In Retrospect

At the crossroads

The benefits or repercussions of India’s booming population are incumbent on the efficacy of the ‘holistic’ population policy that the country should adopt towards creating quality human capital

At the crossroads

India has overtaken China to become the world’s most populous country. According to estimates by the United Nations, India’s population has more than quadrupled from 350 million inhabitants in 1950 to an estimated 1.43 billion people in April 2023. Now, India is the world’s most populous country, with a population of 142.86 crores against China’s 142.57 crores. Meanwhile, China’s population, which peaked at 1.42 billion in 2021, is gradually declining. This means every third person in the world — which has a total population of 8 billion at present — comes from either of the two Asian countries. It is also estimated that by 2050, India’s population would reach 1.67 billion, compared to China’s population of 1.31 billion, reports Aljazeera. Though India’s birth rate has slowed down in recent years, the country has a larger working-age population in absolute terms (1.1 billion) and proportion (75 per cent of the population) than any other major economy. The median age in India is 28.4 years, compared to 38.3 years in the US, 38.4 years in China, and 40.5 years in the UK.

Reacting to this report of India overtaking China as the world’s most populous country, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “size matters, but what matters more is talent resource. Nearly 900 million out of the 1.4 billion Chinese are of working age and on average have received 10.9 years of education. And for those who have newly entered the workforce, their average length of education has risen to 14 years”. It may be mentioned that as per Human Development Report (HDR) 2022, the expected years of schooling in India in 2021 was 11.9 years, compared to 14.2 years in China.

For decades, India ran family planning programmes aimed at curbing its population growth amid limited resources. Only recently, especially after the economic liberalisation in the 1990s, Indian policymakers have started arguing that the country’s vast young labour pool was a “demographic dividend” that would pay out handsomely for the economy. It is argued that a large youth population in a consumer-driven economy will be a factor in driving growth. In addition to ensuring an abundant supply of young labour force, rising domestic consumption should also help the nation tide over any external shocks.

It is now believed that India’s young population would attract foreign investments to Indian shores out of China’s aging factories located in their export-processing zones. Nevertheless, comparing various data, Dipankar Dey (Millennium Post, January 28, 2023) underlined the reason why India has failed to leverage its huge labour force while China has successfully used the same to its advantage. The difference in the quality of human capital has led to all the variations between China and India’s growth story.


On December 10, 1974, the United States National Security Council, led by Henry Kissinger, completed a classified report titled ‘National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM-200): Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests’ — also known as the ‘Kissinger Report’. Due to the sensitive nature of its content, it took another 15 years before this report was declassified in 1989. The report’s purpose was to describe and analyse the population growth, especially in the least developed countries (LDCs), and the implications for US’ national security. On November 26, 1975, ‘NSSM-200’ became an official foreign policy, when it was endorsed by ‘National Security Decision Memorandum 314’.

NSSM 200 forecasted the global population to grow from 4 billion people in 1974, through 6.4 billion in 2000, to 12 billion in 2075. This kind of population growth was deemed unsustainable and was stated to cause major problems: famines and ecological disasters, lack of economic development, civil unrest and mass foreign migration. The report apprehended that instability would be restricted to the countries involved, but would also threaten the national interests of the US, since its import of minerals from those LDCs might be hampered. The strategy document called for measures to limit the population to six billion by the mid-21st century, and to an ultimate limit of 8 billion people. The document also rooted for the promotion of contraception among thirteen populous countries, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Mexico. These thirteen countries contributed to about 47 per cent of the total population in the early 1970s.

When the report was declassified in 1989, the proposed population control policy, including abortion and the targeting of LDCs, triggered worldwide controversy. The box outlines a few major observations and recommendations of NSSM -200.

