Behind the numbers, a complex story of birth and ageing

Baby Nargis, the world's seven billionth person, born in Uttar Pradesh on Monday, and the 102-year-old Hilla Sorab Billimoria of Kolkata represent, between them, two ends of India's complex population story.

At one end are the staggering numbers. With an estimated 1.21 billion people, India is a “population billionaire,” next only to China (1.34 billion), as the UN Population Fund described the country in a recent report titled ‘India@7 billion.'

By 2025, India will overtake China to become the world's most populous country, with the numbers expected to exert enormous pressure on national resources.

That 11 babies of the 51 born in India every minute are, like Baby Nargis, born in UP, among the lowest ranking Indian States on the human development index, highlights the imperatives for Indian planners: providing access to food, water, health, shelter, sanitation, education and jobs to all; at the same time, balancing these against scarce resources, safeguarding the environment and protecting against climate change.

But India's decadal population growth rate, which touched a high of over 24 per cent in the 1970s, is slowing down. According to the 2011 census, it was 17.64 per cent in the last decade. That presents both opportunities and challenges.

The opportunity is the demographic “dividend” of a “youth bulge”: 50 per cent of India's population is under the age of 25. That means more working hands, especially as women join the work force in greater numbers.

But the UNPF has warned that this “opportunity clock is ticking fast.” The youth bulge witnessed a peak in 2000, and its effects will be felt only until 2025, when the number of dependents, aided by decreasing mortality rates, begins to rise.

India will not only need to keep its young population usefully employed, but also needs to plan for an ageing population.

In 2001, there were 80 million elderly people in India. Ms. Billimoria belongs to the Parsi community, which represents a separate problem of a vanishing people: Parsis now number around 60,000 in India; Kolkata counts only 600 among its residents.

Ms. Billimoria lives in a family of four living generations. But others are not so fortunate. The UNPF estimated that in 2001, as many as 30 million elderly lived alone. The number of elderly is expected to increase to 173 million by 2026. This highlights the need to build support systems for the aged.

The other, perhaps more important, challenge is the falling sex ratio and the “vanishing” girl population. The 2011 census showed a steep fall in the sex ratio, from 927.31 girls for every 1000 boys in 2001 to 914.23 a decade later. The shaming numbers underscore the fact that laws have done nothing to curb female foeticide or change the cultural preference for a boy child.