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Is humanity headed for a population collapse? What is ailing South Korea, Japan and what will it mean for India in the future

In a recent interview, the PM said, "Between 1950 and 2015, the share of Hindus dipped by 7.82%, while that of Muslims increased by 43%. Hindu civilisation is all accommodating, there is no point spreading false narratives anymore. Those creating narratives of minorities under threat must look into the report and come out of their false perception.” 

In a recent televised interview, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that the decline in the population of the ‘all-inclusive’ Hindu civilization should be a matter of concern for the world. Notably, in an interview with Republic TV, PM Modi made these remarks in the context of a recent study conducted by the Economic Advisory Council to the PM regarding global demographic shifts. The comprehensive report pointed out that while the population of Hindus in India shrunk by 7.8%, the population of minorities, excluding Jains and Parsis, grew between 1950 and 2015.

Speaking with Republic TV’s Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami, PM Modi emphasised that the report has exposed the “false narratives” that “minorities are under threat in India’. 

The Prime Minister said, “Between 1950 and 2015, the share of Hindus dipped by 7.82%, while that of Muslims increased by 43%. Hindu civilisation is all accommodating, there is no point spreading false narratives anymore. Those creating narratives of minorities under threat must look into the report and come out of their false perception.” 

PM Modi added, “A great culture which is all-inclusive, which can somehow keep the world in balance in the future, which is no one’s enemy, will not be able to influence if its share declines. Today the world should be concerned about how the Hindu population will increase.”

India’s TFR drops below 2.1 (replacement rate) for the first time, eyeing challenges currently staring at countries like Japan and South Korea

Notably, before the study by the EAC-PM, the international medical journal, Lancet highlighted concerns for India, noting that the nation is facing looming demographic challenges similar to what South Korea, Japan, China, and other countries are experiencing globally – population collapse or depopulation in the coming decades. In March this year, the Lancet released a comprehensive report regarding fertility rates across the globe.  

The study pointed out that in recent years, India’s TFR (Total Fertility Rate) has fallen below the coveted replacement level of fertility – 2.1 – for the first time. The Total Fertility Rate is the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years. It differs from birth rates – defined as the number of live births per 1,000 women in the total population. 

A country’s TFR below the replacement level of 2.1 generally means that the country’s population will decline in the coming years, while a TFR above 2.1 indicates that its population will stay steady or might increase. Nations strive to maintain their TFR around 2.1, which takes into account the need to replace the population compensating for mortality and other factors.

According to the Lancet study, India’s TFR has registered a sharp decline over the last century, from 6.18 in 1950 to 1.91 in 2021. It is further projected to decline, reaching 1.29 by 2050 and 1.04 by 2100. It is pertinent to note that India’s TFR decline is in line with alarming global trends. In addition to Lancet, several other global observers, including OECD data (which recorded India’s TFR as 2.03 in 2021) and World Bank data (reporting India’s TFR as 2 in 2021), have also indicated that India’s TFR is below the replacement level.

(Image Source – Business Standard)

By 2100, 97% of nations will have TFR below 2.1, says Lancet: Concerns of ‘Baby Boom’ and ‘Baby Bust’, challenges for ‘depopulated’ nations

The Lancet study projects that 155 out of 204 countries and territories worldwide, amounting to around 76% of nations, will have fertility rates below population replacement levels by 2050. It further estimates that by 2100, 198 countries, or 97% of nations, will have TFRs below 2.1. The forecasts are based on surveys, censuses, and other sources of data collected from 1950 through 2021 as part of the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study.

The global Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has fallen from around 5 in 1950 to 2.2 in 2021. As of 2021, 110 countries and territories (54%) had rates below the population replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.

According to the study, fertility rates in nearly all countries will be below replacement level by the end of this century. By then, the majority of the world’s live births will be taking place in low-income countries (LIC) which are prone to economic and political instability. The study indicates that the trend will lead to a divide between “baby boom” (in LIC) and “baby bust” (across the globe). With boom indicating population surge and bust indicating population decline. 

(OECD data – Chart of all countries’ TFR with highlighted ones of India, OECD average, Korea and China, Source – OECD)

By 2100, it is projected that more than 75% of live births will take place in low- and lower-middle-income countries, and more than half will occur in sub-Saharan Africa. 

South Korea, a country with the world’s lowest TFR, scripts new records every year; a lesson for India

While the decline in Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has become a pervasive global issue, the challenges are particularly pronounced for South Korea, which has the world’s lowest TFR. Since 2018, South Korea has been the only member of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) with a TFR below 1. According to reports, its population in 2023 declined for the fourth straight year

(Video Courtesy – France24)

According to preliminary data from Statistics Korea, a government-affiliated body, the average number of children a South Korean woman has during her lifetime (TFR) in 2023 registered an alarming drp. It fell from 0.78 in 2022 to 0.72 in 2023. It has earlier projected that its fertility rate will likely fall further to 0.68 in 2024.

(Couples in South Korea are getting increasingly hesitant to start family and have babies for economic and other concerns, Image Source – BBC)

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, if the low fertility rate persists, the population of Asia’s fifth-biggest economy is projected to almost halve to 26.8 million by 2100.

Additionally, South Korean women give birth for the first time at an average age of 33.6 which is the highest among OECD members. 

It is alarming that the country’s fertility rate continues to shrink and script record low every year despite comprehensive measures undertaken by the government and spending billions to increase its population. The country is facing what is being described as a threat of “national extinction”. 

