India, a country in South Asia, has emerged as the largest nation in terms of population recently overtaking China. In general understanding, it indicates a continuously growing population in the world, especially in Global South. However, looking at that issue critically, the emergence of India as the most populous country in the world indicates the rise of a powerful India as the country continues its journey to be one of the most influential actors in global politics. The population is no doubt one of the fundamental sources of national power. A large population can provide a country with a strong workforce, a large market for goods and services, and a pool of talent from which to draw leaders and innovators. However, a rising population sometimes poses serious challenges to a state if it fails to provide the basic needs of its population, as well as protection from internal and external threats. Given India’s emergence as the most populous country, it has both opportunities and challenges. India will need to carefully manage its population to reap the benefits of being the largest nation and avoid the pitfalls.
India Overtakes China as the Most Populous Country
It is for the first time India has overtaken China as the most populated country in the world with a population of 1.428 billion in comparison to China’s 1.425 billion in 2023, according to the United Nations (UN). Notably, India witnessed the addition of around 23 million newborns in 2022, while China recorded the lowest number of births since at least 1950, with only about 9.56 million newborns. Due to an increase in deaths, China’s population decreased for the first time since the 1960s. China’s population is expected to continue declining and could potentially drop below 1 billion by the end of the century. In contrast, India is projected to continue its upward population trajectory until it reaches its peak in the early to mid-2060s.
Figure 1: Trends in total population between India and China
India’s population, which currently stands at 1.428 billion, has experienced a significant increase compared to the 361 million population recorded shortly after partition in 1951. Spanning approximately 2.4% of the world’s land mass, India now accommodates nearly one-fifth of the global population. Despite a noticeable decline in the fertility rate, which was approximately six births per woman in the 1960s compared to today’s average of only two, India’s population is expected to continue growing for several decades. The primary driving force behind India’s substantial population is its large cohort of young individuals, as approximately 650 million Indians, comprising nearly half of the country’s population, are below the age of 25.
What India’s Growing Population Means to the World
India is the world’s largest democracy and is now the most populous country. This will have a significant impact on the world and India itself. Some experts believe that India’s emergence as the most populous country could signal a “paradigm shift” in the country’s development. This is because India has a young population, which comes with a huge potential to boost the economy. This is what economists call the “demographic dividend.” As of 2021, India’s working-age population, as indicated by OECD data, stood at a staggering 900 million. More than half of India’s total population falls below the working age of 30, resulting in a median age of 28. In comparison, the median age in both the United States and China is approximately 38. China’s experience with its own demographic dividend was instrumental in fostering an economic boom, primarily driven by a nearly doubled working-age population between the late 1970s and late 2000s. However, China is now confronted with a shrinking labor force. The proportion of China’s population aged 65 and older has risen to about 203 million people, accounting for 14.3% of the total population in 2023, compared to 87.5 million in 2000.
Figure 2: Demographic dividend of India and China
Economically, India has undergone an extraordinary transformation, evolving from a poverty-stricken nation in 1947 to a burgeoning global force with a $3 trillion economy. Its remarkable progress positions India to surpass both Japan and Germany, becoming the world’s third-largest economy by 2027. In addition to its strong economy, India is also a leader in the digital revolution. In 2022, India exported $200 billion worth of software, making it the world’s largest exporter of software services. Leveraging its youthful population and access to digital technology, 60% of the global outsourcing comes to India, and the country is poised to possess the largest pool of technology-savvy human capital by 2026. In addition, India has already emerged as the largest vaccine and generic drugs producer in the world with a pharmaceutical industry valued at over $50 billion. With growing manpower, the country received the highest ever foreign inward remittances in a single year by any country in history which was $89.127 million in FY 2021-22. All these indicate India’s rising economic power and its big population is no doubt the main driving force behind its successes. Consequently, following China, India can transform its economic might into hard military power to be a regional power in the coming decades. Having the world’s largest population, India has the potential to overcome China as the largest military in the world. Nevertheless, by fortifying its regional standing, India can solidify its position within the realm of global politics, thereby consolidating its influence on the international stage.
India’s assumption of the presidency of both G20 and Shanghai Cooperation Organization has decisively signaled its emergence as a significant player on the global stage. When many nations grappling with the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, India has demonstrated adeptness in navigating these complex circumstances while capitalizing on emerging opportunities within the Indo-Pacific region’s evolving geopolitical landscape. Notably, India’s astute response has been exemplified by its record-breaking oil imports from Russia, reaching an unprecedented peak in February and accounting for 35% of its total imports. Besides, India’s recent attainment of dual status as the largest democracy globally and the most populous nation holds the potential to strengthen its bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Such an achievement would not only enhance the diversity and inclusivity of global politics but also contribute to a more representative and equitable international governance system.
