UN Population Report 2023

How to Use the Demographic Dividend

Kishore Kumar Biswas

The latest State of  World Population Report 2023 was released a few days ago by the United Nations. As per the report India will become the most populous country of the world by mid-2023. India is poised to overtake China to become the world’s most populous country, with more than 1.4 billion citizens in April, the United Nations has predicted. How has the estimate been made?

It is based on official data as well as extrapolating the trend of birth, mortality, and international migration. China had the highest global population for quite some time. However, China reported that in 2022, its population has declined by about 8.5 lakh. Historically, China had never experienced a decline of population, except in

1961, at the time of famine. This is why India is going to surpass China’s population even at a time when India’s population has almost stabilised. There was a time, in the 1960s or 1970s, when it was thought and many people still believe that India’s high

population has been the primary cause of its poverty and distress. It is known that due to this overwhelming fear, a forceful sterilization policy was adopted in the 1970s. This policy was resented by a large section of the population and eventually culminated in weakening of the popular base of the Indian National Congress.

In truth India’s population growth is not that high. The National Family Health Survey reported in 2021 that the total fertility rate had, for the first time, dipped below the replacement rate of 2.1. This means to keep the population size stable; a country needs to attain the rate of 2.1. That means on an average, one woman in a country gives birth to 2.1 children in her lifetime. It should ideally be 2. But due to some accidents or diseases some people may die untimely. This is why 2.1 has been taken as an established figure as a replacement rate.

The projection of India’s population by the United Nations is important. The forecast has been to grow the population level from its current 1.4 billion to 1.67 billion in 2050. It will be peaked at 1.7 billion in 2064 and will settle at 1.53 billion in 2100. But many demographers believe that India’s population will stabilise much earlier and it will start declining much earlier as well.

The most prominent figure in population theory has been Thomas Malthus, a British economist. About 240 years have passed since the publication of his Essays on the Principles of Population but his ideas are still the objects of heated ideological and political discussion. Malthusianism stands for “the population theory which maintains that all human disasters are the result of overpopulation regardless of social order” (page 260, A Science in its Youth by A Aniknin, Progress Publisher). Aniknin also says that Malthusianism maintains that the central problem of the developing countries is a surplus and an excessively rapid growth of population.

The World Population Report 2023 points out a very important message. It observes that population fluctuations are not new archaeological evidence which indicates that there have been periods of rapid population growth followed by population declines throughout human history (Shennan and Sear, 2021).

But most historical population busts were driven by periods of mass early mortality, induced by events such as war, famines, and epidemics. Still almost all current causes of falling population size are attributable to declining fertility and emigration rather than mass mortality events. Today most experts agree population changes are normal, and population sizes are neither good nor bad, what is needed are resilient system that can respond to the needs of the population.

The Report 2023 emphatically points out that whether a country has “too high” or “too low” population is a matter of perception of individual members of a country. It depends on the state of the economy and its historical position. The world with eight billion population fears about ageing anxiety. At the same time, many countries like India where the share of young population has been high cannot utilise the so-called demographic dividend by properly utilising its youth in the production system. India with its 65% of working age population, almost half of which is less than 25 years of age, has the potential for remarkable socio-economic development.

Recently a report mentions an IMF working paper titled,’ Demographic Dividend: Evidence from the Indian states. This is written by Sekher Aiyar and Ashoka Modi. They observed that demographic dividend could add up to 2% points to per capita GDP growth per annum.

One can look at the development path of East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or even China. They followed the path of state sponsored capitalism. However, before moving in that direction, they had already achieved strong human quality by emphasising on the need for developed education, health, etc. India can follow that path and lower the dependence on automatic inflow of capital by opening the economy. The first target

should be to produce items of high mass consumption for daily use for India’s own people at very reasonable prices. This will naturally create a stronger industrial base and employment opportunity and strong effective demand in the economy. So, a high population is not necessarily an obstacle to development but is a favourable factor for development.


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Vol 55, No. 47, May 21 - 27, 2023