India’s Growing Population- Dividend or Burden? – The Core IAS

India’s Growing Population- Dividend or Burden?

Why are we even having this debate in the first place?

  • India’s population is expected to be bigger than China’s by the middle of this year at the latest, according to a UN study that came out on April 19. This is the first official confirmation of what has been thought for months. The annual State of World Population report from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) says that India will have 1,428 million people by the middle of 2023. This is just a little more than China, which will have 1,425 million people. India’s population has been slowly growing over the years, and experts have different views about whether this is dividend or burden.

Argument One: Why Dividend?

  • “Available demographic opportunity in the form of a greater share of the working age population has the potential to boost per capita GDP by an additional 43% by 2061, provided the socio-economic and political enabling environment is conducive”.
  • Demographers claim that population is not a burden in and of itself. Instead, what decides whether a population is a “resource” or a “burden” is its rate of growth, size, and diversity. As long as the country’s carrying capacity remains unharmed, the population is a resource. As the country with the biggest population in the world, there are advantages and disadvantages. India’s population is often younger, offering higher support ratios, and there are less illnesses, disabilities, and caregiving responsibilities. The opportunity for India must be compared to the effects of population decrease and ageing in various nations, including those with large economies like China, Japan, and the United States. To increase birth rates, the bulk of them have been enacting pro-natalist legislation. These efforts, however, have mainly proven fruitless. Once fertility starts to fall, it is challenging to turn it around.
  • According to recent analysis, there is a significant demographic opportunity that could have a major impact on per capita GDP in the coming decades. Specifically, if the working age population continues to grow at its current rate, there is the potential for a 43% increase in per capita GDP by the year 2061. However, this growth is contingent on a supportive socio-economic and political environment. India may face economic challenges if its total fertility rate falls below 1.8, according to experts. Drastic population control measures could potentially lead to forced population ageing, causing the nation to “age before prospering”. Invisible and unsustainable production, consumption, and unequal distribution are posing a greater threat than climate change and economic harm. These factors are causing significant damage, surpassing the impact of visible population size.
  • In 2007, Nicholas Eberstadt conducted a study titled ‘Too Many People?’ has revealed that there is no apparent link between poverty and population density. Despite the expectation that high population density leads to increased competition for resources, Monaco, a country with 40 times the population density of Bangladesh, is thriving. Bahrain, with a population density three times that of India, is noteworthy. Contrary to popular belief, population growth does not lead to poverty. In fact, it can actually contribute to greater prosperity. According to economist Julian Simon’s 1981 publication, there is a correlation between population growth and productivity throughout history. Simon observed that whenever there has been a surge in population, there has also been a corresponding increase in productivity. During the period between Malthus’s era and the present day, significant changes have occurred. In 1798, the global population was estimated to be approximately one billion individuals, whereas today, the world’s population is estimated to be around 7.7 billion people with increased productivity.
  • In the article, India becomes the most populous country: By Poonam Muttreja, A strange, even tragic, predicament faces the world. While one part of the planet is dealing with a growing population that needs food, jobs, education, and healthcare, the other is grappling with a declining population. Recently, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made a “now or never” appeal to the people of Japan, exhorting them to have more children. “Our nation is on the cusp of whether it can maintain its societal functions,” Kishida reportedly said. Similar trends have been reported in several other countries around the world. Several reasons are being attributed by scholars and demographers to this unwillingness of couples to have children. They range from inflation and the increasing costs of raising a child to a conscious choice made by couples to remain childless.
    Reducing population growth sometimes has a component of patriarchy. In this context, an unfavourable sex ratio has paralleled population decline in India and other nations like China, South Korea, and Japan, which generally favour male offspring and adhere to patriarchal norms. In China, the one-child policy is responsible for as many as 1.12 males per female.
  • According to recent analysis, there is a significant demographic opportunity that could potentially increase per capita GDP by 43% by 2061. This opportunity is in the form of a larger share of the working-age population. However, it is important to note that this growth is contingent upon a favourable socio-economic and political environment. India may face economic challenges if its total fertility rate falls below 1.8. Drastic population control measures could lead to forced population ageing, causing the nation to “age before prospering.” According to recent findings, the root cause of greater harm than climate change and economic damage lies in the production, consumption, and unequal distribution of resources, which is often invisible and unsustainable. This issue is deemed more significant than the visible factor of population size.
  • As a founding member of the United Nations, India has consistently maintained that its demand for a permanent seat on the Security Council is legitimate. According to John Wilmoth, the director of the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there are certain claims on things that come with being the country with the largest population. According to KS James, an expert from the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences, the changing demography of India holds significant importance.
  • The country is in need of policies that foster a conducive environment for the provision of top-notch education, quality healthcare, decent job opportunities, reliable infrastructure, and gender empowerment. India’s “demographic dividend” could turn into a “demographic burden” if the country fails to meet certain expectations.

