India's population is now a little over one billion; it will almost certainly surpass 1.5 billion by mid-century, overtaking China's population along the way before it stops growing. But, as worrying as this might appear, this actually represents a considerable demographic slowdown: India's population more than tripled during the past sixty years. Moreover, the economy is growing much faster than before. So will India be able to provide a comfortable home for 1.5 billion people?
I recently co-authored a study (with Tim Dyson, Leela Visaria and others) that concludes, with modest optimism, that while India can manage its population growth, it also faces a number of major difficulties.
True, poverty fell in the 1990's, while literacy rates and school attendance rose. But they did so unevenly. Most of India's big poor states - Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh - suffer from a combination of relatively slow economic growth and rapid demographic growth. Only Rajasthan's economy has kept pace with the rest of the country; the other four have not benefited much from trade and regulatory liberalization.
Similarly, states where birth rates fell earlier, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, are already enjoying shrinking school-age populations, whereas school-age numbers in Bihar will still be rising until around 2025. But the majority of children in Kerala and Tamil Nadu are already in school, while in Bihar they are not.