It’s time to discuss depopulation
Population and India:
- India is set to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation by 2023.
- China’s population has begun to decline, while India’s population is expected to grow for another 40 years.
- By current United Nations estimates, India’s population will begin to decline only in 2063, by which time it will be just shy of 1.7 billion.
- The world’s population is expected to grow until 2086.
Concerns about depopulation:
- Even though Indian population is supposed to grow for another 40 years, it is expected that some parts of the country is expected to face depopulation.
- The concern is the country’s complete lack of preparedness to deal with it.
- Given that China’s population has begun to decline, these estimates about India have led to alarmist calls for restrictions on family sizes.
- However, the global conversation around depopulation is missing some key elements.
- Without talking about equitable sharing of housework; access to subsidised childcare that allows women to have families as well as a career; and lowered barriers to immigration to enable entry to working-age people from countries which aren’t yet in population decline, the narrative can sometimes be tinged with anti-feminism and ethnic superiority.
- National Family Health Survey (NFHS) estimated India’s urban fertility rate in 2019-21 to be 1.6, which places it next to the U.K.
- Yet, India, especially States and cities with below-replacement fertility, is not having the urgent conversation about a future with an ageing population and a declining workforce.
- In the next four years, both Tamil Nadu and Kerala will see the first absolute declines in their working–age populations in their histories.
- With falling mortality the total population of these States will continue to grow for the next few decades, which means that fewer working-age people must support more elderly people.
- Among the female elderly in particular, economic dependence is a serious concern.
Fertility in India:
- Fertility in India is falling along expected lines as a direct result of rising incomes and greater female access to health and education.
- India’s total fertility rate is now below the replacement rate of fertility.
- The matter of concern is that parts of India have not only achieved replacement fertility, but have been below the replacement rate for so long that they are at the cusp of real declines in population.
- Kerala, which achieved replacement fertility in 1998, and Tamil Nadu, which achieved this in 2000, are examples.
- Even in States with relatively high fertility, many cities have been at the replacement rate or below the replacement rate for over a decade.
Challenges of Depopulation:
- A depopulating future poses at least three unique challenges to India:
- First, a skewed sex ratio remains a danger. As the latest round of the NFHS showed, families with at least one son are less likely to want more children than families with just one daughter.
- Second, the stark differences between northern and southern States in terms of basic literacy as well as enrolment in higher education, including in technical fields, will mean that workers from the southern States are not automatically replaceable.
- Third, the sharp anti–Muslim tone in the conversation has remained even though fertility between Hindus and Muslims is converging.