No Indian Demographic Dividend Unless …

By Rahul Singh | 5 May 2023
Church and State

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

It’s official now: On July 1, only a few weeks away, 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 come out with the exact figures. On July 1, India’s population is expected to be 1.429 billion, compared to China’s 1.426 billion. Actually, India’s population may have surpassed China’s earlier, but as there was, inexplicably, no Indian census undertaken after 2011, we will have to stand by UNFPA’s figure.

There is an air of triumph in Indian government circles over this development. Cliches like “demographic dividend” and “world’s largest work-force” are being bandied around, implying that India will soon match China and the USA as world economic powers. This writer will argue that the reality is entirely different, and that unless India gets certain developmental parameters right – and this is a big IF – the demographic dividend will remain elusive. The Chinese tart reaction to UNFPA’s population report is telling. Size matters, Beijing said, but a “quality work-force” 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 pointed out. “For those who have newly entered the work-force, their average length of education has risen to 14 years.” What the spokesman did not mention is that these are years of high-quality education, not the poor quality (with a few exceptions) that India provides its students.

About three decades ago, the UNFPA commissioned this writer to bring out a book on those developing countries that had been successful in their family planning programmes. The research and writing took two years, and entailed extensive travel to developing countries. That was the time when there was world-wide concern over the “population explosion”. The British economist, Thomas Malthus, had etched out a doomsday scenario of the “population bomb” eroding economic growth in those countries that were unable to control their numbers. The Indian sub-continent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), most of Africa and Latin America, were averaging around two to three percent annual population growth rates, and women were having four to five children. However, some developing countries, realizing the danger to their economic development, had started to get their act together. China did it by compulsion, with its “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 in all the successful countries that this writer researched and wrote about: 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 it right, by increasing the literacy levels of his people and providing them good basic healthcare. The example of Indonesia’s General Suharto, an equally reviled figure, is even more instructive. In the 1970s, with the discovery of oil in the country, Jakarta got a huge bonanza. What shall I do with all this money? asked Suharto to his advisers, many of them USA-trained. Put most of it into primary education and health, they answered – which Suharto did. When Indonesia got its independence (roughly the same time as India’s), its literacy rate and life expectancy (a reliable barometer of healthcare) were much lower than India’s. By the late 1980s, they far surpassed that of India. Bear in mind, Indonesia is largely Islamic – and Islam is equated with backwardness, at least in the minds of much of the public.

Primary education, which really means literacy, and basic healthcare, are the two essential launching pads for a successful family planning programme. People have to be literate enough to understand that having fewer children is in their interest, and the healthcare available should be such as to ensure the survival of their children to a ripe old age. It’s as simple as that. Several developing countries, notably China, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, got it right – and reaped the demographic dividend.

Sadly, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, got it all wrong. Most of the Indian government’s funds for education were allocated for setting up institutes of higher learning. Primary education and basic healthcare were neglected. Hence, a successful family planning programme was a non-starter in India. Ham-handed and authoritarian attempts, like the son of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi’s “compulsory sterilization” programmes during his mother’s “Emergency” rule, made matters even worse. After that, no Indian government wanted to pursue family planning with the zeal needed. Admittedly, India’s population growth rate has slowed down in the last few years, to just about one percent a year, from over two percent earlier. Indian women, particularly the better off, are having fewer children. But this is due to the inexorable forces of modernization, and to the eradication of mass killers like smallpox and polio, not to the efforts of the Indian government. The population of much of north and central India continues to grow at an unsustainable rate. Only the southern Indian states (Kerala is a notable example) have achieved, or are close to achieving, zero population growth levels. Even then, it is estimated that India’s population will continue growing for the next few decades before it halts, and then starts shrinking, as is happening in China and much of the developed world.

So, what about the trumpeted demographic dividend that India should start earning from the 970 million Indian work-force, those aged 15-64? The trouble 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. In fact, many Indian corporate houses candidly say that they have so little trust in the qualifications claimed by job-aspirants that they conduct their own tests, and make them undergo training. This certainly isn’t the “high-caliber work-force” needed to transform the Indian economy. Then, there is the abysmally low percentage of women, just ten percent, in the Indian work-force, whereas in those countries, like the south-east Asian “tigers” (South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia), who fully reaped the demographic dividend, the percentage is three to four times higher. 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. The GRE is a gateway exam for post-graduate programmes in the USA, though higher education institutes in the UK, Canada, Australia and Ireland also accept GRE scores. The best Indian students qualify from the GRE exams and, needless to say, most of them make a beeline for the USA – and stay there, contributing to the continuous brain drain of Indian talent. India takes great pride in the achievements of the Indian diaspora, like Sundar Pichai of Google, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Ajay Banga becoming the first Indian-origin President of the World Bank, whereas these superstar achievers, along with others living and working abroad, should have been using their skills in India itself.

With India becoming the world’s most populous nation, the much-anticipated demographic dividend will only yield results when India’s dysfunctional education system is completely overhauled, so as to produce a high quality work-force, like China’s, which also includes a higher percentage of women workers. Till then, the demographic dividend will remain an illusion.

Rahul Singh is a writer and journalist. A former editor of Reader’s Digest, Sunday Observer, The Indian Express and Khaleej Times (Dubai), he has also contributed to the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Newsweek and Forbes. He is the author of “Family Planning Success Stories: Asia, Africa, Latin America”.

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  1. Brilliant piece Rahul. My heartiest congratulations. Robust population policy is the need of hour. Political parties must have as an agenda in their election manifesto. NGOs and CSR activities must focus as their mainstream progm on family planning. The media too highlight the issue. Thanks.


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