The world has grown quickly over the last century, adding 1 billion people in just the past 12 years. Although the rate of growth is slowing, India’s population is expected to continue climbing until about 2060. In the past decade, the country’s population grew by 17.6 percent, to 1.21 billion, according to provisional census data. Based on current trends, India is set to overtake China as the world’s largest country by 2025, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Here on the fertile but impoverished plains of the Ganges, the government is struggling to cope — India’s infrastructure and environment, its cities and villages, its health-care and education systems are failing to keep pace with ever-growing demands.
But on the narrow streets of the northern Indian city of Gorakhpur, just above eye level, a succession of billboards hints at another side of the population story. Wizard Tutoring, the Achievers Academy and the Epitome Institute for Advanced Learning are just some of the many private colleges that have sprouted here in recent years, offering a dizzying array of courses and qualifications to help people stand out from the crowd.
The billboards give a clue to what could be India’s trump card: The number of young people entering the workforce is growing every year, and the young are hungry for learning. By 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29, and the country, like East Asian economies in the 1970s, is hoping to reap a “demographic dividend” from this army of young people as they enter the workforce and bolster the economy.
That is, of course, provided the young people are educated and trained, and if there are jobs for them to go to. Otherwise, frustrations and social problems will only mount.
“It will be a dividend if we empower our young. It will be a disaster if we fail to put in place a policy and framework where they can be empowered,” said Kapil Sibal, India’s minister of human resource development, who said the country needs to impart job skills to 500 million people over the next decade.
In a country where the official literacy rate of 74 percent may overstate the average level of educational attainment — the public education system is a mess and there is a desperate shortage of good teachers — the scale of the challenge, Sibal admitted, sometimes keeps him awake at night. “It has to be a truly national effort to convert the potential of a demographic disaster into a demographic dividend,” he said.