India to overtake China as world's most populous nation within months

Population is a touchy subject in India, with decades of debate about controlling birth rates and state intervention

India is set to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation. Bloomberg
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India will surpass China to become the world’s most populous country by the middle of this year, according to a UN report, with the South Asian nation estimated to have nearly three million more people.

The UN Population Fund’s latest report, State of World Population Report 2023, estimates India's population will hit 1.4286 billion this year — exceeding China's by more than 2.9 million.

In India, 68 per cent of the population is projected to be between 15 and 64 years of age, with 25 per cent between newborn and 14 years of age, and just 7 per cent of the population 65 or older.

The UN, however, did not specify a date for when the change would take place, but said India's population will overtake China's by mid-2023.

India’s official population according to the most-recent census in 2011 was 1.21 billion and New Delhi has said the population was expected to have risen to 1.4 billion.

No official figures have been released so far.

India was expecting to overtake neighbouring China as the most populous nation this year after Beijing announced in January that its population had fallen for the first time in 60 years, to 1.44 billion.

While the Asian giants represent 19 and 18 per cent of the world’s population, respectively, population growth in the countries has been slowing, but more rapidly in China.

Official figures from China's National Bureau of Statistics showed mainland China had 850,000 fewer people at the end of last year than in the previous year, whereas India’s population has grown from 358 million in 1951 to 1.2 billion in 2011, according to the last census.

India releases its census every 10 years, but failed to conduct the exercise in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Population has remained a touchy subject in India, which has seen decades of debate on state intervention, including a controversial forced sterilisation campaign in 1970s that saw tens of thousands of men, most of them unmarried, being forcibly sterilised by the government.

The country had abandoned its strict family welfare policies after the sterilisation programme.

It raised serious questions about the government’s intent, including its targeting of minority community Muslims, a group perceived as the biggest contributor to the population despite showing growth patterns similar to other religious groups.

Since then, the government has adopted contraceptive and reproductive awareness campaigns to try to control the increase in its population.

The expanding population has been a concern for the country in terms of the economy, health, education and employment opportunities.

India has witnessed a steep increase in jobless rates in recent years, with unemployment touching 7.45 per cent last month, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a private organisation.

About 22 per cent of its mammoth population lives below the poverty line, according to the last census, while 16 per cent were undernourished in 2021, according to the Global Health Index that assesses the health security capabilities of 196 countries.

There are fears that rapid population growth could exacerbate poverty and hunger and put the country's resources could be under even more pressure.

But Andrea Wojnar, representative for UN Population Fund in India, said that the population growth was a “symbol of progress”.

“The Indian survey findings suggest that population anxieties have seeped into large portions of the general public,” Ms Wojnar said in a statement.

“Yet, population numbers should not trigger anxiety or create alarm. Instead, they should be seen as a symbol of progress, development, and aspirations if individual rights and choices are being upheld,” she said.

Many experts believe that India’s young population will help the country to yield the demographic dividends and help accelerate national growth in the world’s fifth-largest economy, unlike China where the population is ageing at a faster pace.

About 254 million people in China are over the age of 60, a figure expected to reach 400 million by 2040.

Updated: April 19, 2023, 6:28 PM