World Population Day: Population growth and sustainable development—turning the risk into opportunity in India

World Population Day: Population growth and sustainable development—turning the risk into opportunity in India
Representative image (BCCL)
The fifth round of the National Family Health Survey (2019-21), or NFHS-5, reveals that India’s Total Fertility rate (TFR) has dropped below replacement level—the level of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next. This indicates that the country is on course to achieving population stabilisation. However, the number of people in the country will continue to grow for some time due to a high proportion of young people across India.
With over 36 crore people aged between 10 and 24, according to the 2011 Census, India has the world's largest young population. According to the UNFPA’s World Population Report, China is second with nearly 27 crore young people, followed by Indonesia (6.7 crore) and the US (6.5 crore). Today, every fifth person in India is an adolescent (10-19 years), and every third is a young person (10-24 years).
Every year, more than 1.2 crore people enter the workforce in India, largely from northern states. There is ample evidence that the population momentum, given the country's large base of young people, is the primary driver of India’s population growth.

Demographic divident

The world’s population is growing older, having a high dependency ratio—a measure of the number of dependents aged zero to 14 and over the age of 65, compared with the total population aged 15 to 64. India certainly has a window of opportunity and will continue to enjoy a distinct advantage of having a younger population for some time, which will influence the country’s development and economic and social investment decisions.
The sheer size of the adolescent and youth population reflects the wealth of human resources in the country. This advantage is termed ‘demographic dividend’, which means the working-age population has numerically overtaken the non-working-age population.
India’s dependency ratio has fallen from 75% in 2001 to 65% in 2011. It is projected to fall further to 50% in 2021 and remain around that level for the next 20 years. This window of opportunity will slowly narrow in 2041 and close in 2061 when the dependency ratio likely rises to 67%.
For India to leverage this opportunity and achieve sustainable social and economic development, we will have to urgently and greatly step up investments into the health, nutrition, education, vocational training, skills and employability of the working-age population. In addition, we must ensure appropriate labour and migration policies and good governance. The country will have to place adolescents and youths at the centre of its policies, investments and programmes and align them with the demographic shifts in the states to leverage the demographic dividend.

Priorities for sustainable economic growth

1. Health

The evidence shows that demographic dividend significantly contributed to the economic growth in China, Korea and Japan. These countries invested in the young population's health, education and capacity-building. Though India has made significant progress, China is ahead on health, particularly reproductive health indicators.
China reports an infant mortality rate of 12 deaths per 1,000 live births, while the number stands at 30 for India. At 27 deaths per 100,000 live births, China’s maternal mortality rate is also much lower than that of India, which sees 103 deaths per 100,000 live births. China reports a stunting rate of 8 per cent among children under the age of 5 years against India’s 36 per cent. India needs to ramp up its efforts towards ensuring Universal Health Coverage.
2. Education
Quality education, skill-building initiatives and increasing employment could make the working-age population more productive. With greater labour force participation rates and increased per capita resources for investment in poverty reduction and human capital development, India can witness economic growth and better living standards even with a high population. It is also essential to ensure an investment climate and labour policies to expand and sustain safe and secure employment.
3. Women empowerment
We must also invest in girls’ education, particularly ensuring that all girls complete secondary school education. Global evidence suggests that this helps girls to delay marriage and pregnancy. According to research, a girl with some secondary education is about six times less likely to be married as a child than a girl with only primary education. Women’s empowerment and a more gender-equitable environment will help women to complete education and enter the labour force. Women’s empowerment is often inversely correlated with fertility rates.
All these require increased public spending towards universal access to primary, secondary and tertiary education, skilling programmes, quality health services, including sexual and reproductive and mental health services, and nutrition. Providing comprehensive sexuality education for all young people is essential. Investing in strengthening mechanisms for improving access to these services for adolescents will greatly impact savings and capital formation, which will translate to higher economic growth.
A study in The Lancet concludes, “improving the physical, sexual, and mental health of adolescents aged 10 to 19 years at the cost of about $4.60 per person per year could bring a ten-fold economic benefit by averting more than 12 million adolescent deaths and preventing more than 30 million unintended pregnancies over a span of 15 years”.
Since a fifth of India’s population is adolescents, their development is also an economic opportunity. It would also enable the country to achieve many Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
Alok Vajpeyi is the Lead—Core Grants & Knowledge Management at the Population Foundation of India.
This column is part of a year-long (2022-23) campaign on the theme “Only One Earth: Sustaining People, Planet and Prosperityby Business Insider India’s Sustainability Insider.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the author/interviewee do not necessarily reflect the views of Business Insider India. The article has been partly edited for length and clarity.