May 11, 2017

Why Population of India and China is so high ? - Reasons and Theories

Why population of India and China is so high ?

        A few weeks ago , I was studying about the population and its distribution  . In that time one wikipedia entry made me to think deeply ,  that was population distribution of world .
    It was really interesting to know that India and China have nearly 40 % percent of world population . It means hat each country have 20 % . But if we see at other countries , there is no one more than 5 % . This was surprising .

world population country wise distribution
    It made me curious about some population related questions and forced me to dig the topic to its roots .
That basic questions were :

1 . Why only India and China have that large percentage of world population ?

2 . What are the things that make these two Asian countries special for human settlements ?

3 . Why India is densely populated ?

4 . Why is China's population so large ?

5 . Reasons behind the overpopulation of these countries.

From all these  questions , you simply think that  " How come India and China accounted for close to 40% of human population at various points of time in history ? " .

So let's start to get into the science of population and geography with some history . 

[ These is going to be a very deep and detailed post . If you can read now then continue otherwise bookmark for later reading ]

( This post is part of our journey to know India . You can go here and start the journey . It's just awesome way to know more about India . ) 

It's indeed strange that of all the land available in the world, more people should end up living on a smaller chunks of it.
There are many theories explaining the distribution of population the most relevant being climate and geographic conditions theory.

However, the climate and geography theory can not fully explain how a spatially small country like India ended up with 17% of the world population today.

 There are two ways to look at this problem:

1. Why does India have such a huge population?

2. Why does the rest of the world have such a low population?

What is important here is what binds 17% of this population and restricts it to a single small land mass. This is where the second theory of Historic Developments comes to explain the clustering of populations into specific land masses and how its population came to viewed as a problem.

The complicated answer is very long, so I've divided it into following sections which explain population concentration on the land mass we currently identify as India:

Part 1 :  The Climate and Geography Theory and the history of world population growth

Part 2 : Factors that affect population in region and reasons behind high population of India and China

Part 3 :  The Historic Development Theory - period up to 1700s

Part 4 : The Historic Development Theory - period between 1700s to 1950s

Part 5 : The Historic Development Theory - period post 1950s

Let's first talk about the Climate and geography theory .

Part 1 :  Climate and Geography Theory

Before moving to the theory and reasons , let us revise the basic question of the post " How come India and China accounted for close to 60% of human population at various points of time in history? " 

Although India & China occupy "only" a tenth of Earth's land surface, their share of earth's hospitable land is close to a quarter. Vast chunks of earth are not really hospitable - Siberia, Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska, Sahara desert, most of Canada, Arabian desert and rain forests of Amazon and central Africa. The inland water resources of Mongolia, northern Mexico, central Australia, Central Asian Republics are too few. This rules out a sizable chunk of earth's land for dense human settlement.
The region around the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn is the best suited for human settlement (see below). A big chunk of this region is lost in the Sahara, leaving India, Mexico, Southern US & China as the major non-arid regions on this zone. In the southern hemisphere most of this critical zone is taken over by oceans or deserts (Kalahari, Great Victoria, Atacama).

Those small portions of land near Tropic of Capricorn not occupied by the ocean support the major southern metropolises of Sydney, Capetown, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Santiago.

access to water is one important feature determining settlement.

Compare the population distribution to the geographic conditions and you see how tropical regions and marine west coast attract more settlements due to the easier availability of food.

Further you compare the population distribution to climates around the world and you notice how warm temperature, full humidity and hot or warm summers favor more settlements. But so do equatorial climate with monsoons.

When we study this theory  , we have to study the complementary factors that effects on population . These factors are not part of Climate and Geography Theory are very close to it . So let's look at that reasons behind India and China having so high population.

