The announcement in the interim Budget of a “high-powered committee to extensively consider the challenges arising from rapid population growth and demographic changes” is groundbreaking.
Given its multifaceted mandate, as it is to make “recommendations on how to address these challenges in line with the goal of ‘Viksit Bharat’”, the anticipation is that there will be a formulation of policies and strategies to manage population growth. This will mean addressing issues such as family planning, maternal and child health, education, employment, and socio-economic development. To do so, this population committee must adopt an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on expertise from fields such as demography, public health, economics, sociology, and governance.
Through rigorous research, data analysis, and a monitoring of demographic trends, the committee should identify emerging issues and evaluate the effectiveness of existing interventions. Collaboration with various stakeholders, including government agencies, non-governmental organisations, civil society groups, academia, and the private sector, is essential to fostering partnerships and enabling collective action to carry out population-related policies and programmes at the national and grass-root levels. In addition to policy formulation and implementation, the committee should lay emphasis on public awareness and education campaigns. By empowering individuals and communities with accurate information and resources, it should promote responsible family planning practices and improve health outcomes. The population committee should also facilitate international collaboration and the exchange of best practices in population management.
Past, present and future
India’s demographic landscape has undergone significant shifts over the years. With women having fewer children, the working-age population increasing, and the elderly population rising steadily, there has been a decrease in the dependency ratio, leading to economic growth. However, navigating the opportunities and challenges presented by these demographic changes will significantly shape India’s future economic and demographic landscape.
According to the latest projections by the United Nations, India’s population is expected to reach 1.46 billion by 2030, comprising 17% of the world’s projected population. While India experienced phenomenal population growth until the 1970s, growth rates have slowed since then, with fertility levels in steady decline. This decline, which is reflected in the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), has been instrumental in shaping India’s demographic trajectory. With the TFR projected to touch 1.73 in 2031-35 from 2.5 in 2009-11 to, India will witness a demographic transition characterised by a decreasing proportion of the child population and an increasing proportion of the working-age population.
The demographic dividend, resulting from a sustained drop in fertility rates and an increased concentration of the population in the working age group, presents an opportunity for accelerated economic growth per capita. However, realising this potential necessitates investments in health, education, and skill development to harness the demographic dividend effectively. Projections for life expectancy in India also show positive trends, with female and male life expectancies expected to rise. Moreover, the proportion of the working age population is projected to increase, giving India an opportunity to capitalise on its demographic advantage.
To maximise the benefits of a favourable age distribution, India must invest in greater development of its human capital. This includes initiatives to create new jobs, integrate the informal sector with the formal sector, and empower the female labour force to increase their participation rate. Additionally, efforts to address gender disparities, improve access to education and health care, and promote family planning practices are crucial in ensuring inclusive and sustainable development.
Health, education, employment challenges
One of the key challenges in India’s demographic landscape is ensuring access to quality health care and education for every segment of the population. Public spending on health has remained around 1% of GDP, underscoring the need for policies that prioritise health promotion and allocate greater finances to health infrastructure. Initiatives to strengthen primary health care, particularly in the rural areas, have yielded results which include improved child and maternal health care and higher life expectancy rates. However, challenges persist, especially regarding nutritional deprivation among children, leading to hunger insecurity and impairing physical and cognitive development. Addressing these challenges requires concerted efforts to ensure access to essential commodities, nutrition programmes targeting vulnerable populations, and interventions to improve water availability and sanitation.
Similarly, investments in education and skill development are crucial in order to realise India’s demographic dividend. According to UNICEF, nearly 47% of Indian youth may lack the necessary education and skills for employment by 2030. The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated these challenges, with over 250 million children forced out of school, causing significant setbacks in learning outcomes. To address these issues, increased investment in nutrition and early childhood education is crucial. It is suggested that pre-primary education is included in the Right to Education Act. Designing play-based flexible curricula, and engaging parents, communities, and stakeholders to generate demand for early childhood education are other measures to improve outcomes. Additionally, efforts to bridge the gap between existing skill development initiatives and industry requirements are essential to reduce unemployment and increase productivity.
Evidence-based decision making
A critical challenge for evidence-based policy is the availability of accurate and timely data. India faces significant challenges regarding the non-availability of current and reliable data on its population, which hampers evidence-based policymaking. It is crucial that the population committee includes improvements in data collection methodologies, technology adoption, capacity building, and collaboration with stakeholders. To address this challenge, India needs to invest in modernising its data infrastructure, which includes establishing robust systems for data collection, management, and analysis. This involves upgrading data collection methods, adopting digital technologies for data processing, and ensuring data security and privacy. Regular and comprehensive national censuses and surveys are crucial for collecting demographic data. India should prioritise the timely and accurate execution of these initiatives, ensuring coverage of all population segments, including marginalised and hard-to-reach populations.
Implementing rigorous validation and quality assurance mechanisms is essential to ensure the reliability and accuracy of population data. Independent audits, data validation exercises, and peer review processes can help identify and rectify data errors and inconsistencies. It would be vital for the committee to explore the feasibility of including such quality assurance methods within the statistical system. Another promising area is the promotion of open data initiatives and transparency in data sharing, which can facilitate access to population data for researchers, policymakers, and the public. Making population data freely available in standardised formats promotes data reuse, transparency, and accountability.
Finally, collaboration with international organisations such as the United Nations Population Division, World Bank, and academic institutions can provide access to global best practices, technical expertise, and funding opportunities for population data collection and analysis.
India’s demographic landscape presents both opportunities and challenges for the country’s socio-economic development. By adopting a holistic approach to population management, prioritising investments in health, education, employment, and statistical systems; and promoting gender equality and social inclusion, India can realise its demographic potential and achieve inclusive and sustainable development. With strategic planning, effective implementation, and international collaboration, India can navigate its demographic transition to emerge as a global leader in inclusive and sustainable development.
C. Chandramouli is a former Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. The views expressed are personal