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Demographic dividend opportunity & illusion

EducationWorld May 2023 | Expert Comment

Suddenly our huge population is expected to yield a “demographic dividend” that will enable us to catch up with China and the US and transform India into a global economic power

Now it’s official. On July 1, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous nation. Though this was expected for some time, a recent report by the authoritative United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has proclaimed the exact figures. On July 1, India’s population is expected to be 1.429 billion, cf. China’s 1.426 billion.

While a few decades ago India’s rising population was a cause for despair, now in a remarkable turnaround, it is considered a national asset in government circles. Suddenly our huge population is expected to yield a “demographic dividend” and the “world’s largest workforce” will enable us to catch up with China and the US and transform India into a global economic power. But the ground-level reality is entirely different.

Unless India gets certain developmental parameters right — and that’s a big if — the demographic dividend may transform into a disaster. The tart Chinese reaction to UNFPA’s population report is telling. Size matters, said Beijing, but a “quality workforce” matters more. “Nearly 900 million of the 1.4 billion Chinese are of working age, and on average have received 10.9 years of education,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman lectured. “For those who have newly entered the workforce, their average length of education has risen to 14 years.” Against this, the mean schooling years of Indians over age 25 is a mere 6.7 years (after the Covid pandemic), and the quality of education is relatively poor.

About three decades ago, the UNFPA commissioned this writer to bring out a book on developing countries whose family planning programmes had been successful. That was the time when there was worldwide concern over the “population explosion”. The Indian sub-continent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), most of Africa and Latin America, were averaging around three percent annual population growth rates, and women were having four-five children.

However, some developing countries, realising the danger to their economic development, had started to get their act together. China did it by compulsion, with its draconian “one-child” policy (abandoned six years ago, as the problem of an ageing population loomed). Others by persuasion, and providing modern forms of contraception.

But two factors were common to all the successful countries: the importance of providing primary education and basic healthcare to the entire population. Mao Zedong, now reviled for his megalomania and massive blunders like the Cultural Revolution, at least got that right, and universalised literacy and basic healthcare. Several developing countries notably Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea also got it right — and reaped the demographic dividend.

Sadly, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, got it wrong. Most of the government’s funds for education were allocated for setting up institutes of higher learning. Primary education and basic healthcare were neglected. Hence, India’s family planning programme was a non-starter. Ham-handed and authoritarian attempts, like Sanjay Gandhi’s compulsory sterilisation programme during the Emergency (1975-77) made matters worse. After that, no government wanted to pursue family planning seriously.

Admittedly, India’s population growth rate has slowed down in the last few years. But this is due to the forces of modernisation, not government efforts.

So, what of the trumpeted demographic dividend that India should start earning from the 970 million Indians aged 15-64? The problem is that an overwhelming majority of them are so poorly educated that they find it difficult to get jobs, even unskilled ones. Most of them are the products of ill-managed government schools and sub-standard universities. Last year, the Centre admitted in Parliament that between 2014-2022 just 700,000 government jobs had been given to 220 million applicants!

The insatiable appetite for sarkari employment by even highly educated persons, down to the lowest level of peon, speaks for itself. This certainly isn’t the “high-caliber workforce” that China claims it has.

Perhaps more disturbing is a recent report in the Indian Express, showing that the number of Indian students taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) doubled between 2012-13 and 2021-22. GRE is a gateway exam for post-graduate programmes in the US, though higher education institutes in the UK, Canada, Australia and Ireland also accept GRE scores. Most Indian students who study abroad stay there, contributing to the continuous brain drain. We take great pride in the achievements of the Indian diaspora like Sundar Pichai of Google and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, whereas these superstar achievers, along with others living and working abroad, should have been contributing their skills in India.

With India becoming the world’s most populous nation, the much-anticipated demographic advantage will yield results only when the dysfunctional education system is completely overhauled, so as to produce a high quality workforce, like China’s. Till then, the demographic dividend will remain an illusion.

(Rahul Singh is the author of Family Planning Success Stories: Asia, Africa, Latin America and former editor of Reader’s Digest)

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