Amid population boom, India hopes for ‘demographic dividend’ but fears disaster

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the rate of world population growth would stabilize around 2050, while India’s would continue to climb, and also incorrectly said India’s population was getting younger.

October 15, 2011

Pedestrians weave their way through a sea of cars, rickshaws and motorbikes, a desperate scramble for space just making the gridlock worse. The sidewalks are swallowed up by stalls and piles of garbage. The smell of open drains hangs in the air while overhead a web of electric cables crisscrosses the sky.

India is one of the main engines of global population growth, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the crowded northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people. The world’s 7 billionth person will be born on the last day of this month, according to U.N. estimates, and Uttar Pradesh, which added 33 million people to the global population in the last decade, is already staking its claim to be the birthplace of that child.

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.

In the villages outside Gorakhpur, the roots of India’s still-growing population are all too apparent, despite decades of family planning policies and a disastrous attempt at forced sterilization during the 1970s.

“I only wanted two children, but my husband forced me to have more,” said 35-year-old Sunderi Gupta, squatting on the ground under a tree in the village of Tarkulahi with three of her four children. “None of them have been educated, because we don’t have any money.”

Educational challenges

High rates of infant mortality, low educational levels and the low social status of women all contribute to higher rates of childbirth in India’s poorest states, such as Uttar Pradesh, than in the richer and better-educated south. It is only by educating its people — especially its women — that India can hope to break the vicious cycle of poverty and overpopulation. In Gorakhpur, at least, it is largely failing in that task.

The local primary school is useless, the villagers complain, the principal turning up only at lunchtime, if at all. Saraswati Devi sent her children to a local private school, where the education is a little better but the prospects of advancement are still bleak. Her oldest son dropped out after ninth grade because of poverty. “Now he works as a stone-breaker” in southern India, she said.

It is not just a question of access to education that will limit India’s ability to harness the potential of its young people; it is the quality of the education on offer.

In Thakurpur village, farmer’s son Akilesh Kumar, 18, is pursuing a degree in English and sociology at a small private college, and he dreams of opening a computer institute. His ambition, though, is undermined by an inability to string more than a handful of sentences together in English. His family is rich by rural standards, and his five brothers also study in colleges, but none of his three sisters went to school at all.

Today, just 13 percent of college-age Indians attend higher-education institutes, a figure that has barely increased from 10 percent in 2000. In China, the comparative proportion stands at 23 percent, up from 6 percent in 2000.

“The progress China has made, and the lack of progress in India, is astonishing,” Columbia University professor Arvind Panagariya said. “The government is asleep at the wheel.”

While the number of young Indians is rising, the rest of the world is aging at an unprecedented rate, the United Nations Population Division says. India will add 130 million people in the 20-to-49 age group over the next 15 years, while nearly every other country will be going in the opposite direction — the population in that age group in developed countries and China combined will shrink by about 100 million. As a result, the opportunities for talented young Indians overseas will grow, and “many of those who are really educated will leave,” Panagariya said.

In need of nourishment

In Gorakhpur’s medical college, where a handful of harried doctors struggle to treat hundreds of sick children, another factor severely handicaps India’s ability to harness the potential of its increasingly youthful population: malnutrition.

In hospital wards, children are packed two or three to a bed: young girls with vacant eyes and stick-thin limbs lying listlessly. Four-year-old Ranjana Prasad, at 17½ pounds, is about half the weight she should be. Her mother, Parvati, had six children, but two of the girls died within weeks of birth, and now her youngest is likely to be permanently stunted.

Nearly half of Indian children younger than 5 will grow up stunted, with 43 percent underweight, proportions similar to those in Ethiopia and Niger, and in absolute terms comprising nearly a third of the global population of stunted children. Half of India’s mothers are anemic, while many newborn babies are given diluted animal’s milk rather than breast milk for their first three days of life — causing health problems that not only impose a direct cost on the health-care system but also are a drag on the economy.

“A child that is stunted is less able to fulfill its potential,” said Sarah Crowe, South Asia spokeswoman for UNICEF. “Its ability to learn at school, and later to earn a living and contribute to the nation’s wealth, is forever held back.”

The fact that birthrates are so much higher in poorer parts of India also suggests that migration from impoverished rural communities to the overburdened cities is likely to accelerate in the coming decade, economists say.

Gorakhpur, already struggling to cope with the influx, is doing little to prepare for the future. “To me, it seems the government runs on a day-by-day basis, without any short-term, medium-term or long-term planning,” said Jitendra Pratap Singh, city magistrate.

In Delhi, the Finance Ministry’s chief economic adviser, Kaushik Basu, admitted that there are risks. “If the newly minted youngsters are not adequately educated and employed, they can become a source of disturbance, as happened in many Arab countries,” he said. “We need to be concerned about this, though, frankly, if youngsters by causing a disturbance can strengthen democracy, I am not so sure that that is a bad thing.”

His greatest worry, though, is that the demographic dividend is followed “almost like an echo” by a bulge in the old-age population. “This is all the more reason for us to sit up and make use of the dividend while it lasts,” he said. “If the state can provide better infrastructure and expand education, the next 25 years will be a great opportunity. My bet is India will seize it.”

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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