• 20-Apr-2023

India becomes world’s most populous nation: What’s behind the population numbers?

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The population estimates in the UNFPA report are higher than India’s own. An accurate picture can emerge only after the Census exercise, the delay in conducting which can have other adverse consequences.

  • A UN report released on Wednesday has provided the first official confirmation of something that had been anticipated for months now — that India’s population is expected to surpass that of China by the middle of this year at the latest. The annual State of World Population report by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has pegged India’s mid-2023 population at 1,428 million, marginally ahead of China’s 1,425 million.
  • Last year, this same report had estimated China’s mid-2022 population at 1,448 million, substantially more than that of India’s 1,406 million. The emergence of India as the world’s most populous country this year, therefore, has a lot to do with a relatively sharp drop in China’s population — a reduction of 23 million (2.3 crore) in just one year.
  • Of course, these are only estimates, arrived at using indirect methods and a variety of indicators like fertility and mortality rates. But the UNFPA reports (UNFPA refers to UN Population Fund’s original name UN Fund for Population Activities), which have been coming out every year since 1978, are considered a reliable indicator of global population trends. In any case, population sizes are dynamic and it is difficult to capture an accurate number on any given day.

Faster growth than India’s own estimates

  • The most reliable figures for India’s population comes from the Census that happens every 10 years. The last Census took place in 2011, and the 2021 exercise had to be postponed because of the coronavirus The process has not yet been initiated.
  • The 2011 Census had put India’s population at 1,210 million (121.08 crore, 1,210,854,977 to be exact). In July 2020, the Census office had released population projections for years 2012-2036, which remain the official estimates of India’s current population.


  • According to these projections, India’s population in 2023 was expected to be only 1,388 million (about 139 crore), significantly less than what the UNFPA’s State of World Population report and several other estimates have been suggesting. In fact, according to these projections, India’s population even in 2026 would be smaller than what UNFPA has estimated for the middle of this year. Improvements in life expectancy and decline in mortality rates, both of them positive indicators, could be some of the major reasons for the faster-than-expected growth in population in the short term.
  • The UNFPA report says that if India’s population continues to grow at the current pace — a shade below one per cent every year — it would double from the present value in the next 75 years. That would be the case with global population as well, currently slightly above 8 billion. Of course, both India’s and the world’s population are expected to stabilise much ahead of that.

Delayed Census

  • An authoritative assessment of India’s current population has been hampered by an intriguing delay in carrying out the Census 2021 exercise. The pandemic is no longer an obstacle in carrying out any activity, but even more than a year after normalcy has been restored, there are no indications of the process being initiated in the near future. The Census exercise, being carried out every 10 years since the 1870s, has never been disrupted for this long.
  • The government is yet to reveal its plans for Census 2021. When asked about it in Parliament, it has maintained that it wanted to conduct the Census on time but was forced by circumstances to postpone it.
  • “The intent of the government for conducting Census 2021 was notified in the Gazette of India on 28th March, 2019 (before the emergence of the pandemic). Subsequently, a notification under Citizenship Rules was published in the Gazette of India on 31st July, 2019 to prepare and update the Population Register along with the first phase of Census, i.e. Houselisting and Housing Census. However, due to the outbreak of Covid19 pandemic, the conduct of Census 2021, updating of National Population Register and the related field activities have been postponed until further orders,” Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai said in response to a written Parliament question in Lok Sabha on February 7 this year.
  • There has been no further official word on this.
  • In December last year, the office of the Registrar General of India had pushed the deadline to freeze administrative boundaries, the first step in the Census exercise, to June 30 this year. That means that the work is unlikely to begin at least till the end of June. With General Elections scheduled for next year, the Census exercise is unlikely to proceed at a fast pace. It usually takes at least two years for the Census exercise to get completed. Many datasets take several years after the completion of the exercise to come out.
  • The delay in completing the 2021 Census could have damaging implications for a variety of sectors, and could potentially impact India’s growth prospects as well. The Census exercise produces basic input data for all sorts of indicators used for planning and policy implementation. These indicators are also used for investment and trade decisions by global partners. In the absence of reliable indicators, based on solid numbers from the Census, the quality of these decisions could suffer.