yi9_ Anindito MukherjeeGetty Images_india poulation Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

China and India Have Fewer People Than the UN Thinks

The United Nations’ premature declaration that India has surpassed China as the world’s most populous country highlights the diminishing reliability of its population statistics. If its projections for other countries are also called into question, it will cease to be a credible source of insight into the world economy.

MADISON, WISCONSIN – In April, the United Nations estimated that India had overtaken China as the world’s most populous country. While the announcement received a great deal of media attention, India’s 2024 census will likely reveal that the UN’s projections have been vastly overestimated.

According to India’s most recent census data, the country’s population stood at 1.03 billion in 2001 and 1.21 billion in 2011. The UN’s 2022 World Population Prospects (WPP) report, however, put these figures at 1.08 billion and 1.26 billion, respectively. Moreover, India’s National Family Health Survey indicated a fertility rate of 1.99 in 2017-19, in contrast to the WPP’s estimate of 2.16.

At the 1974 UN population conference in Bucharest, India’s then-Minister for Health and Family Planning, Karan Singh, famously said, “Development is the best contraceptive.” While it is often assumed that income per capita is directly correlated with fertility, declining fertility rates are primarily driven by improvements in health and education, along with the wider availability of contraceptives. This trend is evident in India, where the fertility rate has plummeted in tandem with reductions in infant mortality and rising education levels.

To continue reading, register now.

Subscribe now for unlimited access to everything PS has to offer.


As a registered user, you can enjoy more PS content every month – for free.


Correction May 27, 2023 12:18UTC

The last sentence of the twelfth paragraph has been corrected to read “In 1983, a UN committee comprised of ten member states (with the UN secretary-general and UNFPA’s executive director as ex-officio members) presented the first UN Population Award to Gandhi and Qian, in recognition of their contributions to population control.”

Update May 25, 2023 12:27UTC

The first sentence of the penultimate paragraph has been updated to read, "While UNFPA has defended its work in China," and a link has been added.