightly less than half of all birth control methods. I am reminded of an Indian Administrative Service officer – chief secretary and family planning missionary in Tamil Nadu – named TV Antony. He was popularly known as Tubectomy Vasectomy Antony.

While achievement of replacement levels of fertility is absolutely essential, let me hasten to add that by itself it does not guarantee a healthy population. And a single-minded focus on it can be counter-productive. In 2016, over a third of the women and children in Kerala were reported anaemic while in Tamil Nadu the proportion was over a half. There is a definite decline over the past decade but the levels are still unacceptably high particularly because these two states have the best public health systems in the country.

Possible scenarios

Let me now turn to long-term population projections for individual states. The Census Commissioner has projections only up to the year 2026 while the Population Foundation of India has them for a longer time horizon. I will use the latter even though the exercise does not fully capture the faster-than-expected declines in TFRs in the non-south Indian states.

Source: Population Foundation of India

Kerala’s population is expected to peak at about 39 million in the year 2041 and to start declining thereafter. Tamil Nadu’s population is expected to peak at about 78 million in 2041 and start declining thereafter. The population of Karnataka and undivided Andhra Pradesh begins to decline 2061 onward. Other states follow likewise in 2071 and 2081. Going by the latest TFR trends and assuming that the pace of decline can be sustained, it does appear highly probable that India’s population begins to decline in 2081. The population when this decline sets in could be anywhere between 1.7 million and 1.9 million.

The UN study I referred to right at the beginning also has projections for the long-term. This is more recent than the Population Foundation of India’s analysis but it is for the country as a whole.

The “low variant” has India’s population peaking at 1.5 billion in the year 2042 and entering a period of decline thereafter. The “medium variant” has India’s population peaking at about 1.7 billion in the year 2061 and declining subsequently. The “high variant” has India’s population increasing relentlessly throughout this century and crossing the 2 billion mark in the final decades. This, on the basis of the Sample Registration Survey data, is unlikely to materialise. Obviously, we must do all that we can in a democratic manner to ensure that the “low variant” becomes a reality but the probability favours the “medium variant”.

Seat shares

The relative shares of states will also undergo a considerable shift. The five south Indian states, for instance, will see their combined share of population fall from the present level of about 15% to around 12% by the middle of the century. In fact, the share of only four states in the country’s population is expected to increase – that of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The share of all other states will almost certainly fall. The share of these four north Indian states will most likely increase from something like 40% now to about 44% by the middle of the century. This has great implications for the political economy of the country.

I for one believe that the reorganisation of Uttar Pradesh will become inevitable, sooner rather than later, because a state with a population in excess of 400 million by the middle of the century will simply become ungovernable even with landslide mandates for the political party in power.

Incidentally, over 60 years ago, Kavalam Madhava Panikkar had written a dissent note in the report of the States Reorganisation Commission and advocated the break up of Uttar Pradesh. Another issue that will present itself in 2026 if not earlier relates to delimitation of parliamentary constituencies. It would be highly iniquitous if states that have succeeded in family planning end up losing seats in Parliament and states that have not curbed reproductive profligacy end up increasing their numbers.

Internal migration

Demographic trends also portend that the pace of internal migration will only increase. Greater internal migration will mean increased internal remittances. However, while external remittances attract the headlines and draw research and policy attention, internal remittances have largely escaped notice. One estimate is that these internal remittances for the country as a whole – that is, remittances from workers in one state to their families in some other state – are in the region of Rs 75,000 crore annually. This is about a sixth of external remittances. While quantitatively they may be lower, their socio-economic impact is perhaps even more significant considering the nature of the domestic migrant population. Incidentally, less than a third of the internal remittances flow through formal institutional channels (like banks) and this where the use of the much-maligned Aadhaar, the unique identification number, can have a positive impact.

That internal migration is important to sustain local economies has been known. For instance, for almost three decades now, labourers from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh have been migrating to Punjab and Haryana to work in farms. Migrants from Odisha form a large part of the textile and diamond cutting and polishing industry in Gujarat. Within a state also, there is migration that takes place during the peak agricultural season – for instance, from Srikakulam to east and west Godavari districts in Andhra Pradesh and from districts like Beed to the sugar cane growing areas in Maharashtra. A Unesco report released in 2013 found that approximately three out of every 10 Indians are internal migrants of some sort or the other and that 70% of the internal migrants are women. Even so, the internal migration phenomenon is little studied, particularly from a remittances point of view.

