When I was a kid my grand-uncle from India used to joke that there were so many Indians who made up our highly reproductive race that an easier route to achieving independence from the British instead of the decades-long struggle that went down would have been for every Indian man, woman, and child to show up in the UK and proudly take a piss simultaneously- that act of collective urination being plenty enough to sink the British Isles straight into the sea.
The United Nations now projects that 2023 will be the fateful year when the size of India’s burgeoning human population will finally overtake that of China, which by some estimates started this year as the most populated nation on earth by a whisper, with 1.42 billion people against India’s 1.41 billion. China has held the population record for an unbroken streak of many decades, so this is a major and dramatic shuffle at the top of the rankings. And as we all know once India overtakes the mantle of most populated nation on the planet, it is almost certain to remain so for our lifetimes and well beyond, as no other nation features adequate demographic headwinds to keep up with India’s powerful population growth trajectory expected to continue well into the future. The only thing that could alter this calculation is some form of nuclear holocaust, a terrible pandemic, or some other unforeseen dramatic mass human extinction event that takes out many millions abruptly.
The shift to 2023 being the newly anticipated seminal year represents an acceleration from the previous general consensus, which held that the handover would happen much later, typically 2027 at the soonest, and the 2030s being what I remembered reading for a number of years. But demographic trends picked up speed, and the Indian juggernaut now having a full head of steam has become unstoppable. At the same time, China’s growth rate has fallen off the cliff into a precipitous decline. Meanwhile, the country in distant third place is the United States, and one cannot imagine that the Americans will ever threaten to catch up in the decades or even centuries to come with only about 1/4 of the current population of either China or India, an aging population, and a fertility rate of 1.8. In fact steady immigration is the only option expected to keep the United States running, unless American society manages to screw that up too.
India is a younger country than China, with a median age of 28 vs. 38. The fertility rate is also higher at 2.2 in India vs. 1.7 in China. Those with adequate means have been leaving China in droves recently in light of ominous economic and political pressures. China is also reaping the long-tail consequences of the misguided decades-long one-child policy and the cultural preference for male children that have combined to heavily skew the gender balance to dangerous levels. The boys become men, competing in the same severely limited pool of available women. This truly doesn’t bode well for successful heterosexual pair bonding between Chinese citizens when they come of age, or the birth rate. It is widely accepted that China’s population actually declined in 2022 for the first time in a whopping 60 years.
Perhaps more importantly than all of the above evidence, we should not be surprised if China’s data is being heavily cooked in this area, just as with most other indicators that depend on input from the Chinese Communist Party as it tries to hide bad news from the people and rival nations. In fact, many China experts estimate that the population is overstated by over 100 million right now, which would indicate that India has overtaken China already as of the last year or two.
In any case, whether it’s already happened or is about to, we should all get used to India being the newly anointed largest nation on the planet. This is really huge! The event has numerous ramifications for the world economy, strategic relations and alliances, popular culture, the healthcare industry, food production, the future of the Internet and social media, and the all-important bilateral relationship between India and China which we can only hope will be peaceful through the transition. Some of the effects are predictable, others are not. I for one cannot wait to see how all of this unfolds, and whether Indian leadership is capable of seizing the opportunities on the world stage commensurate with representing the largest citizenry in the world- not even counting the diasporas around the world claiming India as a place of national origin. That includes people like me.
For the United States, these developments should only add to the urgency in Washington to propose a stronger military and trade alliance with India, a power on the rise.