India’s population in 2050: extreme projections demand extreme actions

Author: Ranjit Goswami, IMT, Nagpur

In 2050 India’s population is projected to be 1.69 billion — China’s will be 1.31 billion.


India has experienced extraordinary population growth: between 2001 and 2011 India added 181 million people to the world, slightly less than the entire population of Brazil. But 76 per cent of India’s population lives on less than US$2 per day (at purchasing power parity rates). India ranks at the bottom of the pyramid in per capita-level consumption indicators not only in energy or electricity but in almost all other relevant per capita-level consumption indicators, despite high rates of growth in the last decade.

Much of India’s population increase has occurred among the poorest socio-economic percentile. Relatively socio-economically advanced Indian states had a fertility rate of less than 2.1 in 2009 — less than the level needed to maintain a stable population following infant mortality standards in developed nations. But in poorer states like Bihar, fertility rates were nearer to 4.0.

Does this growth mean India can rely on the demographic dividendto spur development? This phenomenon, which refers to the period in which a large proportion of a country’s population is of working age, is said to have accounted for between one-fourth and two-fifths of East Asia’s ‘economic miracle’ as observed late last century.

But India is not East Asia. Its population density is almost three times the average in East Asia and more than eight times the world average of 45 people per square kilometre. If India has anywhere near 1.69 billion people in 2050, it will have more than 500 people per square kilometre. Besides, in terms of infrastructure development India currently is nowhere near where East Asian nations were before their boom. In terms of soft to hard infrastructure, spanning education, healthcare, roads, electricity, housing, employment growth and more, India is visibly strained.

For example, India has an installed energy capacity of little more than 200 gigawatts; China has more than 1000 gigawatts and aims to generate 600 gigawatts of clean electricity by 2020. To make matters worse, many of the newly installed power stations in India face an acute shortage of coal, and future supply is not guaranteed. China mines close to four billion tonnes of coal per year, which has a negative effect on both local and global air quality. At some stage, it is probably inevitable that India will need much greater capacity than its present rate of mining 600 million tonnes of coal per year, which is also causing local and global pollution levels to rise — parts of India face air quality problems similar to those in China. On oil, India imports close to 80 per cent of its crude oil requirements, while it also runs an unsustainable current account deficit of more than 5 per cent of its GDP, and reserves for new energy sources like shale gas do not look promising either.

India’s food supply is in an even worse position. As a member of India’s Planning Commission put it,we have a problem and it can be starkly put in the following way: around 2004–2005, our per capita food grains production was back to the 1970s level. In 2005–07, the average Indian consumed only 2,300 calories per day — below the defined poverty line in rural areas of 2,400 calories a day. The trend in recent years is for Indians to eat even less.

So, for India, treating lightly Malthusian predictions about food supply until 2050 or beyond may not be prudent. Worldwide food prices have been on the rise to unforeseen levels, and India too has been suffering from high food inflation.

Finally, even if India manages to feed its burgeoning population, its growth may not be ecologically sustainable. The global demand for water in 2050 is projected to be more than 50 per cent of what it was in 2000, and demand for food will double. On average, a thousand tons of water is required to produce one ton of food grains. It’s not surprising, then, that international disputes about water have increasingly been replicated among states in India, where the Supreme Court is frequently asked to intervene.

So have the policy responses been proportional to the gravity of the demographic, ecological and developmental problems facing India?

The probable answer is that policy makers have failed miserably on all measurable counts. If one compares India to China this becomes clear. While China’s one-child policy has been criticised as against human dignity and rights — and there is no denying that such measures should be avoided as far as possible — the history of human civilization teaches us that extreme situations call for extreme actions. There will be ample time for multiple schools to have their post-mortems on the success and failure of the one-child policy, but it has helped China to control its population by a possible 400 million people.

