A new United Nations study has found sufficient evidence that suggests India will surpass China as the world’s most populous country around 2027. Earlier projections had predicted that India’s population statistics would surpass its demographic size as early as 2022 and latest by 2024.
The latest report released on Monday says more than half of the projected increase in the global population up to 2050 will be concentrated in just nine countries, led by India. Titled The World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights, the report claims that once it becomes the most populous country in the world, India is expected to remain so till the end of the current century.
According to the UN, the country is expected to add nearly 273 million people between 2019 and 2050, while the global population could touch 9.7 billion by then.
China, with 1.43 billion people in 2019, and India, with 1.37 billion, have long been the two most populated regions with recognised geographical boundaries in the world. They each comprised 19% and 18%, respectively, of the current global total (7.7 billion), followed by the US.
While India is moving towards becoming the most populous country, many countries, including China, Russia and Japan, are experiencing a population contraction. This drop is caused by sustained low levels of fertility, like in China, and high migratory outflow and an ageing population in Japan.
The latter trend is led by increasing life expectancy due to advances in medicine. By 2050, one in six people in the world will be over age 65 (16%), up from one in 11 in 2019 (9%). The number of persons aged 80 or over is projected to triple, from 143 million in 2019 to 426 million in 2050.
In China, for example, the population is projected to decrease by 31.4 million, or around 2.2%, between 2019 and 2050, although the empirical factors behind low fertility have not been established yet.
The report also observes that migration has become a major component of population change in some countries. In this decade, 14 countries saw a net inflow of more than 1 million migrants, while 10 countries registered an equal net outflow.
Falling rates of natality coupled with high mortality have inspired the Russian Federation to offset its population loss with an influx of migrant workers from Venezuela, Syria, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the Philippines; other nations following suit are Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Serbia, Ukraine, and Japan.
Why coercive action is not viable
The theory that more is necessarily merrier has been disproved by the population explosion. Problems like unemployment, housing, and inadequate access to education, justice, and healthcare have, at some point or the other, been ascribed to the population crisis. The foundation for such claims, while shaky, cannot be entirely refuted; as economic principles suggest, each system is capped by a saturation point on how many participants or beneficiaries it can deal with.
But does that mean the government should play the role of a birth controller? Is the “greater good” good enough reason for the state to encroach upon the subject’s body, reproductive rights, and sexual politics?
Many activists—and I don’t mean pro-life anti-antiabortionists—believe in the human right of each individual to choose if/when they want children. How many dependents each couple can sustain should be based on their emotional and economic strengths, provided they behave responsibly in view of dwindling resources.
Let us recall a time when China had barred married couples from having more than one child, or four years after Indian independence when the Nehru government conceived a family planning policy that later became the rigid “Hum Do, Humaare Do” (two children per couple) policy in the 60s.
That was during the height of the global survival debate and the first population paranoia wave, when international pressure and internal administrative failures prompted the Asian countries to adopt such authoritarian policies to contain the rapidly growing population.
While the practical impact of such a policy may have yielded positive quantifiable results, it is sure to have taken a toll on the people who found their private decisions increasingly questioned and becoming a state subject under constant surveillance. Harsh measures were meted out to violators, for example, the youngest of three was denied government benefits, like ration cards, jobs, and subsidies.
Enforcing conjugal austerity is as reprehensible as economic austerity, social historians later claimed denouncing such efforts to stem population growth. We can all agree that establishing a birth control agency borders on the dystopian.
Sex, lies, and population paranoia
Population and its relationship with the environment have often been at the crux of this argument. The issue has been wielded as a means to blame the underdeveloped parts of the world and a looming ecological breakdown — along with an ongoing refugee crisis — seems to have strengthened the arguments for it.
But the notion that only rural, poor, and illiterate sections of the society are behind the scaling global population has been found to be false. Affluent families in developed, industrial and urbanised regions, too, have large families, but their impact on the environment is seldom called into question.
Today, we are on the cusp of a full-blown environmental catastrophe and, once again, ready to blame overpopulation, especially in the developing world, for it.
Sociologists have termed this population paranoia—a fear that more people automatically means less food and natural resources for the developed nations and more poverty across the word, which in turn would turn them into immigrants. But when just 10% of the world’s population accounts for 60% of the world’s consumption, such a contention hardly holds.
Yet, this paranoia has led to vicarious calls for immediate action to control the spiralling numbers, purportedly to save the future of humanity and the planet at large. Eurocentric arbitration today pushes for more literacy, especially among women, to alleviate population-related poverty, pollution, and food crisis, choosing to overlook other more important systemic factors behind these problems.
The United Nations and World Bank’s authority on the subject have further driven this misnomer home; instead of urging developed countries to take the lead, their dramatic warnings egg anti-populationsists on.
It’s about justice
The UN narrative this time has been no different.
UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Liu Zhenmin said the report offers a road map indicating where to target action and interventions, completely ignoring the bigger problems of inept governance, pro-capital structures, and the unwillingness to champion equal and sustainable systems, like non-renewable power, affirmative action to improve access to education and healthcare, and opportunity to jobs and public goods.
“Many of the fastest growing populations are in the poorest countries, where population growth brings additional challenges in the effort to eradicate poverty, achieve greater equality, combat hunger and malnutrition, and strengthen the coverage and quality of health and education systems to ensure that no one is left behind,” Zhenmin says instead, thereby illustrating all that is inaccurate with this line of argument.
US environmentalist Dr Barry Commoner, however, points to the lack of data supporting the theory that environmental degradation is largely due to population growth. Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems, argues Corey Bradshaw in his paper.
Instead, alternative diet (substituting oil and beef with grain, for example) and alternative energy resources (atomic, solar or wind) will yield better, sustainable and more immediate results, they claim.
Even economists disagree with Thomas Malthus, who was possibly the first to claim population accelerates poverty. One school argues that the best contraceptive is economic development. Some others champion education and communication technology, concluding that, together, these tools can drive Earth’s population down in 2060, to levels lower than it was in 2003.
A 2016 article in The Independent portrayed the decision to not have children in the era of climate emergency as the most radical decision to save the Earth from the onslaught of human activities, and more effective than any campaign to save the environment. There’s also a growing movement of Birth Strikers, comprising millennial women who are choosing to forgo parenthood in response to existential threats like climate breakdown and civilisation collapse.
While one can admire or even commiserate with such moves, it is important for western anti-populationists to refrain from patronising the developing world for population growth, because it is NOT the real culprit. Demanding coercive action and misrepresenting a certain class of people as the primary source of an environmental crisis creates a mindset that makes us apathetic towards people dying of starvation, war, genocide, and epidemics around the world—perhaps, even complicit.
Prarthana Mitra is Staff Writer at Qrius.