Development planners, administrators and researchers working on demographic issues must have been surprised and some may even have been disappointed with the figures of the World Population Prospects (WPP) released a week ago. The latter had projected in the middle of the Nineties that India’s population will be 1.53 billion in 2050 and maintained this till the first decade of the 21st century. This was generally considered to be on the conservative side. Projected population figures from the Registrar General of India (RGI) are not available for that year but in 2006, it had placed the Indian population in 2025 to be 1.39 billion and revised it up to 1.41 billion in its 2020 projection. Both the figures were higher than the UN figure of 1.33 billion for that year.
There was a paradigm shift in the WPP of 2015 which placed the population figure in 2025 at 1.46 billion, way above that of their own, as also those of the RGI. It had placed the figure for 2050 at 1.70 billion and thought that population stabilisation will take place only in 2068 at 1.75 billion. The figures have been considered to be on the higher side. Happily, the latest WPP of 2022 has revised the figures down to 1.45 billion in 2025 and 1.67 billion in 2050. Furthermore, it predicted that India’s population will get stabilised in 2064 at 1.70 billion, four years ahead of the last projected year.
There was an expectation that the 2022 report will bring the population projections to a much lower level since there has been rapid decline in fertility and birth rate as per the Sample Registration System as well as the National Family Health Surveys. Except Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Manipur and Meghalaya, all states now record replacement level of fertility of 2.1 or below that. The total population, however, will continue to grow because of a larger share of people entering the reproductive age group of 15-49 (momentum factor). All states have witnessed an increase in the use of modern contraceptives, resulting in 2 per cent decline in the birth rate per year.
Given this macro scenario, scholars like C Rangarajan, K Srinath Reddy and organisations like Lancet had predicted that population stabilisation will take place below 1.6 billion by the mid-50s, if not by 2045 as envisaged in the National Population Policy. Also, it was expected that WPP would bring down the projected population for 2050 closer to its earlier prediction of 1.53 billion. The result that India will overtake China in 2023, five years ahead of the year predicted earlier, therefore, is inexplicable, with no dramatic fall in the Indian death rate. The available evidence, unfortunately, does not permit any probing into the changes in the parameters that led to WPP projections for India shooting up in 2015 and then recording a very modest decline in 2022. One of the fallouts of the Covid pandemic has been the postponement of the decennial population census, which, notwithstanding the controversies linked to the proposed preparation of different kinds of registers of citizens, could have ended the speculative controversy.
While the size of the population is indeed a matter of concern, the distribution of the population by age plays a significant part in shaping future development dynamics and the WPP projections are important for this. In countries where large segments comprise the young and elderly, whose engagement in gainful economic activities is minimal, the dependency ratios are high. The percentage of people above 65 years of age (sometimes 60 years-plus are considered) and children below 14 years to the people in the working-age groups of 15–64 years was 80, as per the 1991 Indian Census. This number has declined steadily and was 57.2 in 2011. The World Bank data also shows that during 1960-2021, the dependency ratio declined from 75 per cent to 55 per cent globally, although in recent years it is showing an increasing trend. For India, the Bank has reported a figure of 48 per cent in 2021. The latest PLFS survey has estimated the dependency ratio as much lower, at 44.3 per cent only for the same year. As per the WPP of 2022, the dependency ratio in India was 82 per cent in 1965, below that of the Census in 2011 and declines continuously to 45.1 in 2031. The WPP 2021 figure, however, is higher than that of PLFS, the two figures being 48.1 and 44.3. The Indian perspective on dependency, thus, is more optimistic than that of the World Bank or UN. The dependency tends to go up systematically after that till 2100.
There are significant variations in the dependency rates across states as seen from the PLFS 2020-21. While less developed states reporting high birth rates like UP (51.3), Bihar (58.3), Jharkhand (53.1) and Rajasthan (50.4) have dependency rates above 50 per cent, Meghalaya tops the list (66). The southern states of Karnataka (40.4), Telangana (34.8) and Tamil Nadu (38) have much lower dependency ratios, along with West Bengal (35.8).
Underlying the claim that lower dependency implies economic advantage to a nation is the fact that an economically active population produces dividends leading to intergenerational income transfers. In view of this, the dependency ratio based on age structure alone can be misleading when a substantial portion of the working age population is not economically active or in subsistence employment, not uncommon in India. Complacency arising from low age-based dependency would hide the fact that a much larger number is dependent on a smaller economically active population. This will remain so until it is possible to find decent work for the working age population, particularly women and socially marginalised groups, for whom the deficits are very large. Interestingly, in the age group 15 to 64, we have just 55 per cent reporting any kind of employment in India. If we are to use only the working persons in the relevant age group in the denominator, the dependency ratio would actually work out to be alarmingly high at 124 per cent.
Kundu is a distinguished Fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries and Mohanan is former head of the National Statisitical Commission.