Argument Two: Not a dividend, but a Burden

  • “Economic opportunity, more than national pride, shapes the working population’s aspiration and, in its absence, a naturally decelerating population will be of limited advantage”.
  • Amidst the national discourse surrounding population, the pendulum of opinion has shifted from perceiving it as a disadvantage to an advantage. However, it is crucial to examine this question while taking into account recent developments. The ongoing population debates have failed to address the pressing issue of the climate crisis and the growing number of migrants who, after years of working abroad, are choosing to become permanent immigrants. According to the External Affairs Minister, over 1.6 million Indians have renounced their citizenship since 2011, with 225,620 individuals doing so in 2022 alone – the highest number recorded during this period. These figures were shared with Parliament in February, highlighting the need for a more nuanced approach to population discussions. The aspirations of the working population are shaped more by economic opportunity than national pride. Without such opportunities, a naturally declining population will not be of much benefit. According to economists, India, with the largest number of working-age individuals, must not only generate more employment opportunities to sustain its exceptional growth but also cultivate work environments that are conducive to women.
  • Despite advancements in education, healthcare, and labour policies, recent data and statistics reveal that less than one-third of women in India are either employed or actively seeking employment. “The absence of women from the labour market reduces productivity and leads to income inequality,” said Mayurakshi Dutta, a researcher at Oxfam India, which attributed the low labour force participation of women to gender discrimination in terms of wages and opportunities in a 2022 report.
  • The latest data from the World Bank reveals a decline in the representation of women in India’s formal and informal workforce. In 2021, women accounted for 23% of the workforce, a decrease from almost 27% in 2005. Neighbouring Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have reported approximately 32% and 34.5% respectively, in contrast to the aforementioned statistic. According to data released by the Union government, the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) has witnessed a significant increase from 18.6% in 2018/19 to 25.1% in 2020/21. According to researchers, there exist several reasons for the shortage of women in the workforce. These include factors such as marriage, childcare, and domestic work, as well as disparities in skills and education, higher household incomes, safety concerns, and a dearth of employment opportunities.
  • According to a report by McKinsey consulting firm in 2018, policy changes aimed at improving access to education, childcare, and flexible work setups could potentially address the issues faced by women in the workforce. The report suggests that such changes could lead to a significant increase in the number of working women and add hundreds of billions of dollars to India’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025.
  • According to demographers, the ageing population of India is not receiving adequate attention. India had a median age of 21 in the year 1947. Only 5% of the population belonged to the age group of 60 and above, indicating a relatively low percentage. As of today, the median age of the Indian population has surpassed 28 years, with over 10% of the country’s citizens aged 60 and above. Southern Indian states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu attained replacement levels of population at least two decades ago. According to Rukmini S, the author of Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India, the government’s resources will face an increasing burden as the working-age population decreases and the older population requires more support. According to the source, there will be a need to restructure family units, and the number of elderly individuals living independently will become a growing cause for worry.
  • In his article, India becoming the most populous nation: is it a bane or boon? Sanjaya Baru asks, “Where does the celebratory response to India’s new status as the world’s most populous country come from? Clearly, in a world of declining population growth, especially among the developed economies, Indians would spread out and remain the diaspora over whom the sun would never set. Without doubt, out-migrating Indians have become assets for many developed economies — from the US to Australia, from Portugal to Japan. The question is, when would all Indians become assets for their homeland?” He adds on further by emphasising that the pattern of population growth has had many consequences for economic policy, including trade policy, internal and external migration, political demographics, demand for public services, the use of natural resources, and inter-regional variations in growth. Almost all these challenges were addressed within the wider framework of population growth being a bane rather than a boon. India’s multilateral, plurilateral, and bilateral trade agreements have been demanding access to overseas jobs, employment visas, and so on, in the relentless pursuit of overseas employment opportunities.
  • The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman answered that question in a 1955 note titled “A Memorandum to the Government of India 1955”, to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Friedman was not in favour of public investment in manufacturing, but strongly advocated public investment in education. Friedman wrote to Nehru to invest in human capital. Convert people from being liabilities into assets. An ill-educated, ill-equipped, and socially and culturally backward population is an economic liability. Educated, healthy, productive, and capable people are a national asset. Indeed, an asset to humanity Yet, even today, we do not have a socially and economically relevant education policy, except in patches. The best schools are increasingly putting students into the global market. The outmigration of students has risen sharply over the past decade. If this is one end of the spectrum, at the other end, provincial and communal politicians are obsessed with history and language, not worried about basic learning skills and the creation of a knowledge-based economy and society.
  • What we are left with is a skewed educational system that, on the one hand, produces pupils for the global market and, on the other, puts out poorly educated, linguistically limited, bigoted, and chauvinistic youth who have to be retrained to be employed. In the vacuum created by inadequate public investment in school education, the private sector is rushing in and now boldly demanding a change of policy that will allow for-profit educational institutions. A nation that cannot offer proper education to all will forever find its population a burden rather than a dividend.

Argument Three: Neither burden nor dividend, but it needs to work on the key mechanisms to make it dividend

  • “The country needs to work on the key mechanisms which translate a demographic bonus into economic dividend”.
  • India finds itself at a pivotal moment in history, with the potential to leverage its demographic advantage in order to achieve its economic objectives. As per the latest population projections released by the Indian government, more than half of the country’s population, precisely 53.6%, is expected to be under the age of 29 in the year 2021. India has a significant proportion of its population, over a quarter, that is 14 years old or younger. The productivity of this youthful group is contingent upon the skill sets they acquire, as they have the potential to either excel or underperform.
  • According to the Express View, with India being the most populous country in the world, opportunities and challenges abound. With a total fertility rate of 2.0 in 2023, India is already at replacement level fertility, meaning two children replace their parents. This indicates that the population is on a path towards stabilisation. However, it continues to experience positive growth, but in a decelerated mode until 2064, from which point it will become negative growth. The peak of India’s population size will be around 169.6 crore in 2063.
  • However, if one looks at only the total population size, which is often assumed to be the number of mouths to feed, it is grossly misleading. The age composition of the population is a crucial factor to consider as it sheds light on the available support ratios. This ratio is determined by the number of individuals within the working age population (15-64 years) in comparison to those within the dependent population (0-14 years and 65 years and above).
  • Looking at the population composition of India, there are greater prospects for a demographic dividend than a burden. According to recent data, the country is set to benefit from a demographic window of opportunity for the next 35 years, with 68% of the working age population projected for 2023. This presents a significant economic dividend for the nation. While a demographic window of opportunity may exist, it does not guarantee an economic dividend. The imperative for the country is to focus on the essential mechanisms that convert a demographic surplus into a financial benefit.