Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

India: looking ahead to one and a half billion people

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 09 October 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:995

This article has a correction. Please see:

  1. Robert Cassen, visiting professor (,
  2. Pravin Visaria, directorb
  1. a Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics, London WC2A 2AE
  2. b Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, Delhi, India
  1. Correspondence to: R Cassen

    India's population passed one billion in 1999 and is growing by nearly 1.8% annually. The United Nations' “medium” projection has the country's population exceeding 1.5 billion in 2050 and reaching over 1.6 billion before it stabilises. 1 2 The assumptions underlying the projections can be questioned: fertility is certainly falling and this may accelerate, and the course of mortality may not be smooth. But clearly substantial growth lies ahead, and a population of 1.5 billion at some point in the next century is plausible.

    One might ask how can India possibly cope? But India's population has almost trebled in the past 50 years. Perhaps a more useful question is whether the future will resemble the past. Will adding half a billion in the next 50 years be harder to manage than adding just over 650 million in the past 50?

    Summary points

    India's population has risen by 650 million in the past 50 years and could rise to 1.5 billion in the next century

    Many of India's problems are due to social and economic conditions and policy failure rather than to rises in population

    More environmentally friendly food production, more efficient use of water, and reduced pollution are urgently needed and for the most part affordable

    The fertility decline needs to be accelerated by improving literacy and child survival and extending family planning services; there is no case for draconian measures


    This article is based on background research for a three year research project on population issues in India which we have just started with other colleagues. We have used electronic literature searches and also drawn on our past research and publications.

    Is the growth sustainable?

    The past five decades of population growth in India were accompanied by considerable progress. Living standards and life expectancy rose; the proportion of poor people fell from over 50% to …

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