India's population may have already surpassed China's; however, there are profound differences between city and country, north and south. The greatest concerns are stress on metropolitan infrastructures and job creation for young people.
Milan (AsiaNews) – Even before China recognised its demographic decline, the United Nations released demographic forecasts in July 2022 indicating that India’s population would overtake China’s this year.
Since 1960 India’s growth has been phenomenal, from 450 million to more than 1.4 billion today. Uneven and marked by a slight slowdown in recent years, the fertility rate dropped from 5.9 in 1960 to 2.24 in 2020, with a huge gap between rural and urban areas, and between northern and southern states.
Despite lower fertility, experts do not expect India to undergo the same demographic slump as China; on the contrary, the National Commission on Population expects the population to increase to 1.52 billion by 2036, while the United Nations sees 2064 as the peak year with 1.7 billion.
It is necessary to point out, however, that uncertainty surrounds data collection in India. The census takes place every 10 years, but the last one, in 2021, was postponed by the government to a later date. For this reason, many international observers believe that India may have already overtaken China.
What is certainty though is that India today has the highest number of births in the world, with 24 million newborns per year according to the UN.
Compared to the past, more and more children are born in megacities like Mumbai, which has 22 million inhabitants, 40 per cent living in slums.
Migration to cities will be one of the factors shaping demographic trends in the coming years, placing urban infrastructures under unprecedented stress, even if, compared to rural areas, urban fertility rates are already falling.
Government data indicate that today about a third of India’s population lives in urban areas, rising to 40 per cent by 2030.
In big cities, women are already having fewer children than their rural counterparts, resulting in different fertility rates: 2.4 in the countryside compared to 1.7 in the cities (2017 data).
This gap is also regional. India’s north is still comparatively underdeveloped, while the south is richer, more progressive and with slower population growth.
According to some observers, India may even be facing a baby boom and an aging population all at once: It is estimated that over the next 15 years, people in the southern state of Tamil Nadu will be on average 12 years older than their counterpart in Bihar.
Over the coming decade, one third of the population increase will be driven by just two northern states, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
In Bihar, a woman still gives birth to three or more children, with population stability, defined by a fertility rate of 2.1, expected only in 2039, a level that Kerala, one of the most developed states in the country, reached in 1998.
What everyone is asking is whether the Indian government will be able to cope with the challenges posed by such fast and unequal growth. The median age in India is 28.4 years, while female participation in the labour force was only 19 per cent in 2021.
Youth unemployment stands at 23 per cent, a percentage that translates into huge numbers. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, where the median age is 20 years, 3.4 million unemployed are under 25.
To absorb young workers into the labour market, India needs to create at least 90 million non-agricultural jobs (a sector in which 45 per cent of the population is engaged) by 2030.
The coming decades therefore present a great opportunity for the Indian economy, but if the Indian government fails to deal with the problems related to such rapid and uneven growth, the Indian population boom risks turning into a catastrophe.
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