Part 2 : Factors that affect the population density 

Water and Silt:

Let us now zoom to this critical zone around 30N (just north of Tropic of Cancer) where all major civilizations arose and almost all of modern religions came from. The people around this latitude shaped the world's history of ancient era.
While Iran (between purple and brown area below) had civilizations going from the ancient era, it never had any major river to support a massive population growth. Israel (between the green & purple) was too small & had a constant outside intervention. Egypt outside the narrow Nile valley, most of Iraq (especially regions far from Tigris & Euphrates) and most parts of Arab peninsula were too dry & hot to support massive population settlement.
Ancient river valley civilizations
Ancient river valley civilizations

Northern India and Eastern China sit on massive alluvial plains created by rivers such as Ganga+Indus and Huang He+Yangtze rivers. The first recorded human civilizations grew on these river valley plains along with the plains created by Nile (Egypt) and Euphrates (modern Iraq). These river valleys provided the right conditions for the civilization, with water & silt for agriculture, tolerable climatic conditions and rivers for commerce.
There are only a handful of these big river valleys in the world, especially in this latitude. Overall there are about 26 major river basins (see map below) and only 16 of them are in the hospitable regions. India and China have 4 of the 16. Of the remaining 12, five of them are surrounded by massive rain forests. Three of them: Orange, Murray-Darling & Mississippi were a bit isolated to support a major civilization (although they all supported unique native cultures and are home to major cities now). That leaves the Nile, Danube, the Euphrates, Zambezi as the major cradles of civilizations outside India & China.
Besides the major ones, China has 50,000 rivers with 100sq km or more in the catchment area. India has a lesser number of these rivers, but is well spread throughout the country. The rivers are neither too monstrous like the Amazon nor too small to feed the population. The following river map is unusual among any country in this zone and enabled multiple regions of population concentration.
In short India and China had multiple river systems that were both massive as well as hospitable that lead to huge food production. Instead of depending on a single river system (like Egypt), India and China each had more than 3 major river systems giving a sort of backup. Thus, when Indus valley civilization faltered, the civilization quickly picked up the slack near Ganges.

Food production:

In 2005, India and China together held 20% of world's arable land (land suitable for a major crop), producing 50% of world's rice and 30% of world's wheat. Land use statistics by country. This ratio would have been much higher two centuries ago when vast tracts of Brazil, Sibera, Australia and USA were not explored. While 50% of India is arable, less than 7% of Australia, Canada or Russia is arable even with the introduction of modern technology.
Remember that food and water were the most critical for previous civilizations. Only in the modern era, these became slightly less important. But, by then the drop in fertility rates (from literacy) and migration restrictions made population growth slow in the US & Europe.

Crops & food

Europe's population exploded when potato was brought back from the New world 500 years ago. Ireland and other countries rapidly grew as they had little food option before. That's how important a staple crop is.
China domesticated Rice in about 10000 BC and rice quickly moved to South & Southeast Asia. At about the same time, Wheat was domesticated and moved from West Asia towards India. Thus, both India and China had access to massive cereal crops.

In contrast, both Europe and Africa had relatively less access to major cereals. Major cereals reached Europe relatively late and until recently Africa had no major cereal group that lent itself to massive farming. Even today, Africa's cereal yield outside of Nile valley and South Africa is very poor.

Some more reasons ( related to historical development theory that we will see  after this )

Connectivity & Idea sharing

Mississippi had a nice river valley system that was in the same latitude & had all the right climatic conditions (other than the hurricanes & typhoons). Indeed it supported a rich Native American culture. However, it never had the population density of Ganges or Yangtze river valleys.
One reason could be the fact that humans migrated there much later than in Asia (12000 BC vs. 70000 BC) leaving them less time to succeed in a trial-and-error manner.
The Mississippi river valley never had the benefit of other major civilizations close to it. Asian civilizations exhibited a lot of connectivity. The pottery technology of Indus, wheel of Sumer, writing system of Egypt and later the religion of Ganges (Buddhism) quickly spread to other civilizations enabling  people to build ideas on top of best practices elsewhere.
When the Europeans came most of this population got decimated and thus US never had a population to rival Asia.
The arrival of Europeans solved this issue and the population of the US started exploding since 16th century growing 60X since 1800. US is actually catching up. But, India and China have a huge headstart.

Size & Organization

Joseph Boyle ( a writer on quora  ) brought an important point that both India and China are massive (with a massive chunk of tropic/subtropic land). India and China are dense as well as huge. Parts of western Europe and Southeast Asia have density comparable to India & China, but was not unified for a sufficient period of time.
Both India and China were fortuitous to have been unified for sizable chunks of time since about 200 BC. Qin Dynastyunified China in about 206 BC and Ashoka unified India in about 250 BC. Since then, the Chinese had been unified under the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties while India had been unified under the Mauryas, Guptas, Mughals and later the East India company. (Coincidentally both Mughals and Qings - the last native empires of India & China were  outsiders who got assimilated into the respective cultures).
However, the native American settlements in the Mississippi river valley and elsewhere were never unified in a major way nor were organized.

