In India, one hundred years of plenitude

  • Physicists talk about the ubiquitous echo of the Big Bang, over 13 billion years later. Populations are like that. The echoes of the last century’s teen years are still resonating through India circa 2021.
Both World War 1 and the Spanish Flu of 1918 were global in scope. They also cost our population, taking away millions of Indians in their prime.
Both World War 1 and the Spanish Flu of 1918 were global in scope. They also cost our population, taking away millions of Indians in their prime.
Published on Jul 12, 2021 09:20 PM IST
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ByParitosh Joshi

It is the first year of the third decade of the 21st century of the Common Era. And we should be at the midpoint of the decadal census. We are not, and there will be a price to pay, for indispensable data which will be denied to analysts and planners in every sector and industry. We may rue what we miss, but censuses offer learning and insight, even decades after they were concluded.

With that spirit, our mind’s eye takes us back exactly a century. To 1921.

1921 was a remarkably interesting year, all around the world. Sahir Ludhianvi was born that year. As was Satyajit Ray. And then there was the dour figure of Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao, who dismantled decades of economic consensus and triggered liberalisation. The world was rather busy as well. Adolf Hitler became leader of the German Nazi Party. The United Kingdom morphed into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And Coco Chanel launched Chanel No 5, a fragrance which continues to have cachet in the world of fragrances.

Here, in India, we had our fifth consecutive decadal census. The second decade of the 20th century cost our population dearly, taking away millions of people in their prime, first on account of World War I and then, much more grievously, the Spanish Flu of 1918. It is easy to imagine the sombre mood of enumerators as they fanned out across the great landmass of British India, from Sindh and the restive Khyber province in the far west to the dense forests of Burma on the eastern frontier.

It must have taken the next half-a-decade before all the painfully-gathered and meticulously tallied population numbers produced the census tables. The results were sobering. India’s population of 252 million in 1901 had shrunk over the decade by a million, to just over 251 million. But the devil was in the detail.4


United Provinces (UP), rechristened post-Independence to Uttar Pradesh, suffered grievously. Its population of 46 million at the beginning of the century, had been reduced by almost 1.5 million, or by 3%. Put another way, UP had lost twice as many people to the decade as the entire country had. Among the large states, Rajasthan, or Rajputana as the province was then known, suffered the worst, losing over 6% of its population.

In contrast, medium-sized Assam was remarkably fecund, recording a solid 14% bounce. Tiny Tripura was even more productive, increasing its small population by almost a fifth during the period.

The gut punch UP took in the second decade doesn’t really tell the whole story. The state had already seen a decline in the previous decade too, losing about 1.4% of its 1901 population by 1911.

Indeed, the actual scale of the tragedy is severely occluded in the decadal totals as the pandemic of 1918 is estimated to have claimed anywhere between 12 and 18 million people. Just the swing in population change, from +13.7 million between 1901 and 1911 to -0.8 million, a swing of -14.4 million, is closer to quantifying the actual pain and personal tragedy which our forebears had to absorb. While we continue to grieve, rightly, for the pain inflicted by the Partition of 1947, the scale of the decadal decline of the second decade is a tragedy unparalleled in our recent history.

The 1921 census also throws up other larger insights.

One, UP saw immeasurable tragedy in the first 20 years of the last century. Whole families would have been decimated, entire generations wiped out, as wave-upon-wave of disease and pestilence scythed through the vast state. Elders, traumatised by losses they had witnessed, would have urged their surviving family members to reproduce copiously; after all, who knew what destiny might have in store for them? Low life expectancies, quite unsurprisingly, correlate with high reproductive rates. The collective consciousness is unable to shed its traumas, so these propensities persist generations after the hazards have passed. If Uttar Pradesh in 2021 is still the state with India’s highest reproductive and fertility rates, we must look back a century for the genesis of this reality.

Two, population gains and losses do not offset one-for-one. Typically, the life lost is of an adult; the life added is an infant. Economically productive people drop out and new dependents arrive to add new strains to an already stretched national delivery pipeline.

Three, as life expectancy lengthens, the incentive to breed diminishes. But this effect operates with a lag. During the interregnum, some communities will see growth spikes which will impose, often unsustainable, burden on all kinds of facilities, from maternity care, through neonatal care, leading into early, middle and higher education, then the employment marketplace and finally, senior and end-of-life care. We are already seeing these burdens rise all across India.

Physicists talk about the ubiquitous echo of the Big Bang, over 13 billion years later. Populations are like that. The echoes of the last century’s teen years are still resonating through India circa 2021.

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

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, January 18, 2022