Doubts over India's 'teeming
millions' advantage By Sudha
BANGALORE - Long considered a
dead weight on its economic development, India's
massive population is increasingly regarded by
experts as an asset that could lift the country to
economic greatness. But the billion-dollar
question is whether the government will adopt the
kind of policies essential to make this mammoth
population a boon rather than a burden.
India's population, which stood at 340
million at the time of independence in 1947, is
more than 1.1 billion today and is
expected to touch 1.4 billion
in 2025 and 1.6 billion in 2050. The
second-most-populous country, it accounts for
one-sixth of the
world's population and
accommodates this on one-fortieth of the Earth's
For decades, Indian planners
have pondered how to reduce the pressure of
population on ever-dwindling resources. No
social-welfare program seemed to make a dent
because of the vastness of every
population-related problem. Whatever economic
development was achieved was swamped by a rapidly
multiplying population. The "population problem",
Indians despaired, was the most important obstacle
in the path of their country's economic progress.
But the "teeming millions", experts are
now saying, might not be such a big problem after
all. It may be the solution.
The size of
India's population might be daunting, but its age
structure opens possibilities. The fact that
India's population bulges in the prime working-age
group (15-59) is a major plus, say experts. About
35% of its population today is in that group, and
this is expected to peak around 2020 when about
64% of the country's total population will belong
to the working-age group.
of Europe and Japan are already graying, and the
working-age populations of the United States and
China are projected to shrink too in the next two
decades. By 2020 the US will be short 17 million
people of working age, China 10 million, Japan 9
million and Russia 6 million. However, India will
have a surplus of 47 million people, giving the
country a competitive edge in labor costs, which
will be sustainable up to 2050, according to a
study by Goldman Sachs.
India will catch up with the Chinese economy
beginning in 2030, when the latter could cool off
as the result of an aging population. "The window
of opportunity offered by a population bulge has
clearly opened for India," points out noted
economist C P Chandrasekhar of Jawaharlal Nehru
University in New Delhi. After decades of evoking
despair, India's demographic profile is finally
beginning to stir hope.
But not everyone
views the population bulge with such optimism.
Some analysts say it is not enough to have a young
population. The working-age population needs to be
healthy and literate.
India's score on
this, while improving, is certainly not inspiring.
About 50% of all Indian children are
undernourished, a large percentage of them born
with protein deficiency (which affects brain
development and learning capacity, among other
things). This is hardly the ideal foundation for a
productive workforce, as the likelihood of a
malnourished child growing up to be an able adult
is rather dim.
There is also the question
of whether the population has the skills and
knowledge to take on India's future work. Literacy
has improved dramatically over the years - just
14% of the population was literate in 1947 versus
about 64.8% today - but many who are classified as
literate can barely read or write. And 40% of
those who enroll in primary schools drop out by
age 10. The curriculum in the schools, especially
the government-run ones, does not prepare the
child for the domestic job market, let alone the
global one. The huge "workforce" might not be
qualified to do the work.
India's rich and educated classes are preferring
to have small families, so the additions to the
population are coming largely from the poor,
illiterate sections in society. Nicholas
Eberstadt, who researches demographics at the
Washington-based American Enterprise Institute,
points out that while India's overall population
profile will remain relatively youthful, "this is
an arithmetic expression averaging diverse
components of a vast nation. Closer examination
reveals two demographically distinct Indias: the
north that stays remarkably young over the next 20
years, and a south already graying rapidly due to
Yet India's north is far
more backward than the south. On almost every
socio-economic indicator the north scores poorly.
The young population that the country is setting
its hopes on might not be qualified to take up the
There is a danger of India
squandering its demographic edge if it does not
act rapidly to invest in human capital. India's
population policy - it was the first in the world
to come out with one - has hitherto focused on
population control. This was essential given the
large population base and the high growth rate.
Steps were taken to limit family size, and
incentives were given to couples to adopt
permanent birth-control measures.
the growth rate stabilizing, planners are said to
be less alarmed about the size of the population
and more concerned with its quality. And with
economists pointing to the demographic edge that
India has in terms of age structure, the need to
improve the quality of the population is quietly
gaining ground in government circles.
definition of the "population problem" appears to
be slowly changing, says a government official.
"Efforts to improve literacy have been stepped up.
Last year, the government made schooling
compulsory for all children under 14 and pledged
to double spending on education from the current
3% of gross domestic product," he pointed out.
But making schooling compulsory alone
isn't the answer to the problem. Children stay
away from schools because teaching is uninspiring,
schools lack infrastructure and education doesn't
guarantee a job. Public-health issues cannot be
addressed simply by opening more hospitals. The
government needs to provide safe drinking water
and improve sanitation. To improve the quality of
the population, "India has to fire on all
cylinders simultaneously," points out the Daily
News Analysis. If it does not, "the demographic
dividend could well turn into a burden", it warns.
Clearly, it is still too early to
celebrate India's population or to look on it as
an asset in its quest for economic greatness. It
continues to pose problems. Whether India will
ride the demographic wave or get swamped by it
depends on how swiftly the government moves to
improve the quality of India's children today and
those yet to be born.
Ramachandran is an independent
journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.