Though the global population has reached eight billion, data presented in the table show that the US’ strategy has successfully controlled the total fertility rate (TFR) of the 13 targeted countries. The percentage decline of TFR during 1970-2010 was remarkable among Asian and Latin American countries, namely, Thailand (71 per cent), Bangladesh (68 per cent), Mexico (66 per cent), Brazil (64 per cent), Turkey (62 per cent), Indonesia (62 per cent), and Columbia (57 per cent). It may be noted that Bangladesh was the only LDC among these targeted countries which had achieved, as early as 2010, a TFR close to 2.1. A total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 children per woman is generally required for population replacement. In the absence of immigration, emigration, or a radical change in life expectancy, a TFR of 2.1 would lead to a stable population. Countries with high infant mortality rates would require higher TFR for population replacement. Government of India’s data claims that India has achieved a TFR of 2 which is below the replacement rate, and U5MR has also declined to 35.

For countries like Egypt (54 per cent), India (53 per cent), the Philippines (51 per cent), and Pakistan (48 per cent), the decline was modest, and for other African countries — Nigeria (15 per cent) and Ethiopia (38 per cent) — decline in TFR during 1970-2010 was low. The Under-five Mortality Rate (U5MR) for these two countries was also very high in 2010. Among the Asian countries, India and Pakistan had high U5MR in 2010. U5MR is the probability (expressed as a rate per 1,000 live births) of a child born in a specified year dying before reaching the age of five. Interestingly, in all three African countries, the decline in fertility rate was faster during 1990-2010 compared to 1970-1990. This could be due to the AIDS epidemic in the African region during the 1990s which compelled people to take safe sex measures.

The table also reveals that in the case of the USA, as expected, the TFR decline was only 4.5 per cent between 1970 and 2010, and during 1990-2010, the TFR actually increased by over 10.5 per cent.

Population policy of India

In India, population policy and population control through family planning programmes were considered synonymous during the first five decades of independence. Even today, the approach has not changed much. In 1951, India turned into the first among the developing countries to come up with a state-sponsored family planning programme. The Planning Commission was set up in 1950 and was given the undertaking to choose the shapes of the family planning programme. In 1952, a populace strategy board of trustees was formed. This panel had suggested setting up a Family Planning Research and Programmes Committee. But the political support

for family planning had been lukewarm at best during the first 25 years of the Indian Republic. The Gandhian tradition supported family planning based on sexual abstinence but disfavoured modern contraceptives. Jawaharlal Nehru felt that family planning was a diversion, and that the main commitment of the government must be to raise the standard of living of the masses.

The early phase of the Indian family planning programme was supply-oriented, as it adopted as its major mission the expansion of the availability of contraceptive materials. The results of KAP (knowledge, attitude, and practice) surveys and the widespread existence of abortion were taken to mean that there already existed a ready demand for family planning. This was supplemented in 1966 by the use of mass media to create awareness and mould public opinion. India became one of the first nations to use monetary payments for family planning. The practice started as early as 1958 in Tamil Nādu, and spread to Maharashtra and elsewhere. In 1966, the Government of India allocated 20 per cent of the family planning budget for such payments which could be divided among acceptors and canvassers at the discretion of local managers.

During the first decade of her Prime Ministership, Indira Gandhi did not give much attention to family planning. It was, therefore, big news when, in 1976, the government policy underscored the goal of reducing fertility as a major national commitment. For the very first time, the Congress Party formally listed family planning as a political objective at its Chandigarh session in 1975. The Youth Congress, under the leadership of Sanjay Gandhi, adopted family planning as a major plank in the programme for national reconstruction. The April 1976 policy seemed to be a major departure in the sense that it opened the door to a ‘compulsory approach’ to family planning.

Without citing any evidence, the policy statement asserted that “... public opinion is now ready to accept much more stringent measures for family planning than before.” It ruled out nationwide compulsory sterilisation at least for the time being only because the medical and administrative infrastructure was inadequate. However, it permitted state governments to go ahead if they felt they were ready to cope with the problems of implementation. Official figures claimed that the 12-month sterilisation target for April 1976 to March 1977 was substantially exceeded in only seven months up to October 1976. Nearly five million were sterilised during these seven months, compared to less than one million in the corresponding period of the previous year. With the defeat of the Congress party in 1977, India’s brief flirtation with coercive family planning during the Emergency period was over, wrote Ravi Gulati (August 1977) in the World Bank’s Staff Working Paper No. 265.

