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India's population passes 1.4 billion — and that's not a bad thing

India is number 1 in global population. This clock board outside the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai keeps track of the numbers. The photo is from June 2, 2023.
Punit Paranjpe
AFP via Getty Images
India is number 1 in global population. This clock board outside the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai keeps track of the numbers. The photo is from June 2, 2023.

India is now the world's most populous nation with 1.486 billion people, passing China in April according to projections by the United Nations. And it's still growing.

The sheer numbers might bring to mind images of city streets choked with automobiles and pedestrians, of commuter train cars with passengers packed in right up to the doors — and of food shortages and environmental destruction.

Indeed, for decades, India ran massive public health campaigns to slow down the population growth. At times they resorted to coercive measuresto sterilize men and women.

But the population boom is no longer necessarily seen as a population bomb.

"I think with India, the story has to be, what will India do with its population?" says Jennifer Sciubba, a scholar at the Wilson Center and author of 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death and Migration Shape our World.

"We've got this 1.4 billion people in India, and it's up to India to decide whether or not that becomes a resource or a burden."

With about a sixth of the world's eight billion people living in India, some people do still worry about overpopulation. But the country's perspective on population growth has shifted markedly. That's in part because the rate of growth has fallen dramatically in recent decades.

"India's total fertility has reached replacement levels, which means that two children replace two parents," says Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the nonprofit Population Foundation of India.

And in fact, she says, having a large young population can be seen as an "advantage."

People are increasingly optimistic that this large cohort of young people will drive further economic growth. But it all depends on how the country manages its own immensity.

Why there's been fear of overpopulation

India's harsh population control measures of the past were often backed by research and funding from the West, and often targeted the poor and marginalized.

"We see throughout time that those of the upper classes, those of the elite, being very concerned that those poorer members of society were having so many children that they could not feed and care for them adequately," says Sciubba.

She and other scholars say that is still where much of the alarm over overpopulation comes from.

"I think the fear of India's population is probably larger in the West than in India itself," says Sonalde Desai, a demographer at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies India's population changes.

That said, India is still trying to figure out how to turn growth into prosperity for everybody – how to ensure the coming generation gets the education, employment, access to healthcare and amenities for a better life.

Population is "sort of the elephant in the room," says Mukta Naik, an urban planner and a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. "We have all these people. And they need to be safe. They need to have safety nets. They need to find livelihoods."

India is also starting to reckon with the environmental pressures of such a large population on a rapidly urbanizing landscape. But in contrast with the population control efforts of the past, Indian lawmakers are starting to pursue more nuanced policies toward the country's changing demographics, looking for a more sustainable path to improving lives and livelihoods.

The youth are the future ... but with a caveat

Indian leaders had previously assumed that just having a large population of young people would help boost its economy, says Muttreja.

"Now, India's realized that doesn't happen automatically," she says, "and it will have to invest in our young people."

Recent data show that unemployment levels have been rising in the country. Youth in urban areas in particular are struggling to find jobs.

One way the country is trying to build a more skilled workforce is by creating opportunities for its youth abroad. In 2021,India signed an agreement with Japan to allow Indian professionals in certain fields such as nursing, construction, agriculture and fisheries to work in Japan as "specified skilled workers" and further advance their technical skills in the process.

Other efforts have focused on creating opportunities locally. Many of India's smaller cities have set up startup incubation centers, says Naik, providing mentorship, work space and connections. And each city is building on what it already has in terms of industries and local expertise, she says.

For example, Indore, a large city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has a track record of exceling in cleanliness and waste management. And so, startups there are working on sustainable technology solutions such as ways to turn trash into fuel, or technologies to clean up and reuse wastewater, says Naik.

Similarly, she says, a smaller town that's an agricultural hub might have startups focused on agricultural processing. "It's less sort of tech-heavy, but more what the city or what the region needs."

Big cities vs. smaller cities

For decades, India's big metropolises have drawn millions of people from the country's villages and small towns. But as the environmental costs of those megacities become clearer, India has shifted its policies to encourage development in smaller towns and cities.

Air pollution and rising urban heat levels are taking a big toll on people's health. Cities like New Delhi have depleted groundwater reserves.

"It's fairly clear that cities like Mumbai and Delhi are extremely crowded," says Desai. "Real estate prices are very high. Sustaining a quality of life in the cities is increasingly quite difficult."

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a spotlight on the precarious existence of these cities' most vulnerable inhabitants — millions of seasonal migrant workers, who lost their livelihoods and were compelled to flee back home. Many died from exhaustion while walking home on foot or while hitchhiking. Thousands were reported to have been killed in railway accidents while walking home along railway tracks.

The crisis pushed policymakers to think more about "how to help people in different pockets of India so that you don't have cities feeling overstretched and cramped out and you don't have people leaving smaller towns and rural areas," says Desai.

Some of that work is underway, says Naik, with a shift toward promoting development in smaller cities and towns.

For example, theSmart CitiesMission, launched by the federal government in 2015, aims to help 100 smaller cities across the country develop better infrastructure, technology, municipal facilities and sustainable environmental solutions.

Another program aimed at improving living conditions in small cities and towns is the Pradhan Mantri Abhas Yojana, says Naik. It's a program that gives beneficiaries money for home improvement, which she says has helped many families who only had a "dilapidated" structure for a home transform it into something bigger and stronger.

Programs like this have had a "cascading effect" on families, says Naik, especially for people with connections to nearby rural areas. It allows them to host relatives from villages looking for a better source of income in the city. It also allows families the option to rent a part of their home to young people from rural areas getting an education or looking for jobs.

"So you see that there is a lot of mobility, but it's not necessarily migration," says Naik.

Another factor that has eased population movement is investment in better roads and transportation in rural areas, where the bulk of India's population still lives, says Desai.

"We have found that [in] the villages which provide better road infrastructure and bus service, people are more likely to commute to nearby towns and work rather than migrate away to big cities," she says.

Indian leaders may not overtly connect these policies to the country's population, says Naik, but the effect they have is to spread the benefits more equitably across India's vast landscape.

However, the country still has a long way to go to turn those smaller urban areas into cleaner and more sustainable alternatives to a megacity. Most of the smaller town and city governments do little in terms of providing services, says Naik's colleaguePartha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research.

"Municipal capacity in India is very poor," he says. "Cities do little else than pick up the trash and most of them don't do that very well."

They will have to do much more, Mukhopadhyay says, to make these places liveable in the long run.

In the meantime, research that he and his colleagues are doing shows that people in India's villages and small towns are increasingly staying closer to home and family, giving many of them a shot at a better life.

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Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.