India’s population could surpass that of China in just seven years — making it the most populous nation on Earth. This timeframe far exceeds that which was reported just two years ago, which suggested India would reach this point in around fourteen years.
The Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, cited data from the World Population Prospects Report, 2019 in a statement to the Rajya Sabha, which projected that India’s population would exceed China’s by around 2027. He added that according to Census 2011 data India’s decadal growth rate was 17.7 percent.
Data from the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) and the Sample Registration System (SRS) found a number of key points indicating that, while India’s population is indeed surpassing China’s, it may plateau shortly afterwards due to increased awareness of contraceptives and a declining fertility rate.
India’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) declined from 2.9 in 2005 to 2.2 in 2017 (SRS). This reduction places the fertility rate just above the replacement level of 2.1, meaning that the population figure could be expected to show a very marginal increase if it were to remain at this level. A level of 2.1 allows for maintenance of a population, allowing two children for every two parents on average: the additional 0.1 accounts for infant mortality.
Notably, the teenage birth rate has halved from sixteen percent (as per NFHS-3) to eight percent (NFHS IV). Such a decrease is indicative that education regarding contraceptives among young adults has at least somewhat improved. This hypothesis is reinforced by further information indicating that 99.5 percent of currently married men and women are aware about any modern method of contraception. In addition, the Wanted Fertility Rate declined between NFHS-3 and NFHS-4, from 1.9 to 1.8. According to the SRS, between 2015 and 2017, Crude Birth Rate declined from 23.8 to 20.2.
India and China alone hold the distinction of having populations that number in excess of a billion. Such a vast number of people within a single country creates unique problems to the healthcare system. Population density is one of the most prominent issues. India’s cities often house tens of millions of people. Providing enough doctors and sufficient infrastructure to address the demands and needs of such a population is a logistical issue of immense proportions. Failure to accommodate in this regard results in significantly hindered access to healthcare.
While increasing, it does look as though India’s population growth is slowing to a crawl. This could be welcome news to an already severely overburdened health system, although this in itself provides issues — namely an aging population, bringing with it a rise in noncommunicable conditions of which age is a key risk factor. Such issues require public health authorities to strategise and prepare, building on existing interventions and formulating new ones so that the public health system is fit for purpose in addressing the population’s needs.