In April, the United Nations estimated that India had overtaken China as the world’s most populous country.
While the announcement received a great deal of media attention, India’s 2024 census is likely to reveal that the UN’s projections have been vastly overestimated.
According to India’s most recent census data, the country’s population stood at 1.03 billion people in 2001 and 1.21 billion in 2011. The UN’s 2022 World Population Prospects (WPP) report, however, put these figures at 1.08 billion and 1.26 billion, respectively. Moreover, India’s National Family Health Survey indicated a fertility rate of 1.99 births per woman in 2017-19, in contrast to the WPP’s estimate of 2.16.
At the 1974 UN population conference in Bucharest, India’s then minister for health and family planning Karan Singh famously said, “Development is the best contraceptive.” While it is often assumed that income per capita is directly correlated with fertility, declining fertility rates are primarily driven by improvements in health and education, along with the wider availability of contraceptives. This trend is evident in India, where the fertility rate has plummeted in tandem with reductions in infant mortality and rising education levels.
India’s development indicators have improved markedly since its previous census. From 2011 to 2021, the country’s infant mortality rate fell from 44 deaths per 1,000 live births to 27. The secondary-education gross enrolment rate rose from 66 per cent to 78 per cent, and the mean years of schooling among adults aged 20 and older increased from 5.8 years to 7.2 years.
The contraceptive prevalence rate rose sharply from 54 per cent in 2013-15 to 67 per cent in 2017-19. Consequently, India’s fertility rate may be as low as 1.6 to 1.7 in 2024, with its population ranging between 1.37 to 1.39 billion, compared to the 1.44 billion projected by the UN.
Absent a socioeconomic paradigm shift, it is likely that India’s fertility rate will drop below 1.2 by 2050 and its population will peak below 1.5 billion, rather than the 1.7 billion projected by the WPP. Fast-forward to the dawn of the 22nd century and the numbers paint an even bleaker picture. While the UN report estimates that India’s population will reach 1.5 billion by 2100, the country’s population could actually fall below a billion.
The WPP’s projections of Chinese demographic trends are even more exaggerated. For example, the 1992 WPP estimated China’s population would reach 1.54 billion by 2025. While the 2022 report revised this figure down to 1.42 billion, the actual figure is likely to be closer to 1.27 billion.
Likewise, the 1996 report projected the Chinese population would increase to 1.52 billion by 2050, but the 2008 report revised this forecast to 1.42 billion and the 2022 edition further reduced it to 1.31 billion. When it comes to 2100, the 2019 WPP projected a population of 1.06 billion, but the 2022 report adjusted this to 767 million.
These constant revisions have undermined the trustworthiness of UN demographic data as a source of insights into Chinese socioeconomic trends. Nevertheless, China’s official demographic figures are heavily influenced by UN projections, as Zhang Weiqing, the former director of China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, confirmed in 2006.
You Yunzhong, a former deputy director for demographic and social statistics at the UN’s statistics division, has been overseeing China’s censuses since 1982.
Should India’s 2024 census reveal that its population is significantly smaller than the WPP’s projections, the reliability of the report’s projections for other countries would be called into question, further discrediting the survey as a credible source for studying the world economy.
In addition to overestimating the populations of China and India, the UN has supported both countries’ population-control policies. In 1974, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) provided India with US$40 million, and then prime minister Indira Gandhi introduced a series of radical measures to manage the country’s population growth, resulting in the forced sterilisation of roughly 8 million Indians. Voters removed Gandhi from power in 1977, leading to the abolition of these policies.
After India, the UNFPA shifted its attention to China, providing US$50 million in 1979 – a substantial sum given that China’s foreign-exchange reserves at the time totalled just US$167 million. The funds were used to implement China’s one-child policy under the iron fist of health minister Qian Xinzhong. In 1983, the UNFPA presented the first UN Population Award to Gandhi and Qian, in recognition of their contributions to global population control.
While the UNFPA has consistently defended the Chinese stance on population control, the United States has repeatedly withdrawn funding from the agency, citing its alleged support for forced abortion and sterilisation. China’s rigid decision-making, together with the UN’s inflated population data, contributed to the delayed abolition of its one-child policy, which was rescinded only in 2016. Yet, despite China’s ongoing population decline, the country has yet to abolish its population-control measures.
Both China and the West face an ageing population crisis that could threaten their stability. While this crisis was partly caused by the UNFPA’s support for population control, the agency’s tendency to create problems rather than solve them may reflect deeper organisational shortcomings. To grapple with the challenges of ageing populations and prevent a painful economic slowdown, the UN must undertake significant reforms of its costly, inefficient and often inaccurate demographic bodies.
The author is a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison