India set to be most populated nation on earth next year, but is it ready to deal with ensuing challenges?

India is in an unenviable position since it accounts for only 2.4 per cent of the total world surface area while housing over 17.7 per cent population

Representative Photo (Getty images)
Representative Photo (Getty images)

Dr Gyan Pathak

World Population Prospects 2022 has revealed that India ran faster than expected in the population race and is set to become the largest populated country in the world in 2023, four years ahead than estimated in 2019. This brings unprecedented challenges which need to be converted into demographic advantage with planning and action at war footing, or else the nation will land into perilous conditions.

The report by the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has been produced following a major upgrade of the entire process of estimates. It included, for the first time, estimates and projections by single year of age and by one-year time interval – the so-called “1x1’ data configuration instead of the “5x5” layout employed previously. This was done to respond to the growing demand for annual population data to assess progress in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS).

The implication of the data is that the world in general and India in particular will be in greater need to respond to this new data that far exceeds all earlier estimates.

Now, November 15, 2022 is predicted to be the day that the global population reaches 8 billion, 8.5 billion in 2030, and 9.7 billion in 2050, before reaching a peak of around 10.4 billion during 2080s and remain at that level until 2100.

Obviously, COVID, conflict and climate crises that are jeopardizing the global goals and creating new crises of food, fuel, and finance are most likely to be exacerbated by the burden of population. The world is already moving backwards on eliminating hunger and malnutrition, and the prospect of India to be housing the largest number of poor demands urgent attention.

In 2022, the two most populous regions were both in Asia: Eastern and South-Eastern Asia with 2.3 billion people (29 per cent of the global population), and Central and Southern Asia with 2.1 billion (26 per cent).

China and India, with more than 1.4 billion each, accounted for most of the population in these two regions.

India is in an unenviable position since it accounts for only 2.4 per cent of the total world surface area while housing over 17.7 per cent population. It goes without saying that the country will need to cater to the needs of the largest number of people in the world from the next year itself.

More than half of the projected increase in global population up to 2050 will be concentrated in just eight countries, and India is among them along with Pakistan. Population pressure may trigger a desperate situation not only in India but also in its neighbouring countries in China and Pakistan.

For many countries, including India, the challenges posed by rapid population growth are compounded by their vulnerabilities to climate change and sea-level rise.

India becoming the largest populated country will mean greatest additional pressures on resources of the country and posing challenges to the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). It should be noted that India’s SDG preparedness ranking continues to decline. A UN report has found that India faces major challenges in 11 and significant challenges in 3 out of the 17 SDG goals. Challenges remain in one of the goals while only in two goal SDGs have somewhat been achieved. India clearly has gone out of track in achieving SDG targets by 2030.

The challenge to feed, educate, and provide medication to the largest number of people in the world would increase. However, the share of population at working ages is going to increase thanks to reduction in fertility.

Though with rise in life expectancy at birth, the population of elderly persons would also rise putting pressure on younger people for their care, but it would also shift in the age distribution that would provide a time-bound opportunity for accelerated economic growth known as the “demographic dividend”.

To maximize the potential benefits of a favourable age distribution, India will need to invest in the further development of human capital by ensuring access to health care and quality education at all ages and by promoting opportunities for productive employment and decent work.

As for aging population, the country should take steps to adapt public programmes to the growing proportion of older persons, including by improving the sustainability of social security and pension systems and by establishing universal health care and long-term care systems.

With a bigger population, India will have to face the problems related to migration within the country and abroad. It is therefore imperative for India to ready an action plan to deal with the situation in terms of providing jobs, housing, water, education etc to the migrants.

The labour movements would be a special area of challenge that must be converted into opportunity by benefiting from the manpower. For this, India will have to take steps to facilitate orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration in accordance with SDG target.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all components of population change including fertility, mortality and migration. The report has noted that it has continuing and profound impacts on health, economies and societies with no clear end in sight. India must take this warning seriously because it would need to protect largest number of people in the world.

The relationship between population and sustainable development should be considered within the context of climate change and the environmental challenges having impact on all life forms in general and human life in particular.

The largest population also means greatest environmental damage. It may exacerbate the problems or accelerate the timing of their emergence, depending on the problem in question, the timeframe considered, the available technology and the demographic, social and economic context, as a whole or in specific regions.

India should also prepare to meet the needs of growing number of children and young people, and should invest in human capital by ensuring access to healthcare and quality education at all ages and opportunities for productive employment.

Modi government must act fast and plan afresh in the light of the new yearly population data to respond to crises and cater to the needs in real time.

(IPA Service)

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Published: 12 Jul 2022, 9:00 PM