Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] India’s population data and a tale of two projections

The country’s demographic future will see peaking and then declining numbers driven by a sharp fertility reduction.
By IASToppers
August 15, 2020


  • Introduction
  • IHME population projections
  • Comparing United Nations and IHME projections
  • Fertility decline in India
  • Factors contributed to Fertility decline
  • Conclusion
  • Way Forward

India’s population data and a tale of two projections

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  • A new study, published in The Lancet and prepared by the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), has shaken up the world of population policy.
  • It argues that while India is destined to be the largest country in the world, its population will peak by mid-century.
  • And as the 21st century closes, its ultimate population will be far smaller than anyone could have anticipated, about 1.09 billion instead of approximately 1.35 billion today.

IHME population projections

  • In March 2020, the IHME projected U.S. deaths from COVID-19 to be around 81,000 by August.
  • Deaths in the U.S. today are more than twice that number. The underlying assumptions for the initial model were not borne out.
  • They predict that by the year 2100, Indian women will have 1.29 children on average. Since each woman must have two children to replace the couple, and result in a sharp population decline.
  • Contrast this predicted fertility rate of 1.29 for India with the projected cohort fertility of 1.53 for the United States and 1.78 for France in the same model.
  • It is difficult to believe that Indian parents could be less committed to childbearing than American or French parents.

Comparing United Nations and IHME projections

  • Until 2050, the IHME projections are almost identical to widely-used United Nations projections.
  • The UN projects that India’s population will be 1.64 billion by 2050, the IHME projects 1.61 billion by 2048.
  • Two projections diverge only in the second half of the century, UN predicting a population of 1.45 billion by 2100, and the IHME, 1.09 billion.
  • Divergence may come from IHME model’s excessive reliance on data regarding current contraceptive use in National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and potential for increasing contraceptive use.
  • Research at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) National Data Innovation Centre shows that contraceptive use in the NFHS is poorly estimated.
  • As a result, unmet need for contraception may be lower than that estimated by the IHME model.

Fertility decline in India

  • Regardless any projections, India’s demographic future contains a peaking and subsequently declining population driven by a sharp reduction in fertility.
  • In the 1950s, India’s Total fertility rate (TFR) was nearly 6 children per woman; today it is 2.2.
  • Massive push for family planning coupled with forced sterilisation during the Emergency barely led to a 17% decline in TFR from 5.9 in 1960 to 4.9 in 1980.
  • However, between 1992 and 2015, it had fallen by 35% from 3.4 to 2.2.

Factors contributed to Fertility decline

Family planning

  • Family planning has long lost its primacy in the Indian policy discourse.
  • Between 1975 and 1994, family planning workers had targets they were expected to meet regarding sterilisations, condom distribution and intrauterine device (IUD) insertion. Often these targets led to explicit or implicit coercion.
  • Following the Cairo conference on Population and Development in 1994, these targets were abandoned.

Aspirational revolution

  • The socioeconomic transformation of India since the 1990s has played an important role.
  • Over this period, agriculture became an increasingly smaller part of the Indian economy.
  • School and college enrolment grew sharply and individuals found a job in government, multinationals or software services companies reaped tremendous financial benefits.
  • Parents began to rethink their family-building strategies.
  • Where farmers used to see more workers when they saw their children, the new aspirational parents see enrolment in coaching classes.
  • Indian parents seem to demonstrate increased rather than decreased commitment to family by reducing the number of children and investing more in each child.
  • Smaller families invest more money in their children by sending them to private schools and coaching classes. It is not aspirations for self but that for children that seems to drive fertility decline.


  • Even in the phase of sharp fertility decline among all segments of Indian society, the public discourse is still rooted in supposedly high fertility rate.
  • This can be seen particularly in areas such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar or among some groups such as women with low levels of education or Muslims.
  • This results in remedies that would force these ostensibly ignorant or uncaring parents to have fewer children.

Why Forward

  • Demographic data suggest that the aspirational revolution is already under way.
  • What is need to be done is to ensure that the health and family welfare system is up to this challenge and provides contraception and sexual and reproductive health services that allow individuals to have only as many children as they want.
Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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