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Population in India

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The final population figure for the March 2001 Indian census was 1,029 million people. Between 1991 and 2001 the population increased by more than 182 million, compared to 163 million in the previous decade. India’s Registrar-General estimates that by 2035 the country’s population will rise to 1.46 billion, taking it ahead of China in the world population league.

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small globe iconThe 2001 census

The 2001 census was the fourteenth in India, with the first enumeration having taken place in 1871 when the population count was 211 million. In the latest census, two million enumerators visited 650,000 villages, 5,500 towns and scores of cities. This huge exercise drew many accusations of fraud and political manipulation. For example, the Muslim League claim that Muslims have been undercounted in Bombay and other areas as part of a conspiracy to conceal the real strength of the Muslim community in the country. Syed Shahbuddin, a former MP and editor of Muslim Monthly, said: ‘Politics in India has always revolved around numbers, and by undercounting the Muslims in a certain part of India you distort reality and thus you affect the welfare and development programs in the country.'

The final census figure for March 2001 was 1,028,610,328 of which 532,156,772 were males and 496,453,556 were females. This gave a ratio of 933 females per 1,000 males. The total number of households was 193,579,954 with an average number of people per household of 5.3. India supports 16.7 per cent of the world’s population on approximately 2.4 per cent of the global land area. India has more people than all of Africa and also more than North America and South America together. Its population density has increased steadily from 77 per km2 in 1901 to 216 per km2 in 1981, 267 per km2 in 1991 and 324 per km2 in 2001 (Figure 1).

These increases have had significant implications for the population/resources relationship in the country. India is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Particular points of interest with regard to the density and distribution of population include the following:

  • The capital, Delhi, has a population density of 9,294 per km2, making it the tenth most densely populated city in the world.
  • Among the major states West Bengal is the most densely populated at 904/km2, followed by Bihar (880/km2), Kerala (819/km2), Uttar Pradesh (689/km2), Punjab (482/km2) and Tamil Nadu (478/km2). Arunachal Pradesh, in the extreme northeast of the country, is the least densely populated state (13/km2).
  • Uttar Pradesh has the largest population with more people than the whole of the neighbouring country of Pakistan.
  • Seventeen states (out of 28 states) have a population of more than 20 million each and account for almost 95 per cent of the total population of the country.
  • Five states – Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh make up 48.5 per cent of the population.
  • Ten ‘hill states’ in the northeast and north each contribute less than 1 per cent to the total population of India. Of this group the lowest is Sikkim (0.05 per cent) and the highest is Jammu & Kashmir (0.98 per cent).

The population is mostly Hindu (83 per cent) but India also has a Muslim population of over 120 million (12 per cent), one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. The population also includes Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis. Tribal people account for 84 million of the population.

The Washington-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB) produces annual estimates for each country of the world across a range of demographic variables. Figure 2 shows much of the data for India and the UK from the PRB’s 2005 Population data sheet.

Figure 2. Demographic comparison of the UK and India.

small globe iconDemographic transition in India

At the beginning of the twentieth century, endemic disease, periodic epidemics and famines ensured that the death rate was at a level close to the high birth rate (Figures 3 and 4). For example, between 1911 and 1921 the birth and death rates were virtually equal at about 45 per 1,000. However, after this time, the impact of medical advances, especially mass inoculation, resulted in a steady decline in the death rate. Thus, significant population growth in India began in the 1920s as the country moved from Stage 1 to Stage 2 of demographic transition. Between 1921 and 1931, the population grew by 10 per cent. In the 1930s and 1940s, population growth was around 13 per cent per decade; in the 1950s, it was almost 20 per cent; in the 1960s and 1970s, it was 22 per cent; in the 1980s, it was over 21 per cent and in the 1990s, it was 20 per cent (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Mortality and fertility rates by intercensal decade.

Figure 5. Census statistics for India 1871–2001.

Although the birth rate has been declining since the 1960s, marking the movement of India into Stage 3 of demographic transition, it was only from 1991 to 2001 that it dropped significantly faster than the death rate.

However, the progress of demographic transition varies considerably by region, with the south of the country leading the way towards Stage 4 of the demographic transition model. Fertility in Kerala and Tamil Nadu has already fallen to about replacement level.

According to the Registrar-General of India, the country’s population reached 1 billion on Thursday 11 May 2000, with the birth of a baby girl in a Delhi hospital. An estimated 42,000 children are born in India each day. In 2001, the birth rate was 24.79/1,000 and the death rate was 8.88/1,000.

The fall in mortality between 1947 (the year of Independence) and 1970 was due to considerable progress in the battle against several major communicable diseases, along with the absence of major famines. In the last three decades, both the death rate and the infant mortality rate have almost halved, while life expectancy has increased from 50 to 62 years. During this period, there were considerable further advances against communicable diseases such as gastroenteritis, tetanus, dysentery, polio and leprosy. However, there are considerable variations within the country. For example, urban males have a life expectancy of six years more than their rural counterparts.

It is likely that the spread of HIV/AIDS will slow the overall rate of mortality decline in India. Outside South Africa, India has the most people living with HIV – an estimated 5.1 million in 2003. However, only 0.9 per cent of the population of India are HIV-positive compared to over 21 per cent in South Africa. In a 2001 behavioural study, only 75 per cent of the population of India had heard of AIDS and rural women’s AIDS awareness was particularly low.


Figure 1.  Population density of India in 2001.
Figure 1.
Population density of India in 2001.
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Figure 3.  Line graph showing birth and death rates in India 1901–2001.
Figure 3.
Line graph showing birth and death rates in India 1901–2001.
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Figure 6.  Map showing percentage decadal growth of population 1991–2001.
Figure 6.
Map showing percentage decadal growth of population 1991–2001.
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