Major epidemics, migrations & wars

In 540 AD the Plague of Justinian ravaged Europe and decimated cities like Constantinople. 50% of Europe perished in that plague. In 1346 the Bubonic plague (Black Death) killed 30-60% of all Europe. While those affected India and China too, the percentage of deaths was less. Between 16th and 19th centuries sizable parts of Europe emigrated to the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia. The World Wars and the drop-in fertility in the 20th century (with better education) kept Europe's population further in check.
Iran lost 90% of its population in the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. Native Americans were decimated by Small pox and other old world diseases brought by European settlers.
While China had some major disasters (such as the Mongol invasion and plague) its population was sizable enough to recover from them & was fairly sparred since 1300s. India escaped Genghiz Khan's warriors and the Bubonic plague. Until the coming of famines under the East India Company, major death tolls were relatively uncommon .

Conclusion from first two parts : 

Why population of India and China is so high ? 

India and China together hold 20% of world's arable land (land suitable for a major crop), producing 50% of the world's rice and 30% of the world's wheat. They are spread around the Tropic of Cancer (a great zone for human settlement), were unified multiple times in the past (leading to a large land area under one flag), got to the major cereals earlier (rice & wheat), got the benefit of other civilizations nearby (borrowing ideas of wheel & writing systems) and were spared from many of the major human calamities & migrations of history. 

Here is a video episode that visually explains first two parts .

These topics simply explain why India , China and entire Asia is densely populated than other parts of world . but for more clear view , we have move to our third part - historical development theory .

Historical development theory is also divided into 3 parts . Let's start with first part .

Part 3 :  The Historic Development Theory - period up to 1700s

There is little to talk of a world when political boundaries were of little importance and the world was divided more or less into civilizations, kingdoms and tribes.

The Indus civilization's (that forms the history of present day India) had an economy that appeared to have depended significantly on trade, facilitated by advances in transport. 

Its citizens practiced agriculture, domesticated animals, made sharp tools and weapons from copper, bronze and tin and traded in terracotta pots, beads, gold and silver, coloured gem stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli, metals, flints, seashells and pearls. 

They used ships to reach Mesopotamia where they sold gold, copper and jewellery. 

The period was marked by intensive trade activity and urban development. Population was obviously not seen as a problem as land and resources were abundant.

Even during the 1500s, internal trade linked much of India. In each region of the country people grew a variety of crops. Cotton and silk were produced. 

More was being sold abroad than was being imported.

India's economy was slow growing, but because India was divided politically it was not strong enough to prevent or discourage an invasion from the northwest.

Ironically, during the late middle ages, population levels are said to have been high in Europe. A classic Malthusian argument had been put forward that Europe was overpopulated even in good times. 

When times were good it was still barely able to feed its population. Grain yields in the 14th century were between 2:1 and 7:1 (2:1 means for every seed planted, 2 are harvested. Modern grain yields are 30:1 or more).

So, when we start studying world population growth (from western point of view), the population growth problems actually starts with the industrial revolution in late 1700s and 1800s.

And where was this industrial revolution causing maximum population growth?

Above chart clearly exhibits population has been growing exponentially in both Asia and Europe. And post late 1900s, Europe's population seems to stabilize while Asia's population continues to grow. 

However, reading the economic histories of these regions, one can confidently conclude that population growth was not seen as a problem in Asia, rather it was a problem in Europe.

By 1900s, Europe and North America controlled 84 per cent of the land surface. The colonial system meant that there were only around 35 independent countries, almost half of which were in the Americas. At the end of the century there are 193 independent states.

Colonization shifted a lot of economic growth from east to west and population growth was a problem of the east now.

And having said that, the problem of population is more a political problem that arises with the management of regional economies than an absolute problem of the world.

To understand this trend of population growth and the population as a problem, lets get into more details:

Part 4 : The Historic Developments Theory - period between 1700s to 1950s

So, what was the population like in the 1700s in some of these regions?

