An unprecedented blackout of official Indian government data is preventing United Nations demographers from announcing with certainty when the country will overtake China as home to the world’s largest population.
This demographic milestone for India was scheduled to be announced on April 14, 2023, but as the world waited for confirmation last Friday, no official statement was made.
In an interview with the BBC, Patrick Gerland, head of the United Nations’ Department of Population Estimates and Projections, said the figures about India’s true population size were “naive assumptions based on fragmentary information.”
“We have no real official data from India,” says the UN expert.
India’s Home Ministry did not respond to BBC’s questions about the lack of up-to-date data.
The populations of India and China are each estimated at 1.4 billion, meaning one in three people in the world live in India or China.
China has been the most populous country since records began 70 years ago. While institutes like the World Population Review estimate that India’s population has already surpassed China’s this year, the United Nations population estimator isn’t so sure. “It happens… But the accuracy of the existing information does not allow us to be so precise.”
What we know for sure is that China’s population started shrinking faster than expected last year and India’s population is growing.
United Nations demographers expect the number to peak at 1.7 billion people in 2064, then surpassing China’s number by 50%.
The fact that India has the largest population in the world has a significant impact on India. But why can’t we be sure when exactly that will happen?
For the first time in 140 years, the census was canceled
The main reason for the UN expert’s uncertainty is the lack of a new census in the country for the first time since 1881.
After 140 years of continuous census every 10 years, the 2021 census was canceled and postponed to 2022 due to Covid.
Now it has been pushed back again to 2024, a key election year in India as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a third consecutive term. For some of his opponents, this could be the reason for these delays.
The census was never delayed, including after World Wars I and II or during the Great Famine of the 1870s.
Based on individual surveys in every household in the country, the census is the most reliable source of information not only on population, but also on employment, literacy, wealth, health, education and other important socio-cultural statistics.
Data is becoming an important source for evidence-based policymaking, whether in the need to build new hospitals and schools, in urban planning, in public budget decisions, or in determining constituencies and parliamentary seats.
They also offer other governments, private companies, NGOs and scientists a reliable picture of a country.
In a country with continental dimensions like India, census is an even more complex task as up to three million trained enumerators have to visit every household.
China conducted its 70th census in 2020 and has been publishing its results since 2021.
To avoid relying on outdated census figures from 2011, UN demographers relied, among other things, on estimates from an annual sample survey by the Indian government.
But this study is also not up to date.
“We have not had complete data published by the Indian government for the sample survey since 2019. Therefore, we do not have any actual official data from India for the years 2020, 2021 and 2022. What we have are basically assumptions.” “We did this at the United Nations based on the past and based on various sources of information available until 2019 to deduce what to expect,” says the UN expert.
To calculate a country’s population, demographers use official figures on births, deaths and migration. “For India and China, it is essentially the number of births and deaths that contributes most to the development of the total population,” explains Mr. Gerland.
But since there is no new census, no one can be sure what impact Covid is having on these numbers.
“As with all hypotheses, we can be right or wrong, especially due to the different waves of the Covid pandemic. And since we don’t yet have real data for this period, we made rough approximations, naive assumptions based on fragmentary information.” .
Mr Gerland adds that the exact point at which India will overtake China’s population “could be this month, this year or already”.
The Indian government did not respond to a question about why the samples were not current.
For the opposition, the reason for these census delays is to protect Prime Minister Modi from possible statistical damage after his second term.
“On important issues like employment, Covid deaths etc., we have seen that the Modi government preferred to obscure critical data,” Congress party spokesman Pawan Khera was quoted as saying by Reuters.
The Indian government did not respond to requests for comment.
But recently, a spokesman for Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party responded to this criticism: “I would like to know on what basis they are saying that. “What is the social parameter due to which our performance in nine years is worse than their 65 years of government?” )?” he explained.
Without referring specifically to India, United Nations Director-General Patrick Gerland said that using the census for specific political purposes in general often provokes negative reactions to census participation.
“The idea of a census is to use the information collected for the common good and not to be used by one particular group against another creates many problems and prevents significant results from being achieved.”
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