Indian population bomb is ticking

When we were growing up, one of the questions we often answered in examinations was about the population explosion in India.
Indian population bomb is ticking

When we were growing up, one of the questions we often answered in examinations was about the population explosion in India. Then the liberalisation happened and rapid growth of economy, IT boom, infrastructure and real estate growth followed. People stopped talking about population explosion. We started reading about the coming demographic dividend, when the majority of Indian population would be below 25 years. Economists after economists started predicting how India was going to lead this century on the shoulders of this youth power. The ubiquitous family planning advertisements behind public transport buses proclaiming the virtues of the programme faded away. Government stopped focusing on this fundamental aspect. Marketers got busy selling this population growth as some sort of virtue and politicians made this a matter of chest-thumping pride, something unthinkable a few years ago.

Anyone carefully observing the news in the recent times can sense the disquiet now. Slowly, we are realising what our primary school teachers taught the pre-Y2K generation was true. Population growth is a liability, a ticking time bomb. The economic experts weren’t lying when they talked about India’s economic dividend. Having such a huge working age population is a great potential for a rapid economic growth. What the chest-thumping politicians and the marketing gurus missed was the emphasis on the word ‘potential’. By 2025, 48 per cent of India would be below 25 years of age. That is about 70 crore young people in an estimated population of 143 crore, six years from now. The marketing gurus were salivating about the huge youth-centric market such a humongous population would open up. India would be a seller’s paradise, the eternal market driving perpetual global growth was the story sold to the world.

In the euphoria of this emerging fantasy market, we forgot to ask how this huge population would become enthusiastic customers without enough money to spare. China reaped the demographic dividend because it concentrated on manufacturing. It became the factory of the world, invested huge amounts in infrastructure development, triggering and sustaining a positive cycle. But China never ignored population control. Contrast this with our failure to utilise 40 per cent of allocated family planning budget. Less than 50 per cent of married women in the reproductive age use any contraceptive. India has one of the lowest budget-to-GDP ratios in health in the world. In this, roughly 4 per cent is allotted to total reproductive and child health flexi pool budget. And in this, 40 per cent remains unutilised. The irony is that, it is the focus states of UP, Bihar and Chhattisgarh that had the tardiest budget utilisation record under this head. 

The result is that we are racing ahead to become the world’s most populous country, overtaking China by perhaps, as early as 2022. The scary part is that we are doing so with one of the most ill-equipped, inadequately skilled youth in the world. We have the world’s largest number of illiterates. As per the most generous estimates, 26 per cent of our population can’t even read or write their names in any language. That is 35 crore people, almost the population of the US. About 1.5 crore youth enter the job market every year. Just 4.69 per cent has some sort of formal skills.

The rest are unemployable. This is true at all levels. As per one of the leading industrialists, less than 10 per cent of Indian engineering graduates are employable and another 10 per cent are trainable. The rest, 80 per cent hardly have any skills. And we aren’t talking about the 35 crore illiterates here. Compare this with the skilled worker ratio among job seekers in these countries—US (52 per cent), UK (68 per cent), Germany (75 per cent), Japan (80 per cent) and China (24 per cent). 

On one side, while we were prematurely celebrating the rise of this huge market that would yield India the so-called demographic dividend, we forgot that the country was also ageing at a fast rate. It is estimated that India will have about 34 crore people above 60 years by 2040 and with the increase of average life span, the economic strain of this is going to be tremendous. We are going to have the first-world problem of an ageing population along with our third world problems soon. The skewed way in which Indian states are developing is bound to result in serious political problems.

The states, which are having explosive population growth, are the ones that are having the worst sex ratios. These states are also having the most number of illiterates and unskilled workers and facing bigger law and order problems. The service industry that was the engine of Indian growth for the last two decades has scant presence in these states, which are basically dependent on agrarian income. These states account for the most votes and parliament seats in the country. 

We are having an explosive combination here: a youthful population having no jobs, no skills, having fewer women, thanks to skewed sex ratio, illiterates, and a society yet to come out of the feudal social structure. This is a recipe for social strifes, crime, sexual assaults and communal riots. Add to this disastrous cocktail, the politics of caste, religion and hate that is being used to divert the youth’s anger by all political parties for short-term gains. 

We are already staring at a demographic nightmare, which has started unravelling. The focus needs to change from giving a few corporate giants some tax rebates or tweaking tax structures. These things are required, but the immediate requirement is to focus on social parameters—literacy, health, family planning, skill development etc. The obsession about GDP growth numbers or the fortunes of stock market should give way to how fast we are able to improve our Human Development Index. Incidentally, both the Indian origin Nobel Prize winners in Economics have been harping on this for many years.

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