From 1901 to 2011, what the census tells us about India’s population

There is a simple way to separate the wheat from the chaff when we grapple with questions on “population explosion”. The demographic changes which India is grappling with are rather different from the simplistic tropes of “explosion” fear-mongering
A census officer collects data from night shelters and people living on the road near Jama Masjid area in Delhi. (HT archive) PREMIUM
A census officer collects data from night shelters and people living on the road near Jama Masjid area in Delhi. (HT archive)
Updated on Jun 24, 2021 05:01 PM IST
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ByParitosh Joshi

In recent years, a section of the political class has been stridently demanding a “population control” law.

The argument offered in its defence by its votaries is simple: India is experiencing a population explosion. This imposes growing strains on economic resources and contributes to fraying the social contract that holds our society together. Our neighbour, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has demonstrated how tough population control action over the last 40 years rapidly accelerated its economic transformation and raised a billion people out of poverty. We can only replicate this with decisive (read harsh) legislation.

It seems a stretch to make such an assertion at face value. There is a great deal of posturing about the urgency and all the arguments are anecdotal. These anecdotes are coloured by the political proclivities of the proponents. A chief minister (CM) of a major northeastern state wants a particular minority community to decelerate its birth rates as “(population) is the main root of social menace like poverty, land encroachment and we can reduce this social menace if the population is reduced”.

A state’s law commission chairman offers this gem. “Population is nearing an explosive stage. It is causing other issues too — related to hospitals, foodgrains, houses, or employment”. In contrast to the CM, he is at pains to add that this has nothing to do with a “particular” community.

There is a simple way to separate the wheat from the chaff when we grapple with such questions. Look at what the Census of India is telling us. Let us start by examining how India’s population has grown over the last 12 censuses, from 1901 to 2011.

India’s population grew almost five-fold over 110 years.

There was only one decadal population decline, of 0.31% from 1911 to 1921. This was the decade that ended in the flu pandemic of 1918. Professor David Arnold of Asian and global history at Warwick University writes in Death & the Modern Empire: The 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic in India, “In India the 1918–19 influenza pandemic cost at least twelve million lives, more than in any other country; it caused widespread suffering and disrupted the economy and infrastructure”.

If these lives were to be added to the 1911 population, the decade would have ended at 265 million Indians. In effect, it took a decade’s worth of population growth out of the trend, and the echoes of lives lost in our great grandparents’ generation continue to resonate through India’s demographics, a century later. (This begs the question: Will the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic scar India’s demographics such that the effects will still be palpable in 2121?)

The political will to bring runaway population growth under control is evident in the change in the momentum of growth between 1961 and 2011. The growth rate, which had been accelerating from Independence to the beginning of the third five-year plan in 1961, began to flatten in the next decade and then began falling, for the next 40 years.

The momentum of the growth rate (change in the rate of change) dropped from +8.20% in 1961 to -3.84% in five decades. If this trend has persisted through the 2011 to 2021 decade, the momentum would have slipped further, to around -5.3%. This would result in the decadal growth rate dropping from 17.7% to 12.4%, the slowest growth in India’s population since 1931.

Using this as a rough and ready number, the 2021 Census ought to come up with an all-India population of 1.358 billion. After adding 180 million per decade for the previous two decades, we would add a mere 140 million, about as much as we did between 1971 and 1981, but on a nearly 90% bigger population base.

Things become more interesting if we project a similar momentum to the next decadal Census. If the growth momentum drops to -6.8%, and there are sound trends that support this, the population growth rate to 2031 would be just 5.6%, giving us an estimated population a decade hence of 1.434 billion, a population increase of a mere 76 million people. For context, that was almost exactly the population growth between 1951 and 1961 on a population base that was one-fourth of what it is now.

Does this look like a population explosion to you? The demographic changes which India is grappling with, today and in the future, are rather different from the simplistic tropes of “explosion” fear-mongering. They pertain to the real and present dangers of populations beginning to shrink in several states. They pertain to a diminishing pool of people of working age, the “demographic dividend” which our leaders love to boast about. They pertain to an increasing burden of the aged and infirm on the society, economy and health care infrastructure. There are real demographic problems that need to be solved. But they are not what politicians are trying to scare you with.

Paritosh Joshi is a media professional with a keen interest in audience measurement

The views expressed are personal

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Wednesday, May 18, 2022