Two’s company, three’s a crowd, but if it’s 142.86 crore, it whips up a potpourri of complex issues, controversies, and debates. After all, the number is India’s population.
On 19 April, the United Nations announced that India overtook neighbouring China (142.57 crore) to become the world’s most populous nation — although, as per the World Population Review, the target was achieved a few months earlier.
So what are the complex issues, controversies, and debates that India’s burgeoning population saddles the country with?
Issues at the global level
“At the economic level, this is not something that we can celebrate… As the population continues to increase it will have a huge impact sociologically, especially on health and employment,” said G Ramesh, ex-professor of public policy at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM). Bangalore.
“This idea of a demographic dividend is a myth simply because we do not possess the resources and investments to make any profits from this increase in demography,” Ramesh told South First.
The Chinese could manage this growth better, Ramesh said, as, in the past, they became the global suppliers as the factory of the world.
“Now, with increasing resistance to globalisation in terms of countries around world becoming more nationalistic, India will have fewer opportunities coming its way. So, we need to find domestic solutions to this problem. This is going to be huge challenge in the years to come,” he added.
Vivekananda Nemana, a PhD scholar at Princeton University, New Jersey, working on employment and skilling in India, agrees with Prof Ramesh.
“As Dani Rodrik has shown, developing countries can no longer expect to industrialise in a world of globalisation, where China and other manufacturing giants dominate through economies of scale. Formal job creation of the kind envisioned by mainstream economic theory — a large blue-collar workforce managed by a small white collar workforce — is no longer possible,” Nemana pointed out to South First.
Demographic divergence within India
The global issues apart, the growth in population within India is skewed, which could lead to several problems that require immediate attention.
The first issue that has cropped up — and which has led to several complex situations, and portends to lead to others — relates to the demographic mismatch in the population growth.
As Map 1 shows, the states in North India have grown population-wise at an exponentially higher rate than their southern counterparts.
In the North, the cumulative population of Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat grew over 150 percent between the 1971 and 2011 censuses.
In comparison, that of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Karnataka in the South grew below 100 percent in this period.
The growth in the South was well below the average national growth of 121 percent.
Projected population for 2036
According to the Report of the Technical Group on Population Projections (Chart 1), under the National Commission on Population and Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, the share of these North Indian states with high Total Fertility Rates (TFRs) towards the total projected population increase between 2011 and 2036, is very high.
According to the report, India’s overall population is estimated to grow by 31.1 crores between 2011 and 2036, to which the six North/West Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Gujarat will together contribute a whopping 63.8 percent.
In fact, the gender demography of this projected population is estimated to be severely skewed too, which can be seen in Chart 2.
What this essentially means is that not only will these big North India states have a larger population but that this population is likely to comprise many more boys than girls.
This mismatch has political, social and economic ramifications. Let us begin with the political implications.
The immediate political implication will be in electoral terms; simply put, the divergent growth in population can spell less clout for the South in Parliament.
This is why: The delimitation process — or the readjustment of seat allocation in the Lok Sabha (and the state Assemblies) to represent changes in population — would ensure more MPs for the northern states than the southern states.
India conducted its last delimitation exercise that changed state-wise composition of the Lok Sabha in 1976, based on the 1971 population figures.
The goal of delimitation is to create electoral districts that are roughly equal in population size, so that each citizen’s vote carries about the same weight.
The 42nd amendment to the Indian Constitution froze the delimitation exercise for 25 years until 2001, which was subsequently extended by another 25 years until 2026.
The 2026 delimitation exercise will be dependent on the latest population figures; it is here that the southern states are likely to lose out.
The question is, lose out by how much? An indication can be had from a 2019 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Published just weeks before the general elections that year, the report said northern states would gain more than 32 seats because of delimitation, with the south losing about 24.
Specifically, the report, titled India’s Emerging Crisis of Representation, said Bihar and Uttar Pradesh alone would get 21 more seats, while Tamil Nadu and Kerala would get 16 less.
What could the implications of this be? Broadly, there will be three fallouts:
- First, this could potentially shift power, already skewed, further away from the South and to the North;
- Second, southern states could lose out on central funding;
- Third, it would directly impact allocation of reserved seats for SCs and STs.
India overtaking China as the world’s most populous country has evoked much comment. But what hasn’t is how the pioneering states in family planning-mostly southern-will end up losing seats in LS & RS. They need assurance that this won’t happen. I’ve raised this issue many times.
