India’s demographic journey of hits and misses

From pulling back from the brink of a demographic disaster to striving to reach the target year of 2030 for the Sustainable Development Goals, there is much to look at in the country

Updated - July 11, 2024 10:49 am IST

Published - July 11, 2024 12:16 am IST

“India’s population dynamics is intertwined with its ‘development’ scenario’”

“India’s population dynamics is intertwined with its ‘development’ scenario’” | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As we observe World Population Day on July 11, there is much to look at in India’s demographic journey over the decades. It was in 1989 that the United Nations established the day after Dr. K.C. Zachariah, a renowned demographer, had proposed the concept of a ‘World Population Day’. The world population had touched five billion in 1987 and challenges such as poverty, health and gender inequality were plaguing the world, developing countries in particular.

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s were scary as the global population was growing at a yearly rate of 2%. For India, there was a prediction of doom. This meant that widespread poverty, hunger and deaths were soon to follow in the next decades. However, despite the predictions, the next decades told a different story altogether. Global fertility rates declined rapidly. Due to improvements in living conditions and medical infrastructure, life expectancy increased. In India too, fertility rates began to fall since the 1970s and at present is below the replacement level. India’s progress in many health parameters has been outstanding. There have been significant reductions in maternal and child mortality.

In 2015, the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which were soon recognised as important metrics in assessing the progress of nations. With 2030, the target year, drawing closer, India’s progress in the SDGs should be understood particularly in light of its population dynamics.

India’s population dynamics

Three components, namely fertility, mortality, and migration, play a pivotal role in shaping India’s demographic landscape. India has made significant strides in reducing its fertility. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5, India’s total fertility rate (TFR) decreased from 3.4 to 2 between 1992 and 2021, dropping below the replacement level of 2.1. There has been a significant drop in the mortality rate as well. The average life expectancy of Indians has also increased over time. With this, India is experiencing a demographic shift, towards an ageing population. According to the 2011 Census, individuals aged 60 years and above constituted 8.6% of the total population. The figure is projected to rise up to 19.5% by 2050. But what really do these changing dynamics signify?

India’s population dynamics is intertwined with its ‘development’ scenario. The reduction in fertility signifies a transition toward smaller family norms. This can reduce the proportion of the dependent population and result in a demographic dividend — a period where the working-age population is larger than the dependent population. India can harness the potential of its young workforce by creating employment. The decline in mortality and increase in life expectancy are reflections of a robust health-care system and increased living standards. The issue of population ageing, however, requires a long-term plan — focusing on geriatric care and providing social security benefits. Migration and urbanisation are also critical issues. Rapid rural to urban migration is posing a threat to the existing urban infrastructure. Among all these, gender equality also finds an important place. Women labour force participation, which is straggling, their notable absence from political representation and their unending plight within society are the silent issues which can sabotage India’s path to 2030.

With six years in hand to meet the targets, India’s road to 2030 crosses the path with its population dynamics. Population issues such as gender equality and socio-cultural divides cannot be ignored in the journey to achieve SDGs. It is only with a thorough understanding that India will be able to achieve a ‘development’ which is sustainable in its truest sense.

The country’s SDG journey

‘Development’ in the simplest way means ensuring the basic requirements of food, shelter and health for all. ‘No Poverty, Zero Hunger and Good Health’ are the three most important SDGs which form the core of ‘development’. India’s journey from the brink of a demographic disaster to striving towards the 2030 goal of ‘leaving no one behind’ has seen a couple of hits and misses.

India made great leaps towards the goal of eradicating poverty. The proportion of the population living below the poverty line reduced from 48% to 10% between 1990 and 2019. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) that came into effect in 2006 played a critical role in addressing rural poverty. The Janani Suraksha Yojana of 2005 — it provides cash benefits to pregnant women — not only accentuated institutional deliveries but also saved poor families from hefty health expenditures.

In his controversial book, The Population Bomb (1968), Paul R. Ehrlich raised serious questions about India’s ability to feed its population in the years to come. With the Green Revolution, India became self-sufficient in crop production and averted a catastrophe. The proportion of the population suffering from hunger reduced from 18.3% in 2001 to 16.6% in 2021. However, India’s nutrition picture is not completely rosy. India contributes a third of the global burden of malnutrition. Though the Indian government launched the Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for. Holistic Nourishment (POSHAN) Abhiyaan in 2018, it will still require a miracle to fulfil the target of ‘Zero Hunger’ by 2030.

Health is one sector in India where progress made has been remarkable. All the critical mortality indicators have seen steady declines. The Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) decreased from 384.4 in 2000 to 102.7 in 2020. The mortality rate for children under five reduced significantly post 2000s. The infant mortality rate also reduced from 66.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2000 to 25.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2021. Although India is still not near reaching the targets, it seems to be on the right track. These achievements show that there has been a significant improvement in the quality and coverage of health care.

Despite these achievements, India’s road towards 2030 is not easy. According to Oxfam, the top 10% of India’s population holds 77% of the national wealth. If the fruits of development are not equitably distributed and if development does not percolate to the poorest of the poor and the wealth scenario remains so skewed as it is now, ‘sustainable development’ can never be achieved in its truest sense. Absolute growth in GDP numbers has limited importance for a country where the top 1% holds 40% of the total wealth. Hunger and nutrition is another sector in crisis. In the Global Hunger Index (2023), India’s rank was 111 out of 125 countries. In terms of nutrition, stunting, wasting and underweight among children below five years and anaemia among women pose serious challenges. India’s epidemiological trajectory shows that the country has a double burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCD). This is a serious challenge for India which also combats the early onset of NCDs and the rising health needs of the elderly.

What needs looking into

For India to achieve the SDGs, the changing population dynamics has to be acknowledged while forming policies. India needs to address income inequality, harness its demographic dividend by creating job opportunities for the youth of India and address changing health needs. NCDs, which incur high out-of-pocket expenditures, are catastrophic for some families. India needs a stronger safety net to save these families from slipping into utter poverty. The nutrition scenario should be set right by strengthening programmes. This will require an increase in budgetary allocation for the health and nutrition sectors. Another, but often missed, paradigm of this entire development discussion is gender equality. A gender equal approach and empowerment of vulnerable women can solve most issues and propel India’s progress in the SDGs.

India still has a long journey to cover in order to meet all the targets of the SDGs. This will require multi-sectoral collaboration and political will. India’s progress in SDGs is directly proportional to the well-being of its population and the route to progress lies in a better understanding of its population dynamics and addressing the issues.

Paramita Majumdar is a doctoral fellow in population studies at the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai. Nitin Kumar is an independent researcher and a Legislative Assistant to Members of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow (2023-24), New Delhi

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