It is quite reasonable to believe that India’s coercive family planning programme, which began in April 1976, was a fallout of the NSSM 200 (1974).

The National Population Policy, 2000, was adopted by the Indian government on February 15, 2000. This policy had three objectives:

* to address the unmet needs for contraception, healthcare infrastructure, and personal healthcare, as also to provide integrated service delivery for basic reproductive and child healthcare;

* to bring the Total Fertility Rate to replacement levels by 2010; and

* to achieve a stable population by 2045.

The Population Regulation Bill, 2019, was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in July 2019, but withdrawn in 2022. It called for penal action against people with more than two living children, including debarment from being an elected representative, dismissal of financial benefits and decrease in benefits under the public distribution system. The bill also proposed that government employees should give an undertaking that they would not conceive more than two children.

The two-child policy has been introduced in the Parliament 35 times since independence. If enacted, the law must take into account the rights of divorced couples as well as the Islamic religion. Earlier bills that were introduced lacked these features and were heavily criticised by the general public. The proposed population control bill would have constitutional repercussions.


According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5, India has unacceptably high levels of stunting, despite marginal improvement over the years. In 2019-21, 35.5 per cent of children below five years were stunted and 32.1 per cent were underweighted. India ranks 116 out of 174 countries on the human capital index. The World Bank says, “a 1 per cent loss in adult height due to childhood stunting is associated with a 1.4 per cent loss in economic productivity.” Stunting also has lasting effects on future generations. Furthermore, with 57 per cent of women anaemic in 2019-21, this will have lasting effects on their future pregnancies and children. The situation worsens when infants are fed inadequate diets.

India needs a holistic population policy, not a population control policy, for the development of quality human capital. Unless this is done in the right earnest, the huge population would remain a burden to the nation. The ‘demographic advantage’ that policymakers talk about, would not pay any economic dividend to India.

Outline of the population control strategy in NSSM-200

* The United States needs wide access to the mineral resources of less-developed nations (LDCs).

* The smooth flow of resources to the United States could be jeopardised by LDC governments’ actions, labour conflicts, sabotage, or civil disturbances, which are much more likely if population pressure is a factor.

* Young populations are also much more likely to challenge imperialism and the world’s power structures, so their numbers should be kept down if possible.

* Therefore, the United States of America must develop a commitment to population control among key LDC leaders while bypassing the will of their people.

* Critical elements of implementation include:

* Identifying primary targets — 13 key nations that represent nearly half of the global population growth.

* Enlisting the aid of as many multilateral population control organisations as possible in this worldwide project.

* Recognising that no country has ever controlled its population growth without a recourse to legal abortion.

* Designing programmes with financial incentives for countries to increase their abortion, sterilisation, and contraception-use rates.

* Designing and instigating propaganda programmes and sex-education curricula intended to convince couples to have smaller families, regardless of social or cultural considerations.

* Investigating the desirability of mandatory population control programmes.

* Consider using coercion in other forms, such as withholding disaster and food aid unless an LDC implements population control programmes.

* Throughout the implementation process, the United States must hide its tracks and disguise its programmes as altruistic. Otherwise, there could be a serious backlash. The United States must convince the leaders and people of LDCs that population reduction is in their own best interests, hiding the fact that the United States wants access to their natural resources. The United States also must cover up, or distract attention from, the disturbing truth. Funding for development and health programmes has steadily shrunk while funding for population programmes continues to grow.

Source: Brian Clowes, Exposing the Global Population Control Agenda, Volume XXI, No. 2, Fall 2011,

Views expressed are personal

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