— Jairam Ramesh (@Jairam_Ramesh) April 21, 2023
More gains for Gangetic plains
Let us look at the first point: Power shift to the North. Here, non-profit IndiaSpend has specifically said it is the Gangetic plains that will gain the most from the population rise.
IndiaSpend’s analysts came to this conclusion from Kotak Securities data on demographic dividend of the Gangetic belt.
The region comprises the following states: Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.
Among them, IndiaSpend said in a 2016 report, three states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal — would account for 33 percent of Lok Sabha seats by 2026, the earliest the delimitation process could start.
It estimated that if parliamentary seats were to be re-allocated on the basis of population now, the Gangetic belt would send 275 of 543 MPs to the Lok Sabha.
It also estimated that by 2026, the number of people each parliamentarian in the Gangetic belt would represent would rise by to 2.9 million, thanks to the region’s high fertility rates.
Congress MP from Kerala, Shashi Tharoor, raised these very concerns at South First’s Dakshin Dialogues 2022, held in Hyderabad on 17 September, where he said that “in a situation where there is a particularly strong majoritarian party in power at the Centre with say a Hindi-Hindustan-Hindutva agenda, the southern states collectively could find themselves unable to prevent any Constitutional Amendment”.
But it is not only the number of MPs that a state’s fertility rate will influence; it will also likely impact the quantum of funds that state is allocated by the Centre.
This has stirred up another debate.
Fertility and funding
The quantum of funds for states is arrived at on the basis of several parameters, including fertility rate, which the current 15th Finance Commission has added.
For the 2020-21 to 2025-26 period, the Finance Commission will now consider the following six parameters for fund allocation:
- Tax effort;
- Forest and ecology;
- Income distance — ie, the difference between a particular state’s per capita income and that of the richest state, and finally,
- Demographic performance, measured on TFR (Total Fertility Rate).
TFR is a measure and/or estimate of thetotal number of children born or likely to be born to a woman in her lifetime.
As official data shows, India’s national TFR after the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) is about 2.0, having declined from 2.2 in NFHS-4.
This indicates progress in population control measures. But the data throws up something else too: Many northern states had TFRs of over 2.0, while the southern states were well below. See Map 2.
This means the southern states have controlled population growth, compared to the northern states, primarily due to effective family planning programmes.
But now they fear this could boomerang on them, in the form of smaller share of central funds because of delimitation. The Carnegie report also hints as much.
The southern states now argue they should be rewarded and not penalised for efforts to control population growth and having better public health services.
Is this a valid fear? Analyses by at least two separate independent data analysis companies indicate otherwise.
One of them, IndiaSpend, noted that the Centre has asked the Finance Commission to “incentivise” states for working on population control, and in fact, separately praised Tamil Nadu’s efforts.
The other report, by data analysis company How India Lives noted that TFR has not disadvantaged states; meaning other parameters were at play too.
New SC/ST seats
Seats reserved for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes will have to be reconfigured.
The Delimitation Commission’s reserved constituency model was conceived as an inclusive agenda so as to give Dalits (Scheduled Castes, or SCs) a voice through guaranteed political representation.
Though largely successful, this approach has been questioned in certain quarters, with critics arguing that the model has “ghettoized” the SC/ST communities, having limited them to reserved seats.
But that hardly seems to be the result of delimitation; if anything, it is more to do with society. As a result, the parties themselves have seldom dared to field SC candidates in unreserved seats.
In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, even the Bahujan Samaj Party, a party of Dalits, has tended to bypass Dalit candidates in unreserved seats.
In any case, reserved seats do not necessarily mean its population has a majority of Dalits; in Uttar Pradesh, the bulk of such constituencies have between 16 percent and 36 percent.
It is because of this, the SC candidates have to woo non-Dalit voters during elections. In a state like Uttar Pradesh, how much the aspirations of the two sections align remains a question.
Plus, it is not necessary that Dalit leaders will back a Dalit candidate; as has been seen in the 2019 elections, they are known to switch sides.
Not that it matters, going by findings of a study that shows quotas do not make voters — irrespective of whether they Dalits or non-Dalits — feel more or less empowered or disenfranchised.
So will the next delimitation exercise spell any difference for the SC/ST voter? There is no indication of that any of these issues is going to change, and we can expect more of the same.
What does this portend?
As BRS Minister KT Rama Rao, speaking at South First’s Dakshin Dialogues 2022, said: “The southern states are going to find that one of the rewards for their good economic performance, low levels of fertility of women, high levels of empowerment and education of women and thereby lower population, is going to be a loss of political and economic power at the Union level.”