How important such internal remittances are can be gauged by a pioneering study conducted by D Narayana and CS Venkiteswaran of the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation in Thiruvananthapuram. The study estimated that outward remittances from the approximately 2.5 million out-of-state workers who are working in Kerala in different sectors like construction, hospitality, household services and agriculture amounted to about Rs 17,500 crore in 2013. This is about a third of the external remittances Kerala receives. Almost three-fourths of the internal remittances are to West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Odisha alone. The annual arrival rate of these internal migrants to Kerala has been estimated at close to 2,50,000.

Of course, internal migration raises many larger social and economic issues, going beyond remittances alone. These include housing and living conditions, and livelihood and social security, quite apart from the growing problem of social inclusion that is being caused by irresponsible political posturing. As the Unesco report rightly emphasises, there is an urgent need to develop a governance system both nationally as well as at the state-level for managing internal migration, which will only grow in the years ahead because of both demographic shifts as well as inevitable differentials in economic opportunities.

Age-old problems

Many years ago, I had written that while other countries will face old-age problems, India will continue to face age-old problems. That has indeed been the case. It is true that India is a nation of youth with the median age now being around 28 years. It is a huge plus point for us. However, looking into the future, even though the median age will probably be around 38 by the middle of the century, let us not overlook the fact that the elderly population – that is of men and women over the age of 65 – will more than double. We define old age as being over 60. I have extended this by five years to take into account increases in life expectancy and also to be in line with international practice.

Going by this yardstick, one out of every four persons in Kerala and one out of every five persons in Tamil Nadu will be in this age group. It will be less marked at the national level – perhaps one in eight. The ageing of our population is not as dramatic as China’s. It has been said that China will become old before it becomes rich. We will not be in that category but our population will certainly begin to age considerably even before we have become a middle-income country.

A large proportion of the elderly in the population has enormous implications for the planning of social security programmes, particularly pensions and health insurance.

Universal pension

Let me end by drawing attention to one feature of the 2011 Census which has great significance for our demographic future. While the number of widowed women has increased from about 23 million in 1961 to about 43 million in 2011, the incidence of widowhood among women has declined from 10.8% to 7.4% during the same period, probably reflecting improved life expectancy among males. Further, the incidence of widowhood and widowerhood increases with age for both women and men, although this is much sharper among women. In addition, widowhood and widowerhood exhibits a gender gap at all ages, which is strikingly large at old age. Almost 48% of women above the age of 60 were widows in 2011 whereas only about 15% of men were widowers.

This demonstrates the overlap between ageing and widowhood among women and also perhaps explains why this predominantly female issue does not receive as much policy attention that it deserves. With life expectancy differentials being what they are and what they are likely to be, India will have to pay far greater attention to the special needs and concerns of the population of widows. Casual empiricism in my own immediate family shows how widespread the phenomenon is. I have two aunts one 96 years and the other 95. My mother will be 89 soon. Of course, they are economically and socially comfortable – which is not case with the overwhelming majority of widows in our society. A meaningful universal pension scheme for widows would be a good beginning.

Demography is destiny

Demography is indeed destiny as far as we are concerned. There is simply no way we can avoid becoming the world’s most populous country in less than a decade’s time and there is simply no way we can avoid adding around a third of our present population over the next three to four decades – that is our karma so to speak. This is a staggering number and I do not think the full implications of this astronomical increase have been fully grasped in the public discourse on India’s future. Unfortunately, this discourse is dominated by the theological belief that a 8-9% rate of annual GDP growth is the sure route to nirvana. Faster economic growth sustained over a period of two to three decades is undoubtedly essential. But it is only a necessary condition which means that nirvana cannot be attained without it. It is by no means a sufficient condition which means even if you achieve it, nirvana cannot be guaranteed.

Former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh is a Congress Rajya Sabha MP. This is an edited excerpt from the V Ramachandran Memorial Lecture delivered by him at Centre for Management Development, Thiruvananthapuram on January 18.