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India’s population data and a tale of two projections

India’s population data and a tale of two projections


A recent study published in the esteemed journal, The Lancet and prepared by the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has astonished the world of population policy.

It has projected India’s population by the end of the century to lower than what anybody could have anticipated.

The editorial discusses various aspects of the report and analyses the population policy of India over time and its effects.


2.1 Projection for India

  • The research by the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) suggests that India will surely become the most populous country in the world with the population peaking by the mid-century.
  • However, the report also suggests that by the end of the 21st century, the ultimate population of India will be around 1.09 billion compared to 1.35 billion presently.
  • The report further suggests that the numbers could be as low as 724 million.

2.2 Projections on COVID-19 related deaths

  • In March 2020, the IHME had projected that the number of deaths in U.S.A. due to COVID-19, by the month of August, would be around 81,000.
  • However, deaths in the U.S. today are twice that projection.
  • This was because the underlying assumptions for the initial model were not borne out.
  • In a similar fashion, the underlying assumptions considered to make the population projection too deserve careful scrutiny.


3.1 Projected fertility rate

  • The IHME has projected that by 2100, the average Indian women will bear 1.29 children.
  • Since a couple (two people) will replace themselves with only 1.29 children, this will result into a sharp population decline.
  • While the model puts India's fertility rate at 1.29, the same model predicts a fertility rate of 1.53 for the United States and 1.78 for France.
  • It is difficult to comprehend that Indian parents will be less committed to childbearing than American or French parents.

3.2 Contrast with UN Projections

  • Tillthe year 2050, the IMHE projections are in tune with the widely accepted United Nations projections.
  • The UN projects India's population to be around 1.64 billion by 2050, while the IHME projects it to be around 1.61 billion by 2048.
  • However, in the second half of the century, the two projections diverge significantly.
  • While the UN projects India's population to be around of 1.45 billion by 2100, the IHME put the number at 1.09 billion for the same time period.


3.3 Possible reason for the divergence

  • One of the reasons for this divergence is the excessive reliance of the IHME model on data regarding current contraceptive use in the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and potential for increasing contraceptive use.
  • However, a research at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) National Data Innovation Centre reveals that the contraceptive use in the NFHS is poorly estimated.
  • As a result, the unmet need of contraception may be lower than what the IHME model has estimated, thereby leading to the implausible low fertility projections for 2100.


4.1 India's Total fertility rate (TFR) over the years

  • Irrespective of believing the UN’s projections, or the IHME projections, one thing is certain that India's demographic future will experience a peaking and subsequent decline driven by a sharp reduction in fertility.
  • India's Total fertility rate (TFR) in the 1950s was approximately six children per woman.
  • Today the TFR stands at 2.2.
  • Ironically, the massive push for family planning and forced sterilisation during the Emergency period led to only a mere 17% decline in TFR from 5.9 in 1960 to 4.9 in 1980.
  • However, between 1992 and 2015 the TFR fell by 35% from 3.4 to 2.2.

4.2 Accelerated Fertility Decline

  • However there is also the question of the accelerate fertility decline to a level where 18 States and Union Territories have a below 2 TFR, which is below the replacement level.
  • The answer could lie in the success of the family planning programme. However, it is to be noted that family planning has long lost its primacy in the Indian policy discourse.
  • During 1975 to 1994, family planning workers were given targets regarding:
    • sterilisations
    • condom distribution
    • intrauterine device (IUD) insertion
  • The targets led to explicit or implicit coercion.
  • However, these targets were abandoned in 1994 following the Cairo conference on Population and Development.

4.3 Carrot and Stick

  • While the incentives for short families have been abandoned, the punitive policies for people with large families has also been largely ineffective.
  • These policies include:
    • denial of maternity leave for third and subsequent births
    • limiting the benefits of maternity schemes
    • ineligibility to contest in local body elections for individuals with large families
  • However, various researches reveal that these policies were largely ignored in reality.


5.1 Socioeconomic transformation - the real game changer

  • We see that public policies to encourage small family norms or providing contraception have been unenthusiastic and lax.
  • The question then arises that what led to people adopt the idea of small families?
  • The answer lies in the socioeconomic transformation of India since the 1990s, which has played the major role in abandoning of large families by people.
  • Since 1990s following changes took place:
    • agriculture became an increasingly smaller part of the Indian economy
    • enrolment in school and college rose sharply
    • number of government jobs increased
    • multinationals and software services companies gathered tremendous financial benefits
  • This stimulated the Indian parents to rethink the existing family-building strategies.
  • While farmers saw more farm workers in a large family, the new aspirational parents saw education and enrolment in better schools and colleges as the key to success.

5.2 Different causes for fertility reduction

  • The literature on fertility decline in western countries finds retreat from family to be the cause for declining fertility rate in the west.
  • On the other hand, Indian parents have shown an increased commitment to family by reducing the number of children and investing more per child.

5.3 Aspiration for children not for self

  • Further research reveals that families of different size at the same income level do not differ in the following parameters:
    • leisure activities
    • women’s participation in the workforce
    • the number of material goods they can purchase
  • However, smaller families have a greater tendency to invest more in their children by providing them with a better education.
  • Therefore, it is not the aspiration for the own self but for the children that have driven the fertility decline in India.

5.4 In language of the past

  • Despite the sharp decline in fertility rate across segments of the Indian society, the public discourse is still rooted in the language of the 1970sand on supposedly high fertility rate especially in:
    • some areas such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar
    • some groups such as women with low levels of education or Muslims
  • This has led to politicians proposing remedies that would coerce the apparently ignorant or uncaring parents to have fewer children.


Demographic data points out that the aspirational revolution is already in the making and we must do the following to hasten the fertility decline:

  • ensure and prepare the health and family welfare system for this challenge
  • provide contraception and sexual and reproductive health services to aid individuals to have only as many children as they desire

Source: The Hindu