The US Census Bureau estimated in 2010 that China will hit its peak population of 1.4 billion in around 2026. China’s fertility rate has been lower than the replacement rate for more than two decades now. That means the one-child policy will have taken nearly 40 years to stabilise or reverse China’s population trend. How long will India take to get to that stage?

There is a distinct possibility of irreversible and unsustainable population growth and big question marks remain over how India will provide nearly 1.7 billion people with their basic minimum demands. In this environment to raise an alarm that turns out to be false is better than relying on comfortable slogans like the demographic dividend. The longer India delays acknowledging the severity of these problems and dealing with them head on, the graver the consequences are likely to be.

Ranjit Goswami is Dean (Academics) at the Institute of Management Technology, Nagpur.


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  • Lex Rieffel

    Mr. Goswami’s message is one that deserves to be highlighted. As an observer of the Indian scene for almost 50 years (beginning when its population was around 400 million), population growth must be the country’s paramount existential challenge. Moreover, it seems that there are only two options for stabilizing the population in the near term: an Indian version of the one-child policy or mass deaths due to starvation, disease, or conflict.

    • splooge

      The 1 child policy will result in a large dependant senior population like that of Europe and China. Graying nations are never good: encouraging immigration is the way to go.

      • Nitin

        That’s a weird suggestion! Immigration isn’t at the whim and fancy of India.
        China’s 1-child policy, despite the issues of human rights it raises, has been beneficial. And European countries have a good lifestyle, despite their being in economic depression for a while.It’s a crisis situation in India, that needs a solution. The current government is frustratingly unable to grapple with the issue.

        • Shell88

          So you want the poorest people in that country to pack up an move their entire family to another country? With no education and no money, they’ll just be poor somewhere else, but maybe there’s a chance they won’t starve to death. So okay I see your point a little.

    • Zhonghong Zheng

      India’s version of one-child policy would be greatly preferred

  • PG

    Well the developed world , especially the West , has to refuse immigration from India until they do something about excessive population growth .
    This is the only thing that will make the Indian government react , and Indians understand that they cannot go on in the way they are , often just for the sake of religion.
    The worlds resources are finite , and the pollution produced by countries like India is unacceptable today . Also the fact that the pollution from their rivers goes into the Indian Ocean and effects many countries in the world has to stop .

    • Dr Ashutosh Das

      India is a peculiar democratic country. There is no uniform rule here for the whole citizen. No. of marriages certainly be one of the indicators for population growth. But the number of marriages permitted officially is different for different communities. Single marriage system is a rule for one community but other communities are permitted many marriages for the sake of religion. How it can be solved? So, There is a big question mark regarding population control here.

      • Vivek

        Dr. Ashutosh Das, how do you explain the population explosion in Bihar, which has a very small Muslim population? While Muslims(your “other communities”) are permitted four wives for religious reasons, the reality is that they mostly have single spouses. If every Muslim adult male married four women, where do the women come from, given that the male:female ratio among Muslims is roughly 1.2:1? Population growth among Hindu communities in UP, Bihar, MP, etc., are at par with Muslims in the same areas, so how would you explain that?

        Population growth in India is a result of poverty, functional illiteracy(not the Indian standard of knowing how to write your name) and ignorance spurred on by religious propaganda from both Muslim and Hindu activist groups. Indian Christians and other minorities are falling below replacement birth rates, and Hindus in the south are not far behind. The main problem appears to be with Hindus and Muslims in the north, which is where religious fervor is highest.

        Furthermore, your “one community” includes Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Jews and tribals. You need to take off your religion blinders, which are a huge part of the problems of India today.

        • suman chakraborty

          Whether you like it or not, whether you force your opinion on others or not, the FACT remains Muslim TFR is at least .5 or more higher in all states, including most literate state of Kerala. Govt of India last published religion based TFR data on 2001 census.
          It would be nice to refer to that data, before muzzling anyone for their free speech.

