Challenges loom as world population hits 7b
Updated: 2011-10-18 08:30
The Asian giants
It's 6 pm in Mumbai, India's financial hub, and millions of workers swarm out of their offices, headed to railway stations for a ride home. Every few minutes, as a train enters the station, the crowd surges forward.
For nearly 7 million commuters who ride the overtaxed suburban rail network each work day, every ride is a scramble. Each car is jam-packed; sometimes, riders die when they lose their foothold while clinging to the doors.
Across India, the teeming slums, congested streets, and crowded trains and trams are testimony to the country's burgeoning population. Already the second most populous country, with 1.2 billion people, Indiais expected to over take China around 2030 when its population soars to an estimated 1.6 billion.
But even as the numbers increase, the pace of the growth has slowed. Demographers say India's fertility rate - now 2.6 children per woman - should fall to 2.1 by 2025 and to 1.8 by 2035.
More than half of India's population is under 25, and some policy planners say this so-called "youth dividend" could fuel a productive surge over the next few decades. But population experts caution that the dividend could prove to be a liability without vast social investments.
"If the young population remains uneducated, unskilled and unemployable, then that dividend would be wasted," says Shereen Jejeebhoy, a Population Council demographer in New Delhi.
Population experts also worry about a growing gender gap, stemming largely from Indian families' preference for sons. A surge in sex-selection tests, resulting in abortion of female fetuses, has skewed the ratio, with the latest census showing 914 girls under age 6 for every 1,000 boys.
For now, China remains the most populous nation, with 1.34 billion people. In the past decade it added 73.9 million, more than the population of France or Thailand.
Nonetheless, its growth has slowed dramatically and the population is projected to start shrinking in 2027. By 2050, according to some demographers, it will be smaller than it is today.
"It's like a train on the track that's still moving but the engine is already off," says Gu Baochang, a professor of demography at Beijing's Renmin University.
In the 1970s, Chinese women had five to six children each on average. Today China has a fertility rate - the number of children the average woman is expected to have in her lifetime - of around 1.5, well below the 2.1 replacement rate that demographers say is needed to keep populations stable in developed countries.
Three decades of family planning rules that limit urban families to one child and rural families to two helped China achieve a rapid decline in fertility.