An ‘Indian century’

Photo: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Anyone like me – born and bred in India and linked forever to the country with an invisible umbilical cord – would naturally feel a thrill of pride to hear about an “Indian century”.

India’s time may be coming, so people are saying. Not only is it the world’s fifth-largest economy, it will soon overtake China in population.

Data released by the United Nations on April 19 estimated that India’s population will be 1.4286bn by the end of June, compared with China’s 1.4257bn. This is the first time in at least 300 years that China will be second on this score. In 1750, China had an estimated 225m people, more than a quarter of the world’s total. India was in second place with roughly 200m, but it was not, at the time, a politically unified country.

Records and anniversaries are a journalistic staple but India’s population milestone is a genuinely big story. There are a number of things to say about having the world’s largest population.

First, estimates are exactly that and may not be realised precisely when expected. Late last year, the UN had said it thought India’s population will surpass that of China on April 14. Now, that historical marker is meant to be in June.

But the larger point about a huge population is two-pronged: it is both a challenge and an opportunity. It is about having more mouths to feed as well as more hands at the wheel. Will India have more hands at the wheel?

India might become greatly prosperous if its predominantly young people are more productive. Currently, they aren’t as productive as in China. Fewer than half of adult Indians are in the workforce, compared with two-thirds in China. Add to that the reality that Chinese aged 25 and older have, on average, 1.5 years more schooling than Indians of the same age.

There is also the matter of infrastructure, physical and economic. While road, rail and air links across India are improving, it’s less developed than China. And thought the Indian government is investing heavily in digitisation (ID cards, welfare benefits etc) in an attempt to boost labour market flexibility and internal migration, all of this will take years to pay off.

The demographic dividend may take a while to realise, if it happens. India’s politics may come in the way. That’s up next.

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