India has also assumed a prominent leadership role within the global South, exemplified by its organization of the virtual summit titled “Voice of the Global South for Human-Centric Development,” which saw the participation of 125 countries. With the theme “Unity of Voice, Unity of Purpose,” this summit underscored India’s commitment to championing the interests of developing nations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his inaugural speech, emphasized that the voice of the global South would resonate as India’s voice, emphasizing the alignment of priorities between India and developing countries. Additionally, PM Modi pledged that India’s G20 agenda would be shaped not only in consultation with G20 partners but also in collaboration with fellow members of the global South, recognizing their often marginalized perspectives and ensuring their concerns receive due consideration. In terms of combatting common non-traditional security threats like climate change and pandemics, India leads by setting examples. India has set an example by allocating $4.3 billion in its 2023-2024 budget to transition to green energy and achieve the ambitious “net zero by 2070” target. Additionally, India has established itself as a global leader in public health by supplying an impressive 239 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to 101 countries, further solidifying its commitment to addressing global health crises.
India’s growing population leads to an increased global presence facilitated by its vibrant diaspora. Around 32 million Indians live outside India, out of which 18.68 million are persons of Indian origin, whereas 13.45 million are non-resident Indians. The global spread of Indian culture is already underway, as evidenced by the growing popularity of Indian food, movies, and music. For example, “RRR” becomes the first Indian film to win a Golden Globes in 2023. It is possible that “Indianization” will eventually become more prominent than “Westernization”. Moreover, individuals of Indian origin occupy significant positions of influence on the global stage. A noteworthy illustration is Rishi Sunak, who became the first Prime Minister of Indian descent in the United Kingdom. Moreover, notable Indian-origin CEOs such as Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, and Vasant Narsimhan lead prominent international companies like Google, Microsoft, and Novartis, respectively. With India boasting the world’s largest education system and the highest proportion of higher education enrollment, it is poised to nurture the next generation of leaders. However, India must overcome various challenges in order to realize these aspirations.
Can India Cope with Challenges?
Despite the advantages of having a large population, India faces numerous challenges that need to be addressed. One major issue is the lack of employment opportunities. Despite having a working-age population comprising half of its total population, India’s labor force participation rate is relatively low, standing at 46% and ranking among the lowest in Asia. Official data reveals that India witnessed a 45-year high in unemployment levels, reaching 6.1% in 2017-18, a significant increase from the previous estimate of 2.7% in 2011-12. Astonishingly, even though over 100 million individuals joined the labor force, India experienced zero net job growth over the past decade. Furthermore, the total number of employed individuals in 2022 (40.2 crores) was fewer than the figure recorded in 2017 (41.3 crores) indicating India losing jobs.
The rising unemployment in India can be attributed to the lack of a skilled labor force. Government figures indicate that only 2.2% of workers aged 15 to 59 have received formal vocational training, in stark contrast to China where 26% of the workforce is classified as “skilled.” This disparity has led experts to express concerns that India’s demographic dividend, often seen as an advantage, is not guaranteed. Additionally, India’s female work participation rate remains alarmingly low, standing at just 19% in 2021, with only 23% of Indian women engaged in paid work. The prevalence of poverty is also a significant challenge, with 228.9 million people, accounting for 16.4% of the population, living in poverty. Economists caution that unless India generates more economic opportunities, it could face internal instability in the future.
Furthermore, the demographic distribution within India is highly uneven. The northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have fertility rates of 2.35 and 2.98 children per woman, respectively, whereas several southern states have fertility rates well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Consequently, the northern states grapple with challenges such as poor health and illiteracy, while in the south, Kerala is already experiencing difficulties in staffing assisted living facilities for the elderly. Adding to these complexities, India is confronted with the severe impacts of climate change, making it increasingly challenging to provide necessities like clean water and food to its population.
The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “India’s Population Surpasses China’s, Shifting the World’s ‘Center of Gravity’” highlighting the significance of India’s rise as the world’s largest nation in terms of population. It marks India’s moment in world politics considering population as the main source of national power and growth. However, there are many challenges for India like unemployment, poverty, and inequality across the regions which need serious attention. Against this backdrop, it is crucial for India to invest in the creation of new jobs and prioritize youth in its policies to effectively harness its demographic dividend and fulfill the Indian dream.
– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).
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