India: the Ageing Club's newest member

Louis T. March
December 13, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

Is the Ageing Club, those countries with below-replacement fertility, on the way to claiming a new member? Given the size and geopolitical importance of one particular candidate, a key U.S. ally, we should pay attention.

The subject country is - drum roll - India. India's National Family Health Survey (NFHS) has just released the definitive fertility data for 2019-2021. The release, aka NFHS-5, was conducted in two phases: from 17 June 2019 to 30 January 2020, and from 2 January 2020 to 30 April 2021.

India's total fertility rate (TFR) is now 2.0. That is 0.1 below replacement level, a first for the subcontinental colossus. This is a 26% decline in 15 years. Precipitous indeed - with no end in sight.

India is now the world's most populous country at 1.4 billion. Nonetheless, at the rate things are going, India won't actually be eligible for membership in the Ageing Club for quite a while. To achieve that distinction, there must be more folks age 65 and over than there are 18 and under. Not India, not yet - less than 5% of Indians are 65 and older, while almost 42% are 18 and under. But that will change.

Just five of the 28 Indian States and Union Territories have above-replacement TFR. Three are large, poor states clustered in the country's northeast: Bihar (3.0), Uttar Pradesh (2.4), and Jharkhand (2.3). The other two are the much smaller Meghalaya (2.9) and Manipur (2.2), both in extreme eastern India, beyond Bangladesh.

Overall, rural India's TFR is at 2.1, while urban areas average 1.6.

All of these statistics refer to India's population as a whole - Hindu, Muslim, and otherwise, but there are stark differences among the fertility rates of the disparate groups. The Muslim TFR, for example, is roughly 18% higher than that of Hindus.

India is governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is growing increasingly concerned about the Hindu-Muslim fertility differential and fears a population explosion among Indian Muslims. This is widely perceived as a threat to Hindu hegemony. And in politics, perception is reality.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows this better than most. While being careful not to overtly antagonize the Muslim population, in 2019 he addressed the issue this way:

Population explosion will cause many problems for our future generations... There is a vigilant section of citizens which stops to think before bringing a child into the world, whether they can provide for him/her, they don't leave it to fate or to the community. Those who follow the policy of small family also contribute to the development of the nation, it is also a form of patriotism.

So the PM says that having small families is patriotic. And who is not having small families? Everybody knows who Modi is talking about. The not-having-small-families ones are Muslims.

The facts: In 1951, India's Muslim percentage was 9.8%. It is now 15%. In the same period the Hindu population declined from 84.1% to 79%. The Pew Research Center projects that in 2050, Hindus will be at 77% and Muslims at 18%. But that is no reassurance for the BJP base. As the old saying goes, "It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future."

The ruling BJP sees it this way: Although Muslims are still just 15% of the population, nevertheless that's 210 million Muslims. What's more, India is flanked by Muslim Pakistan (225 million with a 3.4 TFR) on the west, Muslim Bangladesh (165 million) on the east, and shares a border on the north with China's Xinjiang region, home of some restive 13 million Muslim Uyghurs. And India and China are not the friendliest of neighbors - their last border clash was just last year. Thus the odds for Hindu India begin to look a little daunting.

Further complicating matters is that PM Modi is (at least for now) a stalwart US ally. The US is heavily invested in India as a regional couterweight to China. Thus Modi's government is viewed as America-friendly and Muslim-unfriendly, which is antagonistic to China, Pakistan and Indian Muslims.

The Lancet projects India's population to peak in 2048 at around 1.6 billion, and by century's end drop to around 1 billion, with a TFR between 1.24 and 1.29. So if current trends continue, there will come a day when the Hindu population will inevitably shrink, and pressure from Muslims within and bordering India will increase. Let's hope that, in a region populated by multiple nuclear powers, it doesn't get ugly.

If you don't think that demography matters, think again.