When Aurangzeb died in 1707, the Mughal empire was near the point of implosion, and India was more vulnerable to incursions by the Persians and by the British.

In India, during 1700s, the population density was estimated to be 41.91 people per square kilometers, compared to the industrialized nations of Germany 36.62 ppl/sq km and the UK, 27.96 ppl/sq km.

Note that even during this period (when India's population density was much higher than that of some European countries), India's population was not considered a problem. India was estimated to have had the largest economy of the ancient and medieval world, controlling between one third and one fourth of the world's wealth. 

While prior to the Industrial Revolution, before the 1700s, the European population was considered stable as both birth and death rates were high. 

After 250 years however

During 1950s, India's population density was 118.79 people per square kilometers, compared to Germany 192.6 ppl/sq km and the UK, 206.91 ppl/sq km.

Now despite still having a lower population density than Europe, India's economy had deteriorated and population was cited as one of the reasons.

The Industrial Revolution in the 1700s and 1800s led to a population explosion as the birth rate remained high while the death rate fell rapidly.

This is where the climate and geography theory fails to explain why a given majority of the world population ended up in a geographically small country like India whose population is viewed as a problem today.

The population as a problem:

It is common to associate the term "Industrial Revolution" to technological change, after all, industrialization is what led to the creation of the factory. And the factory system was largely responsible for the rise of the modern city, as workers migrated into the cities in search of employment in the factories. But this was mostly in the western nations. What we often do not discuss is the social impact of the 'industrial revolution' on the world.

The Industrial Revolution brought with it dramatic increases in population. England (UK) and Germany showed a growth rate of something more than one percent annually; at this rate the population would double in about seventy years. In the United States the increase was more than three percent, which might have been disastrous had it not been for a practically empty continent and fabulous natural resources.

The first Industrial Revolution took place in the period of 1763 to 1870 and the second Industrial Revolution took place in the period of 1871 to 1913.

Between 1700 and 1750, the population of England (UK) stayed relatively stable, with little growth. Then, between 1750 and 1850, it more than doubled. Studies have ruled out immigration as a factor: the growth didn’t occur from large numbers of foreign workers arriving. 

Many historians believe this population increase resulted from a combination of factors like a dramatic decline in the death rate, a drop in famines, warfare and illnesses, and an increase in food sources.

S0, the general population increase was aided by a greater supply of  food made available by the Agricultural Revolution, and by the growth of medical science and public health measures which decreased the death rate and added to the population base.

An increasing population meant that Britain now needed more economic growth in terms of jobs, output, money, material goods etc. Most contemporary politicians and economists of the time believed that unilateral free trade would enhance the growth of income and output. 

Britain was by far the biggest importer in the world in the 1840s (accounting for 30 per cent of world imports) but the move to free trade only enhanced her import demand. 

This caused the 'terms of trade' to move against Britain: that is, her import prices were forced up relative to export prices. 

Since Britain now had to pay out a higher proportion of her export income to secure the same quantity of imports, national income was actually reduced and population growth was seen as a problem.

The case with India

Now, in India, the scenario was quite different.

Mughal power in India declined in 1700’s, while British looked to expand trade into power. The British East India Co. traded gold & silver for cotton, silk, tea and began to collect taxes, set up a law code, court system, and took over most lands of India.

In 1858, British declared India a colony and modernized ports, roads, railroads, telegraph while also dismantling India's textile industry that was in direct competition to the developing British textile industry by first forcing India to accept free trade, then British  factory-owners who had learnt the techniques of machine spinning and weaving, imported cheap raw cotton from the American plantations and made finished cloth from British mills which was much cheaper than the Indian handloom products. Cotton mills in Lancashire, England, exported more and more cloth to India, and by the mid-1800's much of India's basic needs in cotton clothing was being met by British factories. Indian spinners and weavers lost their jobs, and had to turn to agriculture to make a living. 

Between 1850 and 1880 the Indian subcontinent suffered a series of harvest failures and famines. The Famine Commission recommended in 1883 that canals should be constructed to provide irrigation water to farmers when the monsoon rains failed. Following the advice of the Famine Commission, the government spent large sums of money in northern India and in the Punjab. They built canals which were filled from the plentiful rivers fed by the glaciers of the Himalaya. Areas which had been desert became fertile grain-producing regions. Food supply increased dramatically as a result of the irrigation canal program, thereby giving a boost to population growth.

