Life evolved early upon our planet ~ some 3 billion years ago. Compared to that, humans have a short existence of only 250 thousand years. We can say it took around that much time for the world’s human population to reach the one billion milepost by 1800 AD. But it took just a century to add one more billion and another century later, by 2011, the world population had reached 7 billion which is poised to reach 8 billion by 2023. This population explosion has been brought about by the combination of many factors: miraculous progress and inventions in agriculture, sciences and medicines, urbanisation and spread of education ~ especially female education, easy access to contraceptives and also the emergence of nation states ~ with a system of governance that delivered healthcare and education to their citizens, though in varying degrees. However, increasing population had to keep pace with higher demands for food, energy, living space and sustainability for environment ~ hence control of population became a major focus of government policy along with management of natural resources and climate since the last century. In advanced economies, scientists started exploring outer space primarily to harness energy sources from other planets and also to establish extra-terrestrial human colonies. Studies began to be undertaken internationally to estimate the maximum population that the earth can support the results of which varied widely, but most of these put the limit at 8 billion, almost our current population.

In 2019, the UN projected world population to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050 and 10.9 billion in 2100. During 2015-2020, the annual growth rate in global population declined to 1.1 per cent from its peak of 2.1 per cent during 19651970; it will decline further to 0.5 per cent by mid-century. Most of the future growth will occur in sub-Saharan Africa with Africa adding 1 billion people by 2050, followed by Asia with 650 million, while Europe’s population will decline by 37 million. In 2100, five of the world’s most populous countries will be in Africa (Nigeria, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Egypt). China will peak in 2031 at nearly 1.5 billion, and India in 2059 at 1.7 billion. The US population will reach 434 million, its immigrant population rising by 85 million by 2100. By 2027, India will overtake China and by 2050, Nigeria will overtake the USA to emerge as the third most populous country in the world. Stability of population is defined by the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) which is the average number of children per woman. A TFR of 2.1 just replaces the current population. By 2070 the global TFR will fall below 2.1 from the current 2.5, to decline to 1.9 by 2100. It would be an aging population by then, with the median age increasing to 42 from the current 31.

However, a study of population trends in 195 countries by the University of Washington’s “Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation” published in the reputed medical journal, The Lancet, in July 2020 provided somewhat more optimistic projections. The study projected the world population to reach its peak at 9.73 billion in 2064 and then gradually to decline to 8.79 billion in 2100. The TFR in 183 of the 195 countries will fall below the replacement level, with the global TFR declining from 2.37 in 2017 to 1.66 in 2100. Population will shrink by more than 50 per cent in 23 countries including Japan, Thailand, Italy and Spain. By 2100, the top five most populous countries in the world in 2100 will be India (1.09 billion), Nigeria (791 million), China (732 million), USA (336 million) and Pakistan (248 million). The study predicts the peak Indian population at 1.6 billion in 2048, up from 1.38 billion in 2017. In 2100, India will still be the world’s most populous country, but its population will drop to only 1.09 billion. India’s TFR, currently at 2.14, will also decline to just 1.29. With lesser population, environment and climate will become sustainable and with the appropriate global regulation on consumption by the rich, the planetary carbon footprints can also be brought within manageable levels. We won’t have to explore colonising other planets at immense expenditure and risk to human lives.

Does it mean that the world’s population worries will be over by 2100? Certainly not ~ because while world population will stabilise, such stabilisation is likely to be accompanied by a decline in the working-age population to 4.72 billion. In India this will decline from 762 million in 2017 to 580 million in 2100 ~ still the largest working-age population in the world. China’s workingage population would decline to 357 million from 950 million (2017). The economic consequences of this can be farreaching ~ drastic fall in the GDP and consequent shift in the global balance of power. Decline in working age population will necessarily lead to lesser tax collections and hence stress government finances for supporting a higher dependency ratio in population through higher expenditure on social security. It will call for new demographic policies to deal with this reality.

Policies will also be needed to smoothen the demographic skewness across the states and communities in India. The National Commission on Population has projected India’s population to overtake China’s around 2031 and its TFR to decline to 1.73 by 2036 with Bihar being the only state with a TFR higher than 2, at 2.38. India had adopted a family planning programme way back in 1951 when with a population of 350 million, it was one of the most populous countries in the world. In 2015- 16, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 4) found India’s TFR had reached 2.2, with most states already being below the replacement rate. It was a success story, not celebrated enough, realised through progressive increases in the age of marriage, use of contraceptives and female education. The NFHS-4 has also found that except Hindus and Muslims, the TFRs of all other communities were way below the replacement levels ~ Christians at 1.99, Sikhs at 1.58, Buddhists at 1.74 and Jains at 1.20. Hindus had a TFR of 2.13, down from 2.59 as estimated during the NFHS-3 in 200506, while for Muslims, it was the highest at 2.61 as against 3.40 in NFHS-3. Interestingly these numbers directly correlate with female literacy rates among them ~ 76.2, 63.1, 61.7, 90.6, 53.2 and 50.1 respectively for Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Hindus and Muslims, as per the 2011 Census.

The fact that the TFR had declined by 0.79 for Muslims since 2005-06 ~ the highest among all communities ~ means the community has not been stagnating on the population front and that the vicious hold of mullahs and their stubborn opposition to contraceptives may actually be weakening. Instead of demonising and vilifying them as some ultra-rightist, fundamentalist groups tend to do, government policies must focus intensively to educate Muslim girls and encourage science education amongst Muslims in general, by providing liberal scholarships for science education and by compulsorily modernising the Madrassa syllabus to make it secular, modern and in sync with all other school syllabi in India.

It also indicates that immigration may no longer remain an issue with governments. If population is set to decline all over and median age increases in developed societies faster than in developing societies, it means such societies will necessarily need immigrants to support their economies or to care for their elderly whose proportion in total population will continue to increase. This will progressively lead to the blurring of national boundaries requiring political parties to reset their policies and goals. The time horizon is near enough to predict that the likes of Donald Trump succeeding by making immigration the centrepiece of their policies will be remote, as they will no longer be able to blame the rising population for the failure of their policies. The fear of an impending apocalypse depicted in the 1968 book Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrlich implying that mass migration from poor countries would undermine the developed western societies with environmental and other catastrophe seems remote and unreal. The developed countries in Europe and America which today discourage immigration will have to reverse these policies for their survival.

India also need not fear Bangladeshi immigration anymore. In fact, as the Microsoft Chief has suggested, if indeed a Bangladeshi rises to become the Infosys CEO, I will have reason to celebrate being born an Indian, because then my country will have become a truly globalised country not only to attract the best global talents but also to offer them equal opportunities as its own citizens. Only a free and a confident country that reckons its historical diversity as its biggest strength can do this. Not even China can then prevent India from becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council.