India's Population Reality: Reconciling Change and Tradition

By Haub, Carl; Sharma, O. P. | Population Bulletin, September 2006 | Go to article overview

India's Population Reality: Reconciling Change and Tradition


Haub, Carl, Sharma, O. P., Population Bulletin


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India is often described as a collection of many countries held together by a common destiny and a successful democracy. Its diverse ethnic, linguistic, geographic, religious, and demographic features reflect its rich history and shape its present and future. No fewer than 16 languages are featured on Indian rupee notes. It is also only the second country to achieve a population of 1 billion. While it is an emerging economic power, life remains largely rooted in its villages. Only a small fraction of Indians are benefiting from the country's expanding industrial and information sectors.

India has more people than Europe, more than Africa, more than the entire Western Hemisphere. India's population will exceed that of China before 2030 to become the world's most populous country, a distinction it will almost certainly never lose. Just one group, Indian boys below age 5, numbers 62 million-more than the total population of France. India's annual increase of nearly 19 million contributes far more to annual world population growth than any other country.

This Population Bulletin presents a demographic portrait of the diverse country of India in the early years of the 21st century and offers insight into some of the forces driving continued growth.

A Rich History

Although the region has a rich and ancient history, present-day India is a relatively new nation. India gained independence from British rule in 1947, after decades of struggle against the former colonial power. The country was then partitioned into primarily Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The eastern part of Pakistan is today's Bangladesh. In the largest mass migration ever recorded, millions of Hindus left Pakistan to resettle in India, as millions of Muslims moved from India to Pakistan. The upheaval of the partition also unleashed a period of horrific violence between Hindus and Muslims, and sporadic conflicts between Hindus and Muslims and between India and Pakistan continue to this day.

At independence, India consisted of provinces defined by the British, along with more than 500 princely states whose territory was ultimately taken over by the new Indian government. Boundaries for today's states were largely drawn along language lines after independence. In the 21st century, India is a federal republic comprised of 28 states and seven union territories. States and union territories are split into 593 districts and 5,564 subdistricts.

New states are created periodically to ease the burden of governing as their populations grow or to provide separate states for ethnic and tribal groups. Three new states were created in 2000 when Jharkhand was split from Bihar, Chhattisgarh was cut from Madhya Pradesh, and a few mountain districts were carved out of Uttar Pradesh to form the state of Uttaranchal.

Part of Kashmir, along the northwestern border with Pakistan, is occupied by Pakistan, although India considers it Indian territory. Disputes over this territory have spawned intense political battles and terrorism.

India's 1.2 million square miles (3.3 million square kilometers) equals about one-third the land area of the United States. In the far north, India is dominated by the grand sweep of the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, and Patkai mountain ranges, which soon give way to the vast and fertile Indo-Gangetic plain of the north, fed by such major rivers as the Ganges and Yamuna. Here are located many of India's most populous states such as Haryana, Delhi, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal (see Figure 1, page 3). Moghuls invaded from Afghanistan in the 16th century, leaving a mark on the architecture, food, and dress of northern India still discernable today.1 Hindi, India's official language of government, is spoken in much of the north, and the area from Rajasthan to Bihar is often referred to as the "Hindi Belt. …

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