This was the beginning of India's Population woes. 

What is interesting here is that when the recurrence of famine threatened to undermine British claims that their rule brought prosperity to the Indian colony, the British government responded by blaming Indians themselves for failing to control population growth.

The Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, took this approach when he noted that in 1888, Indian agricultural productivity was low, and famines loomed, because of the 

"overflow of the population of large districts and territories whose inhabitants are yearly multiplying beyond the number which the soil is capable of sustaining."

Yet despite this dire pronouncement, there was no evidence to suggest that India was undergoing any rapid increase of population in comparison with the rest of the world

In true Malthusian fashion, famines ensued, resulting in a "positive check" on population growth. Famine relief was thus held to the bare minimum, and to receive aid, all but the most enfeebled were required to labor for wages below market rates. 

The goal, from a Malthusian perspective, was simple: to discourage famine victims from seeking any relief, with the long term consequence of reducing their rates of reproduction and holding off the threat of overpopulation.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, several Indian nationalist intellectuals began to develop a critique of colonial rule that rejected the premises of British thought about the Indian political economy, including its assumptions of overpopulation. They argued that the problem in India was not "overpopulation" but "underproduction."

The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a relatively slow rate of population growth. As a result, the census of 1931 came as a shock to demographers and the public at large; it revealed a much more rapid growth rate, of one percent annually, between 1921 and 1931.

The political map of British India looked something like this before the partition.

Part 5 : The Historic Developments Theory - period post 1950s

In the midst of this population increase, colonial India gained its independence from the British Empire in 1947, and was partitioned into the separate states of India and Pakistan. 

After independence, economic development, more than population control, became the new mantra of Nehru's regime, and with the aim of rapidly increasing agricultural and industrial production, the government launched the first of a series of Five Year Plans in 1951. 

Nehru believed "No country can be overpopulated, if there is work for everyone."

Thus, throughout the Nehru era, from 1947 until the Prime Minister's death in 1964, India attempted to balance "underproduction" and "overpopulation."

The trend changed slowly. By the early 1970s, India appeared to be well on its way to solving the problem of rising population through increased food production. If, following Nehru and earlier nationalists, the true Indian problem was "underproduction" rather than "overpopulation," then at least in agriculture, production was potentially meeting the needs of the people.

While American leaders and ordinary citizens worried about the ever-growing number of Indians inhabiting the planet, the Indian government took its own unprecedented steps towards curbing population growth.

In 2014, India's population density was now 408.5 ppl/ compared to UKs populatikmas density which increased to 258.38 ppl/ and Germany increased to 229.59 ppl/

A quick clearing of a myth. Some people assume that India has had a runaway population disaster in the past century. The truth is that India's current share of world population is far less than historic levels and that India's population has been growing at less than the global average in the past two centuries. You can see the population of different countries over the human history. 

Economists and demographers have noted that India's age structure in which a high percentage of the population is in the productive age group of 15-59—could give India a competitive advantage over the aging populations of Europe, the United States, and China.

From this perspective, the task now is not to control population size—which is expected to continue rising in India until 2050—but to provide adequate resources to make this growing population productive.

 We are here at the end of the article . but don't worry here is a  quality articles from the curious Indians which you may like . 

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Sources : 

[ special credits :   QuoraVanita Ashar , Balaji Vishwanathan . ]

Vishwajit Kadam
Vishwajit Kadam

Vishwajit Kadam is the co-founder of Curious Indians . He is the 16 years old and youngest Indian blogger . His goal behind this website is to make Indians and other world people about prosperity of India .

You can be in his contact on Quora and Twitter .


  1. Really deep and detailed post , Vishwajit. Your site is gaining momentum now .

    1. Thanks Harahad , Keep your support .

  2. Shraddha Mukharjee13 May

    Hii vishwajit , I am also a curious Indian .
    I am truly loving your articles . They are amazing and detailed . They really dig topic to its roots :)

    1. Hey shraddha , welcome to our journey to know India . thanks for motivation you gve me through this comment :)