South Korea has spent over $270 billion on programs to encourage people to have more children, with no success

Since 2006, the Korean government has invested more than 360 trillion won ($270bn) in programs to urge Korean couples to have more children. For this, they have given a slew of incentives including cash subsidies, babysitting services, and support for infertility treatment. Conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration has made reversing the falling birthrate a “national priority”. In December, his government promised to come up with “extraordinary measures” to tackle the situation. 

However, financial and other allurements have failed to convince Korean couples to have babies or bigger families. 

It’s important to note that sustained low fertility rates often indicate a rapidly aging population, leading to economic challenges. With fewer people of working age, boosting the economy becomes difficult, and a significant portion of the budget is redirected towards increasing healthcare and social security costs for the elderly.

However, South Korea is not alone in the region which is struggling with a rapidly aging population and population decline as the trends persist in Japan and China despite incentives. 

In 2023, China’s population fell for the second consecutive year, experiencing a record-low birth rate. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population dropped by 2.08 million (0.15%) to 1.409 billion in 2023. This decline was higher than the previous year’s decrease of 850,000 in 2022. It marked the first time since 1961, during the Great Famine of the Mao Zedong era, that China’s population had experienced an annual decline. 

According to Reuters, in March this year, several hospitals in China stopped offering newborn delivery services due to declining demand. 

Similarly, Japan registered a significant drop in its population last year. This was accompanied by a record decrease in the number of births and the lowest number of marriages since the end of the Second World War. According to government data, the number of babies born in Japan in 2023 fell for an eighth straight year to a historic low.  The health and welfare ministry reported that only 758,631 babies were born in Japan last year, marking a 5.1% decline from the previous year and the lowest number of births recorded since statistics were first compiled in 1899.

(Baby ward in Japan, Image Source – The New York Times)

The development came a year after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned that the stubbornly low birthrate would soon threaten the country’s ability “to continue to function as a society”. He added, “The problem cannot wait and cannot be postponed”.

Additionally, the number of marriages, in Japan, decreased by 5.9% to 489,281 couples, dropping below half a million for the first time in 90 years—a significant factor contributing to the declining birthrate. 

Japan’s population, currently over 125 million, is projected to decline by approximately 30% to 87 million by 2070, with four out of every 10 individuals aged 65 or older.

Expressing concerns and stressing the need to “act now”, the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said the declining birthrate had reached a “critical state”. Speaking with reporters, he said, “The period over the next six years or so until the 2030s, when the younger population will start declining rapidly, will be the last chance we have to try to reverse the trend. There is no time to waste.”

Governments around the globe announcing various incentives to encourage couples to have babies, but nothing seems to be working

According to the BBC, Korean couples with children receive free taxi services, and married couples are exempt from hospital bills and IVF treatment costs. With South Korea’s fertility rates plummeting, the city of Seongnam, the fourth-largest in the country, has resorted to organizing ‘mass blind dates’ in hopes of reversing the declining birth rates. Prospective parents are being enticed with various incentives, including cash rewards and housing subsidies.

As reported by Business Insider, the Hangzhou government in China is offering new parents $2,800 for their third child, while Wenzhou city in southeast China is providing $416.70 in subsidies per child. Chinese cities have also introduced up to 30 days of paid marriage leave for couples.

Concerns of young couples and initiatives undertaken by various governments to arrest the population decline; a ‘gloomy’ crystal ball for India

Despite government incentives, the birth rates are falling drastically. Young couples around the globe, particularly in South Korea and Japan have been reluctant to have babies and express hesitancy towards marriage and starting families. However, the same trend is growing in India as well. They cite reasons such as skyrocketing property prices, a lack of well-paid jobs, prioritization of work over daycare for children, increasing living expenses outpacing salary growth, and a costly education system. They believe that raising children and providing decent living amenities are becoming increasingly expensive. 

Additionally, experts believe that the country’s social structure also influences fertility rates. They state that cultural factors, including the challenges working mothers face in balancing their jobs with household chores and childcare, play a significant role.

Unlike Western nations, being married is considered a prerequisite to having children in these nations. However, marriages are also declining as couples cite the soaring cost of living as one of the main reasons for delaying or avoiding marriage.

Lessons that India can draw from depopulating countries

As highlighted above, there is a growing trend in India where the average age at which individuals are getting married and having their first child is increasing. Couples are increasingly hesitant about marriage and are prioritizing work and career over starting a family. This trend mirrors global patterns seen in countries like South Korea, Japan, and even some parts of China, where economic pressures, career ambitions, and the high cost of living are leading many young people to delay or forgo traditional family structures.

If this persistent trend is not addressed in a timely manner, it will become nearly impossible to avoid the trajectory experienced by South Korea and Japan. This could lead to an acute crisis characterized by a sluggish economy, a lack of working-age population, a crumbling family structure, apathy towards raising families, an aging population, and a host of other insurmountable challenges. 

As Elon Musk and several demographers have noted, “Population collapse is potentially the greatest risk to the future of civilization”. In India, the most populated nation in the world, it is hard to fathom a nation without people, but that reality may not actually be that far away. The demographic challenge and social faultlines in India may also mean that the rapid decline of the population of certain communities, in contrast to a rapid rise in the population of specific other communities, leads to major socio-economic and political challenges, eventually affecting the very fabric of the Indic civilization.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Paurush Gupta
Paurush Gupta
Proud Bhartiya, Hindu, Karma believer. Accidental Journalist who loves to read and write. Keen observer of National Politics and Geopolitics. Cinephile.

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