India China Population Race: No Side Is A Winner In This Numbers Game

For a country to fully use its demographic potential, it needs to provide universal healthcare and access to public education.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>(Photo: Shashank Hudkar/Unsplash)</p><p></p></div>
(Photo: Shashank Hudkar/Unsplash)

Recently, we have been told that India has taken the baton from China to become the country with the largest population. The headline of India-China is misleading in the way it constructs a race towards this dubious title. It invokes a panic about the alarming Population Bomb (ticking away since 1968). It also frames both countries within simple terms of larger/largest numbers wherein India counts its young people as a ‘demographic dividend.’ The scenario is more complicated and invites more questions that a triumphalist tone of who came first. 

As of 2022, India recorded a population of 1.417 billion over China’s 1.412 billion. This year also marked the first when China recorded a negative growth rate. The psychological impact of the trend will be larger than its actual demographic reality. The reason why a race towards becoming the nation with the largest population is appealing to global discourse is because of the economic trajectories of both nations. The metaphor diverts attention away from the actual historical actors whose bodies the policies fall upon. Both governments have followed morally ambiguous population policies and will be encouraged to do so, if the discussion around their numbers continues to be a significant talking point.

Population trajectories of one nation can never work in isolation. China’s One Child Policy is one such legislation. Some Indian political leaders want India to move in the same direction. One stark difference in the way the two forms of the policy differ is that when China decided to undertake the One Child Policy, it did so with punitive as well as welfare measures such as access to primary healthcare, primary school education and living conditions that encourage single-child families. This enabling environment was checkered and restricted to modern, upper-class families in and around prominent cities. Notwithstanding this caution in reading the Chinese socioeconomic history, it is pertinent to note that China's Human Development Index value increased from 0.410 to 0.752 in 40 years. According to the UNDP, it is the only country to have moved from the low human development category to the high human development category. Even as those living in the cities have been the most benefitted by these transformations, the socioeconomic development did spill onto the overall population have improved in ways that are unique to China.

India’s family planning policies have historically been target-driven towards urban poor and working-class populations, with obvious caste and religious overtones. This punitive vision hardly supports any talk of reducing the family size by counselling or socioeconomic aid. Even as the total fertility rate sees gradual reduction, the brunt of this decline is born by women. According to the latest NFHS-5, condoms, IUDs (intra-uterine devices), or oral pills remain consistently unpopular. Add to this fact that vasectomies are not pushed because of their association with the Emergency-era camps. Which tells us that the significant decline in fertility rate is occurring because women have chosen sterilization or tying their Fallopian tubes after birthing the ‘requisite’ number of children. While it is perfectly legitimate for a woman to seek such a procedure, what becomes potent is the context within which such decisions are taken.

The recent overturn of the One Child Policy has reinvigorated a similar strain on women’s reproductive decisions in China. While families are economically stringent with a single child, the state pushing women to birth more children may harm their (hard-won) education and employment opportunities. Ironically, the initial steps in this direction in 2016 were welcomed in the light of expanding reproductive choices. However, with each reform, the tone of the state is changing from encouragement to a strong push. The pronatalist strategies like cash handouts concentrate on women in cities. In the post Covid China, urban middle-class families will be expected to ‘make up’ for the missing working force. This imperative will come in addition to the skewed sex ratio which also has been a legacy of the One Child Policy. While welfare endowments might address these fears, it will be hard for China to upturn the effects of the policy in the immediate generations.

The problem of ageing population (proportion of the population aged 65 or above) also has a gendered and urban/rural implications. Globally, women tend to have a higher life expectancy than males, and so will form the majority of the people in this age bracket. As most of the pronatalist measures like cash handouts for having more children are currently running in cities, we will see a scenario in which the (already shrinking) workforce will have to look after two sets of dependents. As young urban women will be encouraged to be married and have children, the couple will also be primary caregivers for their grandparents and parents.

For a country to fully use its demographic potential, it needs to provide universal healthcare and access to public education. Without these enabling conditions, the large numbers of (mostly) men and women are struggling to find their feet in the world. Another additional facet to India’s demographic dividend is that it is uneven and some regions in India have significant ageing populations already. Essentially, if population growth figures of both countries were mountain slopes, China’s journey to complete demographic transition has been steeper and more drastic than India’s trends. India is projected to head in the same direction, but some decades later.

Burgeoning Population, Shrinking Resources

We also must think about the ecological dimension to a burgeoning population with an increasing purchasing power. Both India and China have been steadfastly avoiding looking at the long-term impact of their citizens’ rising demand for resources. For instance, the demand for air conditioners is increasing manifold as each summer is hotter than the previous. While India’s largescale poverty prevents a significant per capita carbon footprint, its large numbers compensate for it. Additionally, both countries must address their rapidly receding ecological footprints due to large infrastructural projects.

As the World Population Prospect 2022 shows us, no sudden government policy helps the population to grow or decline. Such measures are usually counter-productive. Any discussion on the demographic profile of a country is incomplete without a mention of its attributes like its health and educational status. China has several serious challenges ahead. But it also has a significantly educated and better nourished number which is well poised to address these battles. India faces the challenge of providing enabling conditions for its young and working age group to be productive. Both countries have to be more welfarist in their approach and less punitive. Otherwise we are really racing in circles here. 

Aprajita Sarcar is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Laureate Centre for History and Population, Sydney. She is a historian of health, population, demography and urban planning. She shuttles between Sydney and New Delhi.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.