China, the most populous country in the world, witnessed a population decline for the first time in decades last year. The National Bureau of Statistics in China reported a drop of 850,000 in population earlier this week. It marked the beginning of what is expected to be a long period of population decline, despite all government efforts to reverse the trend. The Chinese population had increased at an annual growth rate of 0.5 percent in last decade (2010-2020) against the annual growth rate of 0.57 percent recorded during the decade 2000-2010 (Census, 2020).
China has witnessed a declining trend in proportion of people in the age group of 15-59 years, from 22.9 percentage points in 2000, 16.6 percentage points in 2010 and 9.8 percentage points in 2020. As predicted by demographers, Chinese population is growing old. The proportion of people aged 60 years and above is 18.7 percent of total population in 2020 against 13.3 percent in 2010.
In recent decades, China’s focus has largely been on coercive measures to restrict population growth. China introduced the one-child policy in the late 1970s to slow down the rapid population growth, before reversing it in 2016 to allow families to have two children. In 2021, China relaxed its childbirth policy to allow each couple to have up to three children. Stricter birth limits have created a rapidly aging population and shrinking work force that is straining the country’s economy. The population control measures have led to a skewed sex ratio and a decline in the number of women of the reproductive age group, which will be hard to reverse. In a recent phenomenon, a few regions have started offering incentives to couples to have children. Financial aid could be as high as one-time payment of 10,000 yuan, along with an additional amount of 3000 yuan every year.
India and its states must learn from the experience of China on the inefficacy of coercive population policies. The stringent population control measures have landed China in the midst of a population crisis. Today, Sikkim, Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Puducherry, Punjab, Ladakh, West Bengal and Lakshadweep also face the challenge of an aging population, labour pool in short supply and an increase in sex-selective practices, given the fertility rate which is well below the replacement level of Total Fertility Rate (TFR), which is defined as the rate at which the population exactly replaces itself. The reduced TFR will result in an age-structural transformation wherein the states will have a demographic dividend in the initial years, but an aging population in the long run. This will increase the elderly dependency ratio and increased morbidity levels in terms of non-communicable diseases, in the long run. Going forward, these states will require huge amounts of resources for financial support of the elderly and address their health care needs.
The linkage between higher development and a decline in TFR is clearly borne out by states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, which provide better access to education and development opportunities. For example, Kerala stands out with high social sector achievements leading to a low fertility rate in the state. The social factors that adversely affect India’s efforts at achieving a rapid stabilisation of population include widespread deprivation, inequality and social and gender discrimination. With increased access to education, economic and other development opportunities, fertility decline is a natural demographic phenomenon which Southern states have achieved without coercive policies.
China’s reducing population should serve as a clarion call for India, on not only what to do – but also what not to do. India must put an end to the buzz and noise around the possible introduction of a two-child norm. In order to leverage our demographic dividend and the wealth of human resource in India, it is critical that development interventions are geared towards education with a focus on gender equity, economic development and access to family planning services.