In 2023, India is set to overtake China as the world's most populous country : Goats and Soda Any day now, the United Nations will declare India's population the largest in the world. The country's next generation is poised to be healthier, more literate — and more female — than ever before.

This baby could push India past China to become the world's most populous country

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This year, somewhere in India, a newborn baby will mark a milestone. The United Nations says India will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country. Many of the beneficiaries of this population boom will be women whose life decisions are shaping their country's future. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

NAINA AGRAHARI: (Singing in Hindi).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Inside a tiny one-room apartment on Mumbai's northern outskirts, 24-year-old Naina Agrahari is singing a racy Bollywood song.

AGRAHARI: "Baa Baa Black Sheep"...

FRAYER: But she jokes she should probably learn "Baa Baa Black Sheep" instead because she's 9 months pregnant. Naina is part of a massive Indian migration out of rural agricultural areas and into cities. She moved here more than a decade ago and will be the first in her family to give birth in a hospital rather than at home. Her child is more likely to be healthy, to speak multiple languages, and to travel.

AGRAHARI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "I want him or her to go abroad and to study medicine," says Naina, already grooming a little overachiever child. She and her husband actually don't know the baby's gender. Ultrasounds to determine that are illegal in India.

AGRAHARI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: Because people abort baby girls, especially in rural areas, she explains. The government has launched a campaign to combat that called Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in Hindi).

FRAYER: ...Save the daughter, educate the daughter. And that's rubbed off on Naina's family. Her mother, who has a sixth-grade education, moved the family to Mumbai in part so that her daughters could have careers.

AGRAHARI: By profession, I'm a financial consultant, like dealing with all types of loan products.

FRAYER: Naina started her own company and will return to paid work outside the home after a six-month maternity leave. She also had a love marriage, which is still a rarity in India, where most marriages are arranged by families.

So this is a video that Naina made of her own wedding.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in Hindi).

FRAYER: And Naina also wants only one or possibly two children, not five, like her mother did, or six like her grandmother who never went to school.

A L SHARADA: A girl who studies up to 12th class has lesser number children than a girl who is not literate.

FRAYER: Demographer A.L. Sharada says population growth slows and becomes more sustainable only when you empower women. And that is India's biggest challenge, she says, especially in these massive, crowded cities.


FRAYER: This is one of the busiest lanes in Dharavi, a bustling slum in Mumbai. And right in the middle, there are trays with fruits, sweet laddoos. And there is a tiny woman with a massive belly. It's a baby shower. The family are South Indian migrants, and like so many people, they've come here to give birth in the big city.

VANITA VITTAL SONDHE: They are coming here for their livelihood.

FRAYER: Vanita Vittal Sondhe is a social worker who goes door to door offering prenatal care to women who often don't know they need it. Many are migrants from rural areas who arrive here pregnant and anemic.

VITTAL SONDHE: They are not getting the proper diet, but they are still doing better in Mumbai than their native place.

FRAYER: That's why they come.

VITTAL SONDHE: That's why they come.

FRAYER: Yeah, do you want to sit here, across from her, and I'll sit next to her?


FRAYER: Together we visit one of her clients, Shabana Khatoon, whose apartment is so tiny, it barely fits four of us sitting cross-legged on the floor. Shabana has one malnourished child, and she's pregnant again. I ask how many children she plans to have, and she fiddles with the bangles on her wrist.

SHABANA KHATOON: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "As many as my husband wants," she says.


FRAYER: Namaste.

A few weeks later I go back to see Naina, the financial consultant...


FRAYER: ...Who's just given birth to a baby boy named Vehant. Her mother is helping her take care of him. And together, while cooing over the baby, the two women marvel at how it's only recently in their family that women could choose how many babies to have.

AGRAHARI: One is enough (laughter). I don't want a second baby.

FRAYER: Naina says her birthing experience was painful. Her baby was hospitalized for 10 days with a blood infection.

AGRAHARI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: She shudders to think what would have happened had he been born at home like all of his ancestors before him. Instead, little Vehant will grow up in Mumbai in a new generation of Indians in the biggest country in the world.

SCHMITZ: Let's stay in Mumbai with NPR's Lauren Frayer there. Hello, Lauren.

FRAYER: Hi, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So the world's most populous country will soon be India. That's going to be difficult to get used to after China held that position so long. This is a big deal for India, right?

FRAYER: It's a really big deal. Yeah. India celebrated its 75th birthday last summer. This country has gone from being impoverished by British colonial rule to, 75 years later, a significant regional power with a massive population of 1.4 billion people. And by the way, that's just an estimate because we actually haven't had a census here since 2011. But we know...


FRAYER: ...This population is growing fast. More babies are born in India each year than anywhere in the world, and more of them are born in cities than ever before - places like Mumbai, where I live, population - who knows? - 25 million plus, probably more. The future is these big Asian megacities that are bases for booming technology, constant construction, commerce and growth. China is definitely home to a lot of those, but increasingly India is too. And those - that fast growth also brings some problems, you know, associated with that - smog and growing economic inequality.

SCHMITZ: And that was a source of embarrassment for China when it held this position. You know, I'm wondering, is population growth a good thing or a burden for a country of India's size?

FRAYER: It's both. I spoke with the India representative for the UN's Population Fund. Her name is Andrea Wojnar. And she says Indians are living longer because of advances in health care and medicine. That's a great thing, also economically.

ANDREA WOJNAR: Because as a youthful country with the largest number of young people anywhere in the world, there's a huge potential to tap into and to enjoy greater economic growth and development.

FRAYER: She says India has this demographic dividend, a huge workforce now, and the challenge going forward is to create jobs for all of them and build infrastructure to support such a huge population.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai.

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