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How India’s population bulge could become a ticking bomb

The government schemes to make people job-ready such as Modi’s Skill India are slow burn programmes that take much longer than it takes for the population bulge to grow bigger writes Sanjoy Narayan

columns Updated: Aug 24, 2015 09:10 IST
Sanjoy Narayan
Sanjoy Narayan
Hindustan Times
Indian population,Narendra Modi,demographic dividend
Commuters walk inside a metro station in New Delhi. India's population is set to pass China's in size around 2022, according to the United Nations report released Wednesday, July 29. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Today, an estimated average of 68,922 Indian citizens will turn 25. Tomorrow there will another 68,922 newly minted 25 year olds. Ditto the day after tomorrow and the day after that, and so on till 2025.

That number— 68,922 — is an average calculated on a projection of age-wise population data that was sourced from the national census of 2011 and what it means is this: Every month, 2.1 million people in India will turn 25. Of them, 1.48 million will be in rural India and remaining 0.62 million in urban centres. What it also means is that 10 years from now, in 2025, there will be 690 million Indian citizens below the age of 25.

By then, India’s population is expected to grow to 1.43 billion and under-25s will comprise more than 48%.

Why am I throwing these numbers at you on a Sunday morning? You, I and everyone else already know(s) that even today India is one of the world’s biggest “young” nations with nearly two-thirds of its population below the age of 35 and nearly half below 25.

So what’s the big deal about 2025 when there will be nearly 700 million under-25s?

Quite a bit, really, if you consider how India’s population numbers rarely make their way into political discourse nowadays, at least not in any serious manner.

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No Indian political party, whichever part of the spectrum you choose to look at, talks about the country’s population surge and the immense challenges that it poses.

Yet references to India’s “demographic dividend” are plenty, with everyone from marketers, economists and politicians referring to that big bulge of young people as the real edge that India could have over other countries across the world — many of which (with the exception of some in Africa) have populations that are aging.

India’s present population of 1.25 billion (or “125 crore” as Prime Minister Narendra Modi likes to phrase it in his Hindi speeches; he made 28 references to it in his Independence Day speech this year) and the estimate that it will outstrip China’s by 2022, and not 2028 as was earlier expected, often become a cue for chest-thumping pride, which, if you really think of it, may be misplaced.

Having a big bulge of people in the age group of 18-55 (or the working age group) can most certainly be a potential advantage — potential because many things have to fall into place before it becomes real. More than seven out of 10 of India’s young people live in rural India, primarily eking their livelihood off unproductive farms with little skill or education to be of use in anything other than manual labour.

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Those in urban areas are only slightly better off with their overall quality of education making them inadequate for meaningful employment.

Successive Indian governments, the present incumbent included, have tried to focus on addressing the skill deficit in India’s working age population but with limited success.

The thing is that government schemes to make people job-ready such as Modi’s Skill India are slow burn programmes that take much longer than it takes for the population bulge to grow bigger.

You could accuse me of invoking the ghost of Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, the 18th century English cleric, who predicted a catastrophe if unchecked population growth (which he said grows geometrically) outstripped the supply of food (which grows arithmetically) but consider the facts.

India’s population growth has actually slowed down (it was 3% in the 1980s; 1.8% in the 1990s; and is now only 1.2%) but on a base as large as India’s, even 1.2% leads to absolute numbers that are staggering.

Malthus predicted that runaway growth of the world’s population without the resources to feed and sustain it would ultimately lead to a catastrophe as a spate of famines, diseases, epidemics and wars would take place.

Now consider this. If India’s population of young people grows to huge numbers — as it will — but meets up with large-scale joblessness and millions of dashed hopes, and that in turn leads to widespread civil unrest, crime and violence, would you call it a catastrophe?

Sanjoy Narayan is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He tweets as @sanjoynarayan

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First Published: Aug 22, 2015 22:42 IST