And just so, we age gracefully

GS Paper I

News Excerpt:

India's population will increase for at least a few more decades. In fact, projections suggest that it won't level off and then decline till at least the middle of this century, if not later.

Key Points:

  • In 1950, the average number of children born to the average Indian woman in her lifetime was 6.18. In 2021, that number had fallen to 1.91. 
  • This week, there’s news of a study that projects that trend into the future: In 2050, it will be 1.29.

What do these numbers mean?

  • One thing is that with a change like that, it should be no surprise that India’s population increased faster in 1950 than it does today. The numbers grew by about 2.21% in 1950, and by an average of 2.26% per year through the 1950s. 
    • Compared with 1.37% in 2011, 0.8% in 2021, and an average of 1.3% through the 2010s.
    • Remember that these are growth rates. In absolute numbers, we added about 8 million people in 1950, but 11 million in 2020. 
  • If we talk about the average Indian woman. The average number of children she will have in her lifetime—is called the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), and our TFR was 6.18 in 1950. 
  • If that TFR prevails from generation to generation, It can be seen that the population will keep increasing without ever slowing down. That's why reduction in TFR is important.
    • For example, it reduces to four, as India’s did. Our average woman and her man now produce four kids before they die. This increases our population by only two. 
    • If the TFR remains steady at four, the population will still keep increasing, if not at the same rate as when it was six.

Going further: 

  • Suppose the TFR reduces still more, to two—about where it is these days. Now the average couple produces only two kids before they die, increasing our population by zero. 
    • In effect, their presence in the population has been taken over by their two offspring. They have been replaced. 
    • This is why a TFR of two is known as “replacement level". A population whose TFR is two will stop growing, because every couple is merely replacing themselves.
  • In reality, the replacement level is considered to be a TFR of 2.1, to account for babies who die, or are infertile when they reach maturity. 
    • India’s TFR dropped below replacement level in about 2021.

What if the TFR continues to fall, as has been predicted for India over the next couple of decades? 

  • As, in fact, is it a reality for several “developed" countries? Far from increasing the population, couples will no longer even be replacing themselves. Eventually, inevitably, the population will start falling.
  • Not just that, either. With fewer babies, and increasing life spans, the population will also change character. A rising fraction will be older folks, with everything that implies. 
    • This is a stark reality for countries such as Japan, the US and Sweden—countries that have steadily ageing populations with steadily fewer young people.
  • That means funding welfare programmes such as social security is now a concern. Health care for older people is now a concern. Naturally, this is the prospect facing India, too, over the next few decades. 
    • We have touted our “demographic dividend" for several years now. But just like those other countries did as they “developed", India, too, will age.

The idea to keep in mind here, strangely enough, is momentum, that almost intangible quality of objects in motion.

  • Think of the ship that destroyed a bridge in Baltimore this week. It lost power, but it still kept moving forward until it smashed into a pylon. Think of Usain Bolt crossing the finish line in a 100m race at the Olympics. Even the best sprinter in history does not come to a halt right there at the line; instead, he runs on, slowing down till he stops. Both Bolt and the ship have momentum because they move. Momentum that keeps them going, that’s hard to halt, that cannot dissipate in an instant.
  • If that makes sense to you, here’s a thought: Analogously, growing populations have momentum, too. Think of a TFR of 2.1 like Usain Bolt’s finish line: A country crosses that replacement “line", but its effect on the country’s population takes time to appear. 
    • The growth of a population, after all, is due not only to the number of children women have on average—the TFR—but also to the number of women in the population who can produce children. 
    • We may have arrived at that moment when the TFR is down to replacement level, but there are plenty of Indian women of reproductive age who are still giving birth to babies.

Projection of population growth:

  • There are also Indian girls reaching puberty who will also give birth in the future. So the count of fertile Indian women will keep increasing for a while. So the population of India will keep increasing for a while.
  • We can also expect India’s population to grow steadily older. Thus the prospect that we are staring at: a population that ages, that will grow before it starts shrinking.

What do we do about this? 

  • We can make plans to cater to and care for larger numbers of the elderly who make up an increasing fraction of us all. 
  • We can encourage immigration, because we are going to need people to fill the jobs our youth perform today but that will fall vacant as India ages.


The aging of the population is going to be the new challenge and balance between fertility and replacement will be one of the key aspects of this issue. Hence we have to ensure balance in TFR and provide every type of support like emotional, health and moral to our older person they deserve.

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