India: between tradition and change

Rafael Puyol. Vicepresident. IE Foundation

5 October 2010

In just under two decades India will be the most populated country on the planet. This translates into enormous potential, but deep changes are required in order to leverage it well.

All demographic information about India is surprising and alarming owing to its size. With more than 1,000 million people (1,171,000) the country has more inhabitants than Europe, Africa and the entire Western Hemisphere. 375 million of them are less than 15 years old and more than 60 have not reached their fifth birthday, which serves to underline the enormous potential of its future development. India’s population grows by more than 20 million every year, the greatest contribution from one single country to the world population. Although China has more inhabitants today, it will be exceeded by the land of the Ganges around 2030, a leading position that it will never lose from thereon in.

The subcontinent of Gandhi and Tagore conjures up an image in Western people that is sometimes too stereotyped, of uncontrolled and endless growth, associated with poverty, the most visible aspect of which is its inhabitants´ hunger. However, although it heads the ranking of the most populated countries on the planet, India is now showing more moderate rates of growth.

The two basic factors behind domestic growth have undergone significant changes, although the process is only half completed. General, childbirth and child death rates have fallen, but these "intermediate" levels that are still far from those of the West. 55 of every 1,000 children born die before their first birthday (only 3.5 in Spain) and life expectancy stands at only 63 years for men and 65 for women (78 and 84 in Spain). Indeed, a desirable improvement to these figures will lead to more potential growth, which will be offset by the sustained fall in birth rates.

Undoubtedly, the birth rate is the fundamental variable underpinning the country´s population development and that on which the authorities have acted more decisively. Historically, the average number of children per woman was 6; today it is 2.7, or 2 in certain parts of the country, although in others it is still above 4, especially in the North. The fall is the result of a number of factors with combined effects. The first has to do with the increase in the age at which people get married, a change of great relevance owing to the universality of marriage. In the 1960s, 20% of children between 10 and 14 years of age and 70% of those between 15 and 19 years of age were already married. Nowadays, there are hardly any marriages before the age of 15 years and for people between the ages of 15 and 19 years, the number has fallen by 2/3. This delay translates into fewer births.

The second cause is selective abortion, which reduces the number of women (potential mothers) and creates an abnormal gender distribution of the population, especially at younger ages. The declaration of the illegality of this type of abortion (1994) and the government´s efforts to ensure that parents value their sons and daughters in the same way have reduced its occurrence, but they have not eliminated it. Certain states have gone one step further by depositing an amount for each girl born, which she receives when she is 18 years of age if she reaches a certain level of education. And, of course, the "official" inhabitant number 1,000 million was a girl, born in a New Delhi hospital on 11 May 2000. But even so, things have not changed.

The third and most decisive influence comes from the successive policies for reducing the birth rate put in place by India in 1952 and speeded up in 1975 with Indira Gandhi´s so-called "national emergency". Some of the actions taken were excessive (between 1976 and 1977, there were 8.3 million sterilisations), which led first of all to the suspension of said actions and then to their relaxation. After the emergency, the Ministry of Health and Family Planning, which was created in 1976, became the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, a semantic change that shows the distance between the initial coercive programmes and the "voluntary" nature of the latter versions, although said voluntariness needs to be defined in greater detail in certain states.

As I was saying, India is no longer the population it was. Progress in demography, with better death and birth rate indicators, has been joined by progress in agricultural production and transport, which has almost done away with the hunger of the past, although half of India´s children are still undernourished.

The progress that has been achieved well known, but the change to modernisation is hindered by the rural condition of much of the country and the heavy social and religious traditions that limit the roles played by women in particular. Although more contained, demographic growth will still be very high. In 2050, the population will probably number around 1,600 million. The challenges facing India are huge because its current requirements in the areas of food, education and employment will be increased by those additional 400 million people. But there will be no choice but to find the resources they need since, owing to mere demographic inertia, it will not be easy to reduce growth to any significant extent.


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