India’s population numbers are back in the news. With the United Nations’ The World Population Prospects 2019 estimating in June that India’s population will surpass that of China by 2027, terms like “population control”, “population explosion” and “population bomb” will undoubtedly be used more frequently.

It is the perfect setting for us to fall into the classic population-control trap. But that is an unproductive discussion.

First, it diverts the conversation from the need to focus on improving the quality of life. It means that discussions about issues like poverty, social and health services can be combated with a one-stop excuse: that India is simply unable to provide for such large numbers of people.

Second, it deflects attention from the emerging need to invest resources in education, health and skills development of young people. It also undermines the reality of population trends showing that several states have low fertility rates.

Third, it places emphasis on coercive methods that undermine the rights of women. It also contributes to other social problems such as gender-biased sex selection and a skewed sex ratio.

Slowing pace of growth

While it is true that India’s population is growing, the pace of growth has reduced significantly. The 2011 Census data showed a 3.9 percentage points decline in growth in the 2001-2011 period from the previous 1991-2001 period. The reason for that can be attributed to India’s declining Total Fertility Rate or the number of children born to a woman. A country’s ideal fertility rate, or Replacement Fertility Level, is 2.1. India currently has a Total Fertility Rate of 202, with all but seven states already below the fertility rate of 2.1. United Nations Population Fund estimates show that by 2031, India’s Total Fertility Rate will be less than 2.

But even as the fertility level decreases, India’s population will continue to grow due to the “population momentum”. A study by the UN Population Fund titled Demographic Dividend in India projects that by 2060, India’s population is expected to touch 166 crore. Most of this increase will translate into a larger working population of people aged between 15 and 59 years. Eighty percent of India’s total population growth during the period 2001-’31 will get translated into an increase in the working age population. By the mid-2040s, this sub-group will consist of more than a billion people.

The youth bulge in the population will largely occur in the north-central states, specifically in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. These five states will account for more than half the growth in the labour force in India. As shown in the graph, the working-age population will keep on increasing in the north-central states, both in terms of absolute number as well as proportion of the total working-age population in the country. In southern states, both absolute number as well as proportion will decrease.

The difference in the pattern of the working-age population across the north-central and south-western states will result in increased migration between these two regions. In fact, for the first time in Indian history, the population increase during 2001-2011 has been greater in urban areas than in rural areas. Nearly one-third of India’s population, 377 million people, lives in urban areas. The level of urbanisation is higher in the south-western Indian states at an advanced demographic stage, accounting for 45% population of India’s urban population.

To shift the focus from population control to population development, India must take several steps.

While it continues to strengthen family planning programmes, the emphasis has to be on choice, to ensure availability and accessibility to diverse modern methods of contraception. Women and men must be educated about this, quality sexual and reproductive health services must be available to all, and women must freely be able to choose if, when and how many children they want to have.

Second, India must urgently strengthen policies to address its enormous young and working-age population. The question is not merely of quantity but quality. As India’s economy continues to grow, it has gained recognition in the field of modern technology, especially information technology. But even as markets increasingly require higher skills, India’s labour market is characterised by a low-quality labour force . For India to stay competitive, the quality of education, life skills, healthcare and vocational training must be urgently addressed.

Third, migration today is a reality for a large population in India. The demographic divergence between the young, labour-surplus north-central states and ageing south-western states will lead to further migration. While more youth move away from their homes to other states, there has to be an increased focus on urbanisation and policy planning conversations around how migrants can have access to basic amenities, health and social services in urban areas.

Understanding the new dynamics

We also need to understand the dynamics of migration flows to address the issues of housing and infrastructure, health care and utilities, education and skills. States need to work together to provide portability of identity proof and entitlements, as well as build support systems for older members of families left behind.

India is and will remain a burgeoning country of young people for a long time. By 2030, we will have the largest young population in the world. The question is how to reap the benefits, or the demographic dividend, from this unique time in the country’s demographic history. India must decide what policies, strategies, and interventions to put in place to effectively unleash the full potential of the young, and maximise the use of their talent for themselves, their families and society. The window of opportunity will last only for a few more decades, so the time is now.

Devender Singh is National Programme Officer for Population and Development at the United Nations Population Fund.