India population
India’s median age today is around 29 — meaning, that half of India’s population is younger than that Image Credit: Luis Quintero

One of the things pandemics do is reduce population. And that’s one of the ways countries perish: pandemics (or other calamities) wipe off the large parts of the population, so there is not enough people left to work and keep the economy running.

In his excellent book, The Age of Pandemics (1817-1920), Chinmay Tumbe writes about the 14th century plague: “In relatively underpopulated Spain and in eastern Europe, the pandemic may have further worsened the position of labour as the smaller workforce could not make the most of existing natural resources.”

That line immediately reminded me of how grateful we in India should be for having a large young population. This is an economic asset. We should be proud of it.

Tumbe further suggests that the pandemics (plague, cholera and influenza) between 1817-1920 reduced Asia’s population and economic growth, as Asia and particularly India were especially affected by these pandemics, killing millions of people.

Asia’s contribution to global economic output fell from 50 per cent to 20 per cent in this period, knows as the ‘Great Divergence’, when western Europe and North America left Asia in economic heft.

An unused asset

The basic economics that labour is a factor of production needs to be reiterated in today’s India as politicians have begun complaining there are too many of us for them to look after. Some 1.3 billion people and growing.

India’s median age today is around 29 — meaning, that half of India’s population is younger than that.

This young population should be producing goods for the entire world in factories we don’t have because our politicians have been bad at their jobs.

This young population should be trained in medicine so that India has no shortage of doctors but our politicians build more memorials than medical colleges.

This young population should help make India the world’s top medical, financial and educational hub but our politicians haven’t invested enough in educating and skilling this population, or giving them access to affordable health care.

And so the politicians are falling back, once again, on blaming the people for being too many of them.

Examples from Bangladesh and China

This happens usually when politicians fail at governance. When things are going well, politicians can’t stop talking about 1.3 billion people. World’s largest democracy, world’s largest election, world’s largest this, world’s largest that. But when things are not going so well, they’ll tell you of India’s population challenge.

Firstly, if India has a large population it also has a large land area, a large amount of natural and economic resources. We must then measure things in per square kilometre, per 1000 people, and per capita terms.

There are 7 countries with population density greater than India’s. Top of the list is Bangladesh. But Bangladesh isn’t whining about population these days. Their GDP growth rate, per capita income, most human development indicators and their COVID control, are all doing better than India.

Even if we were to look at absolute numbers, China despite its 1 child norm for decades (recently changed) has a greater population than India’s. And yet the Chinese economy is 5 times that of India.

Using population as a scapegoat for governance failure is so 1970s. That this old excuse is back — is symptomatic of how India has regressed, and how we are erasing the gains we made with economic liberalisation.

In 2021, the population argument has no leg to stand on, as India’s Total Fertility Rate has been declining, and now stands at 2.1, which is the replacement rate. India’s fertility rate as a whole stands at 2.2.

Myth that people want more than 2 children

In the 1990s, public health experts were able to persuade the Indian government the problem was not that poor Indians wanted more working hands at the farm. The problem was that women and men didn’t have access to health services to aid in family planning.

This is why the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have the worst public health infrastructure, also have high Total Fertility Rates. The idea that some Indians — those who are poor — want more than 2 children is just not true.

Yes, high fertility rates coincide with poverty because the poor can’t spend well on family planning and maternal health.

India is said to have a window of demographic dividend between 2018 to 2055, when the dependent population (children and the elderly) are fewer than the working age population. Eventually, India’s population will begin to age and decline. China is now encouraging its citizens to have more children. One day India will be doing the same. Just a few decades from now.

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently asked the minority community in his state to “control the population explosion”.

The fact is that Assam with a 1.9 Total Fertility Rate has no population ‘explosion’. Assam’s Muslims too are showing signs of rapid adoption of family planning, with their Total Fertility Rate declining from 3.64 in 2005 to 2.4 in 2020. At this rate, it will definitely fall below the replacement rate of 2.1 very soon.

But politicians don’t let facts come in the way of blaming the people for their own governance failures.