The next decade for India will be demographically significant. If we celebrate the birth of the billionth Indian in 2000, we will celebrate the birth of a child in the next decade that will help India overtake China as the world's most populous country. The country of Kamasutra will finally reclaim its neighbors' bragging rights and this favorite phrase, the world's greatest democracy, will be replaced by a simpler country in the world's largest.
Yes, India has managed to bring a billion people to our planet since 1947, and according to most forecasts, its population is expected to stabilize and reach over 1.5 billion after a few more decades. This growth is due to the rapid decline in mortality and a slow decline in fertility with significant regional differences. The south is more advanced demographically than the poorer northern hinterland (Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) with lower birth rates and consequently lower population growth rates. To see how dramatic this difference is, the average age in southern India, at around 30, is almost 10 years higher than in the poorer north. A direct consequence of this demographic (and economic) difference is the increasing north-south migration flows, which have recently been identified by demographers. The wage differentials are now large enough to overcome language barriers overheard in conversations by Bihari workers who speak Tamil fluent in southern plantation fields. Over the next ten years, these migratory flows will increase and the growing demand for protectionism in the workplace against intergovernmental migrants must be kept in check for India to thrive.
However, north-south migration flows will not be substantial enough to change the fundamental demographic difference in fertility rates, which has changed and continues to change the regional balance of the Indian population. This is of great political importance as the current freeze on Lok Sabha's regional seats needs to be revised based on the 1971 census in 2026. This freeze is important so that states that control population growth well are not punished with less parliamentary representation. In 2001, political parties across the spectrum voted to extend freeze by 25 years. Hopefully, such pragmatism and insight will prevail despite the enormous conflict of interests between the parties. A revocation of the seat ban would lead to a complete breakdown of federal relations. If fiscal federalism has been a key issue in the past decade, demographic federalism will be an important issue in the next decade.
Illustration by Tanmoy Chakraborty
Another topic of high relevance is the CAA-NRC-NPR debate. Its ultimate outcome could affect the collection of census statistics for 2021. In the past, the civil disobedience movement has influenced the 1931 census, non-cooperation and war, the 1941 census, and the unrest that Assam and Jammu and Kashmir omitted from the 1981 and 1991 censuses, respectively. Hopefully the 2021 census will be conducted regularly and plans for an NRC across India will be rejected.
India's immigration rate is likely to continue to decline as neighboring countries continue to diversify their foreign destinations away from India. Subject to possible climate-related mass migrations, Bangladesh's emigration to India is likely to decrease further as the country's outlook improves. Depending on the economic situation in India, the small trickle of European and American skilled workers can intensify. Aside from a visa response, India's emigration to Europe, Canada, Australia, the United States and the Gulf is likely to continue, driving the annual remittance flow to India to over $ 100 billion.
India will continue to urbanize over the next decade, as in previous decades, despite increasing internal migration due to a fundamental demographic divergence between the natural growth rates in rural and urban areas. India will be one of the few major countries in the world in 2030 where the majority of its population still lives in rural areas. Birth rates in urban areas are falling compared to rural areas, especially in the poorer rural northern hinterland. Unless there is substantial investment in education, health and increased agricultural productivity in the poorer north, urbanization will continue to be slower than in the south due to demographic differences between country and city. Yet India's enormous population means that even with a relatively low urbanization rate, the city's population will exceed half a billion people, more than the entire US population. Ideally, this should move city reforms to the top of the political agenda, particularly city administration reforms, and give city governments greater autonomy in funding and functioning. The 2011 census found that urban-to-urban migration was as significant as rural-to-urban migration, and this trend is likely to continue as people search for new opportunities and diversity in urban areas. India's 10 largest cities will hardly change in ranking, but Bengaluru will continue to grow rapidly through migration and Kolkata will lower the pecking order due to its exceptionally low fertility.
Demographers will also closely monitor gender relations in India. Will the missing women phenomenon related to gender discrimination improve or worsen? Will the missing men phenomenon related to the mass migration of men continue or will the migrations be more balanced? The trends here are not very clear and one can only hope for a more balanced demography.
We can be safer in terms of life expectancy. Seventy will soon be the new normal life expectancy at birth, and women will continue to survive on average for men. Millennials may need to share the attention space with the elderly, which is expected to grow. While great strides have been made in reducing mortality and hunger, India continues to stare at a malnutrition crisis. As a Sachin Tendulkar fan, it can be said that body size does not matter, but empirically, body size tends to increase when the average level of nutrition in societies increases. The fact that the Indian heights hardly increase is cause for concern. And at the other end of the spectrum, obesity is gaining in importance as a national health problem.
In 2030, India will be the most populous country in the world, which will still be predominantly rural and where people will live longer. Yet the administration of the two different demographic regimes within Europe and sub-Saharan Africa will require political pragmatism so that demographics do not tear India's fate apart.
Chinmay Tumbe is the author of India Moving: A History of Migration