Be careful what you wish for as it may come true, goes an old saying. After implementing a slew of policies aimed at ‘controlling’ the population growth rate, China is now trying to reverse it.
China and India are the most populated countries in the world. For decades, both have been making conscious efforts to slow down the growth of their populations. Projections say that while India’s population has been growing, and will continue to grow for some time, China for the first time in 60 years has recorded negative growth.
According to official Chinese figures, there were 850,000 fewer Chinese people last year than there were in 2021. There is already a realisation among Chinese policymakers that population trends have changed for the worse with long-term adverse socio-economic consequences for the country.
A sharp decline
China did many things right to improve the well-being of its people such as investing in health services, education and building infrastructure, etc. Not content that this was the way to stabilise the population naturally, albeit slowly, in 1979, China made it mandatory for people to have no more than one child.
This coercive measure was part of other actions including forced sterilisations and abortions. The one-child policy was enforced for more than three decades – long enough to seriously interfere with the demographics of the country.
In China, the proportion of the population – in the age group of 15-59 years – declined from 22.9 percentage points in 2000 to 16.6 in 2010, and 9.8 percentage points in 2020. Simultaneously, the proportion of people above 60 years grew from 13.3% in 2010 to 18.7% in 2020.
Demographers blame a trend of a rapidly ageing population caused by strict control over childbirth. Equally disturbing is the adverse sex ratio with fewer women than men – a consequence of the strong son-preference in China.
China’s birth rate was reported to be 7.5 per 1,000 population in 2021, which was lower than the birth rates of the US and the UK, and was less than half of India’s.
China revised its one-child policy, but the state never stepped out of the way for couples to have as many children as they would like. The one-child policy was modified in 2016 to allow families to have two children, and in 2021, it gave further concessions and allowed couples to have up to three children.
India’s population growth rate decline
India, in contrast, has been steadily stabilising its population without using the coercive methods adopted by China. Except for a brief period, but an unforgotten period of Emergency when the government had carried out forced sterilisations on men, India has pursued a rights-based and voluntary approach in family planning.
Instead of using coercion, the Government of India invested in improving the reach and quality of services, including family planning, maternal and child health services. The government incentivised sterilisation and other family planning methods for both the acceptors and the conduit health workers like ASHAs – who connect women and men to these services. The government also invested in girls’ education and women’s social and economic empowerment.
Despite the more sensible approach to stabilising population, India’s growing numbers have been a subject of intense debate, with sections of society even calling for more radical measures to ‘control’ the population.
India owes its fertility decline to several factors as well as targeted programme interventions such as the Mission Parivar Vikas (MPV), which was launched in 146 high-fertility districts in seven states of India. The result is that India’s population growth and total fertility rates have slowed down considerably.
The recent National Family Health Survey-5 shows that India has already achieved replacement-level fertility. However, India’s overall population size will not shrink immediately as the country is going through a ‘population momentum’ due to its large young population (about 30.9% in the 10-24 years age group, according to the 2011 census). This means a low dependency ratio for India, and a large population of young people ready to participate as productive members of the workforce.
Lessons for India
There are lessons to learn from China. Before adopting the stringent one-child policy, China put in place a robust public health system, and invested in education as well as social and physical infrastructure. India has been slower in doing this. However, India must never emulate China’s coercive population policies.
Clearly, ‘allowing’ people to have one, two or more children is state interference in the private affairs of a family and will never go down well in a democracy where people’s rights are respected. It is, therefore, important for India to continue on its liberal rights-based approach that respects the rights of couples to decide the size of their family.
India has followed the approach endorsed by the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo (1994), which calls for investments in people’s lives rather than the use of coercion. A number of Indian states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh are pioneers in achieving low fertility levels. They have done this by providing better access to education and development opportunities, after which fertility decline becomes a natural demographic phenomenon.
China is likely to face adverse economic consequences of its one-child policy over the coming years. The median age in China is 38.4 years – 10 years more than India’s 28.4 years.
China has so far set itself up as a major manufacturing hub for the world. A shrinking Chinese population – particularly, a smaller young population – will impact China’s capacity to be productive, and will affect the global economy in a big way, experts have warned. On the other hand, India’s 513 million youth have the potential to take India to the next stage as it aspires to become a developed country.
However, it will take a significant amount of investment for India to ensure that its youngsters are healthy, educated, empowered, and capable. The urgency of such investments for India to capitalise on its demographic advantages cannot be overstated as a delay will mean millions of young people losing out on the opportunities to benefit from the country’s economic expansion.
Reaping demographic dividend requires critical investments in education, skills development and policies that create decent jobs. If the youngsters are unskilled, and not employable, they will lose out on the opportunities of making the most of their potential. This will aggravate poverty, frustration, and vulnerabilities. Instead of reaping a demographic dividend, the situation could become a demographic disaster and potentially lead to higher crime rates and other forms of social unrest.
India’s economic potential can be further harnessed by capitalising on the digital revolution that is sweeping the world. It is projected that 90% of all jobs in the world are likely to have a digital component. It is critical to help youngsters get digital access as well as bridge the digital gender divide so that girls and women are also part of the digital revolution.
It is not a coincidence that at the recently concluded Fifth Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture that he delivered in New Delhi in early March 2023, Bill Gates underscored India’s potential to take advantage of its huge digital public infrastructure platform. “India has the potential to develop into a hub of ‘innovation and ingenuity’ which can overcome the world’s greatest challenges,” he said.
In this affirmation lies a clear direction for us – invest in our young people as well as in digital literacy to unleash their potential that will play a critical role in taking India ahead on its path to prosperity, peace and self-reliance.
Poonam Muttreja is the executive director of the Population Foundation of India.