      • V.G.Vachhani

        Immigration is not solution. No country can take so many illiterate people. So forget about this.
        ONE CHILD POLICY is the only solution for India. There is no other solution. All others are sweet talks.
        ONE CHILD POLICY has to be for all Indians. No other way.
        We all have to remember that we are penalizing our children & grand children for having lower standard of living if we do not adopt ONE CHILD POLICY today. Can we be that selfish today? If we do not go for ONE CHILD POLICY today, history will not pardon us.

    • john

      How can you link immigration with Indian government? Legal immigration happens because host countries need skilled people or on humanitarian grounds. Your comments about linking the two do not make sense.

  • Mihir95

    This article seems to be inaccurate. If recent trends are taken into consideration.India’s population should stabilize by 2035-2040 as the TFR will fall below 2.1 replacement level well before then. It is 2.5 right now. Also India’s population right now is 1.22 billion. It’s unlikely that it will increase by 470 million in just 37 years especially as TFR and population growth rates decline. Also how can China’s population be only 1.31 billion considering it is already 1.35 billion?

    • The source of the data for projected population in 2050 is taken from one of the most reliable organizations related to the area: Population Reference Bureau from its 2011 study. As per Population Reference Bureau, in 2050, likely population of India would be 1.692 billion and China 1.31 billion. The website, if it can be added here, is:

    • Moreover, TFR falling below 2.1 does not immediately ensure a stabilizing or decreasing population, as China has been having less than 2.1 TFR for more than two decades now. China’s population growth has slowed down, but it has not yet stabilized or started declining in absolute terms. It depends on reproductive age group demography, which tends to be/will be extremely high in India until 2050 or even beyond. Moreover, what is not noted in the article, but is of interest, is that population of the under 15 years age-group in India is 410 million against 223 million in China against that of 199 million in entire developed world. This can help one understand the basis of the 2050 population forecasts.

      • john

        The trends can change quickly … as more and more people become modern and addicted to modern gadgets – they will have smaller families. inflation will play a big role too ..I think in worst case scenario the population will stabilize in 2050

  • Jay

    One possibility is to bring in borders. Yes let’s amend the constitution. Why should other Indian states suffer because UP,Bihar, Rajasthan, MP and the like have poor leadership. The priority of these of these states should be the education of girls, getting women into the workforce, labour reform(manufacturing/labour intensive jobs needed), and urbanization. Of course the same goes for all states, but these states should be doubling their efforts.

  • Santosh

    Surprisingly there are no efforts from government to overcome this problem of overpopulation. In decades of 80s, 90s we used to see campaigns on TV, wall paintings etc. to educate people. Any idea why that is not happening now?

    • tuli

      Yes, I have wondered about the same too. Maybe, the one child policy should not be forced on people, but campaigns are absolutely legitimate and they work. I remember in Shimla, there were writings on the wall asking people not to dirty the streets and the streets were way cleaner than any other hill station I have seen. Probably someone brainwashed the Indian government about this demographic dividend. But sadly our politicians are not competent to make use of the demographic dividend.

    • V.G.Vachhani

      It is clear since 1977 election. Any one talk of one child, he is against human. This will lead to loss of power. Is there a single politician in India who is ready to loose the power. None…whatsoever…..It seems talking of population control has become now taboo. All the politicians are in business of schools, colleges, hospitals where more population can bring more profit. Will they talk of reducing population. Only a person of vision of 40-50 years for India can talk of population stabilization.

  • Liam C.

    A portion of India’s demographic dividend will be exported to the rest of the world as well, it seems. That’s what the 21st century is like. Your problems are my problems, and my problems are your problems too. But man oh man… India’s population growth is a big f****** problem.

  • J S Mitra

    If the Govt is unable to achieve a near 1 child policy like China, in less than the next 15 years we will witness a crisis of unthinkable bounds. There will be civil wars in many states. Grabbing money, food, housing and land and any other assets by the have-nots from the haves will flourish.
    Very harsh words but such is the plight of the hungry. Lawlessness has already commenced.

