People live longer now, but still lower than the world average

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The average life expectancy of Indians has increased from 35 to 70 years between 1947 and 2022, while the global average stands at 72.75 years.

The world’s largest democracy has a booming young population that expects to live longer than their predecessors. Life expectancy in the country rose to 70 in 2022, which is double that of 1947 when the country gained independence.

‘Life expectancy at birth’ as defined by the World Health Organization, is the average number of years that a newborn could expect to live, if they were to pass through life exposed to the specific death rates prevalent at the time. At the time of independence, life expectancy at birth in India was around 35 years, rising to 35.81 in 1950. Since then, the country has added another 34.38 years to life expected at birth.

Females live longer by 2.6 years

India’s Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner brings out the “Abridged Life Tables” annually, summarising the mortality experience of a population during the period of study. The most recent version, published in July 2022, presents granular insights into the country’s numbers for the study period of 2015-19.

Life expectancy at birth is higher among India’s females – by about 2.6 years. This has not been the case historically, as expected life was shorter among newborn females until early 1980s. A sharper increase has brought it up from 1.5 years shorter to 2.6 years longer in less than four decades.

For newborns in rural areas, life expectancy stays lower than those in urban areas. This gap, however, has narrowed down significantly since 1970, down from a difference of 10.9 years to 4.7 years.
Several major states like Delhi, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh have a newborn life expectancy higher than the national average. The two most populous states Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, however, fall short of the national average by 3.9 years and 2.3 years respectively.

How are we adding years to life?

Infant mortality rate, defined as the number of infant deaths per 1000 live births, is an indicator that is crucially linked to life expectancy at birth. A reduction in death rates for infants is a marker for improving health systems, which consequently adds years to their expected life. For India, a series of measures geared to improve the healthcare facilities and infrastructure for prenatal and neonatal care, along with comprehensive immunisation programs for infants has brought down the infant mortality rate from nearly 200 in 1950, to below 30 in 2022.

This also manifests itself in the gap between life expectancy at birth and life expectancy at age 1. The latter being higher means the child has a higher chance of living once they reach the age of 1. Although life expectancy at age 1 is still higher than at birth, this difference in India has significantly reduced to 1.6 years – down from 6.5 years years in 1970.

And here’s the catch

Although India has seen a near 100 percent increase in the number of years a newborn would expect to live, it still falls below the global average of 72.75 years. The country ranks 136 out of 194 countries listed by the World Bank, with neighbours China, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh faring much better. With the pandemic laying bare the prevalent healthcare system, India has also dropped nine places in two years in the Global Health Security Index ranking – from 57 in 2019 to 66 in 2021.