India will be the world’s most populous country by the end of this month, hitting almost 1.43 billion people and eclipsing an ageing China, says the United Nations.
“By the end of this month, India’s population is expected to reach 1,425,775,850 people, matching and then surpassing the population of mainland China,” the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs said in a statement on Monday.
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Last week, the UN’s annual State of World Population report said the milestone would come by midyear 2,023 when it will have 2.9 million people more than China.
The Indian government, which has not done a census since 2011 and delayed the 2021 one due to the pandemic, has not officially commented on the UN estimates.
The timing of when India surpasses China in population will likely be revised once India conducts its next census, John Wilmoth, director of the UN population division, said at a news conference at UN headquarters in New York City.
“The precise timing of this crossover isn’t known, and it will never be known,” Wilmoth said. “There is uncertainty in the data.”
India and China are neighbours and have a complicated relationship, including robust trade ties and a long-running border dispute. The United States and its allies increasingly see India, the world’s largest democracy, as a counterweight to China.
But their interests do not always align. India, unlike much of the West, has refrained from condemning its Cold War ally Russia over its war in Ukraine, instead adopting a neutral stance even as India’s purchases of Russian crude have soared.
Can India replicate China?
The population milestone raises questions about whether India can repeat the economic success that has made China central to the world’s economy and a leading global power.
The news comes at a moment when India is promoting itself as a rising international player as the host of this year’s Group of 20 summit. It is also becoming a more attractive destination for multinational companies seeking to reduce their reliance on China.
Observers say India’s sheer size and its young population give it the potential to replicate China’s economic trajectory.
Young workers who flooded into China’s cities to take factory jobs starting in the 1990s were an essential ingredient in the boom that saw China become the world’s second-largest economy.
But China’s population peaked in 2022 and has since started to fall. By the close of the century, its population could drop below 1 billion, the UN said. The country’s elderly population is swelling while its birth rate is still plunging, from 1.7 babies per woman in 2017 to 1.2 in 2022, according to UN data.
By contrast, India has the world’s largest young population, a higher fertility rate, and has seen a consistent decrease in infant mortality.
Experts caution against alarm about overpopulation, however, as the country’s fertility rate has been steadily falling, from more than five births per woman in the 1960s, to two in 2022. India’s population is expected to stop growing and stabilise around 2064.
“The main driver is the levels of fertility in these two countries,” Wilmoth said.
Historic reforms in the 1990s spurred spectacular growth, and India’s $3 trillion economy is the fifth-largest in the world today as its high-skilled sectors have soared.
But India’s economy is still far behind China’s. In 1970, the two countries had nearly equal per capita incomes, but China’s gross domestic product (GDP) is $12,556 per person today, compared with India’s $2,256, according to 2021 World Bank data.
Surpassing China shines a spotlight on the challenge facing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to provide jobs for the millions of young people entering the job market every year.
Economists warn that even as India’s GDP has surged, so has joblessness. About 80 percent of Indian workers still toil in informal jobs, which are often precarious, low-paid, and offer little to no benefits.
Still, India stands to benefit from what is referred to as a “demographic dividend,” when the swelling of the working-age population spurs rapid economic growth, provided there is strong participation in the labour force, Wilmoth said.
India’s vast population also means that many challenges play out on a huge scale, whether it is grappling with the growing threat of climate change, disparities between its urban and rural populations, a shrinking number of women in the workforce or a widening religious divide.
India also faces enormous challenges in providing electricity, food and housing for its growing population, with many of its massive cities already struggling with water shortages, air and water pollution, and packed slums.
“For this century to belong to India, it must make the most of its demographic advantage,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic affairs at the Centre for Policy Research. “China’s demographic crisis is timely for India’s growth — but only if it can find enough good quality employment for its teeming youth.”