    • V.G.Vachhani

      I would not say in next 15 years. I will say immediately. It shall take minimum 40 years to stabilize population with strict ONE CHILD POLICY.

  • Jeet Singh

    The whole governing system is flawed and needs to be overhauled.

  • Zhonghong Zheng

    For one, this article needs to be read by more people

  • Saptarshi Ray

    I am not an expert on this subject, but I am wondering whether the widespread practice of female fetocide will have any effect in India’s population growth. By logical conclusion, although it may sound cruel to say but actually this may reduce India’s population growth. As in many states a substantial number of male population will never marry so they will not be able to reproduce. Of course such massive numbers of unmarried male population will also make our society unstable, but that’s another matter.

  • It is the orthodox Malthusian discourse when we start a balance sheet of food supply and mouths to feed. The consumption pattern across the world clearly tells where the threat to food supply and nature’s resources comes from.

    What is really required today is to redefine the orthodox concept of development – seen as mere economic growth. Everything, including the population problem, will fall in place if we follow Amartya Sen’s capability theory of development or the human development approach as place people at the center of development, in place of economics or GDP growth.

    It is time to shed the myth of perpetual economic growth.

  • Karuna

    This article did not take climate change into account. With 1 degree of global climate increase, there would be approx 15% reduction in grain output. It is expected that it will be 3 – 5 degrees global temparture rise by 2100 ( business as usual scenario by IPCC). Also, there will here diction ground water and less water in rivers due to glaciers melting in the long run, though there would be floods in short-term. Because of jet streem pattern change, indian monsoon may change. With all these changes coming in this century, can India survive this century?

  • derthuj

    I think adopting one-child policy is NOT a great step in controlling population. What is very important to be noticed is that 76% of the population lives in less than $2 per day, which means couples are irresponsibly having children irrespective of the education, food and life they can provide for them. I think making sure they are not abusing their human rights to start a family (with any number of children) by asking for an explanation for such irresponsible behavior would be important for a country like India. One-child policy will be very cruel to the ones who have been responsible all through their life.

  • So what will be the ultimate solution to these problems? I think India is not alone in population problems. Many Southeast Asian countries are also struggling with how to resolve the ever increasing population and poverty in their countries.

  • The trends sometimes hurt other countries more. Even the policies in the country will change as time passes.

  • Indy

    This argument is not based on sound analysis. Do you realize that India is only second to Canada in the amount of natural arid land in the world? India has not industrialized farming. Let’s put that into perspective; industrial scale farming in the west allows western countries to produce four times their population requirements on average. Indian farming, which is still medieval in practice, is still able to produce three times population requirements. So whats the problem? 65 per cent of that food cannot be stored and is allowed to waste. 25 per cent is consumed in India, while 10 per cent is still exported. India is the worlds largest meat exporter This is despite not having industrial farming or proper storing methods. The space theory does not make sense. If every person on earth was to be given 1000 sq meters they would all still fit in a country the size of Texas.

    • Dr. Seb

      I think you mean 1000sqft and not 1000 sq meters.

      Some more realistic calculations:
      The total land surface area of Earth is about 57,308,738 square miles, of which about 33% is desert and about 24% is mountainous. Subtracting this uninhabitable 57% (32,665,981 mi2) from the total land area leaves 24,642,757 square miles or 15.77 billion acres of habitable land.

      Divide this figure by the current human population of 6.8 billion (that’s 6,800 million people) and you get 2.3 acres (just under one hectare) per person. If all the habitable land on Earth were equally distributed among all human beings present on the planet, this is the per capita share of good land per person. Again, however, we have not allowed for any amenities such as highways, schools, hospitals, shopping malls, stadiums, agricultural fields, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, parks, golf courses, etc. Even so, could you live on 2.3 acres?

      Efforts have been made to estimate the amount of land needed to sustain an average individual human. A person living the lifestyle of an average American requires almost 24 acres, ten times the world per capita share.