Most populous country: Celebrate, contemplate or mourn? - Hindustan Times
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Most populous country: Celebrate, contemplate or mourn?

ByHindustan Times
Apr 28, 2023 08:34 PM IST

This article is authored by Anita Anand, communication and development specialist and author of Beijing: UN Fourth World Conference on Women.

This April 2023, India reached a milestone of sorts, when the United Nations Agency for Population Activities (UNFPA) announced that India's population had reached 1,428.6 million, surpassing China’s population by 2.9 million.

Population boom
Population boom

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Is this milestone a reason to celebrate, contemplate or mourn? The figures will give us reason to consider all three. According to UNFPA data, 25% of the population are between the ages of 0-14 years, 18% between 10-19 years, and 26% are in the 10-24 age group. About 68% are in the 15-64 age category and those above 65 are 7%.

If there is celebration, it is in the belief that the ‘demographic dividend’ which has historically contributed up to 15% of the overall growth in advanced economies, will be true for India too. A demographic dividend is "the economic growth potential which can result from shifts in a population’s age structure, mainly when the share of the working-age population (15 to 64) is larger than the non-working-age share of the population (14 and younger, and 65 and older)". This is now true for India.

With lowered birth rates each year, a country’s working-age population grows larger relative to the young dependent population. With more people in the labour force and fewer children to support, a country has a window of opportunity for economic growth if the right social and economic investments and policies are made in health, education, governance, and the economy.

Here is the contemplation: Does India have the prerequisites to tap into this window of opportunity for economic growth? Are the right policies and investments in social and economic sectors and governance in place?

Let us look at gender equality for a minute. The UNFPA report recommends that governments must create policies with "gender equality and rights at their heart, such as parental leave programmes, child tax credits, policies that promote gender equality in the workplace, and universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights."

But will the suggested policies help women? We might want to look at why current policies, which have some element of gender equality and rights at their heart, are not working as well as they could and address why women do not have ‘agency.’ Agency not as ideology but as practice. In ideology, women’s agency is the capacity to have the power and resources to fulfil their potential, the ability to make choices and act on them – such choosing a career, a spouse or not, and the number of children or none, how to live, where to live. However, agency is not enough. There must be an ecosystem which supports women’s agency.

Birth rates have fallen in India (and elsewhere). Women are more educated, and they see the value of smaller families. And they find it difficult to raise children, should they have them, by choice or accident. The biggest challenge is childcare. Single women or young couples raising children must resort to a live-in parent or hiring household help. According to the ministry of women and child Development, the number of functional government-run crèches in India in 2019-20 was 6458. Private neighbourhood creches which take children for a limited time during the day are growing, but there is a huge unmet need. Then there are fears of children’s safety. As data indicates, many women do not enter the workforce or leave as they cannot manage their lives, in and outside the home.

Early and forced marriages continue. In India one out of every four women are married before they turn 18, leaving them without the option for choices. Choices needed for women’s agency. It is not sufficient to offer women education and opportunities in the workplace, without asking who will take care of the children. Children need love and childcare and population policies focus more on contraceptive choices, targeted at women. It is small wonder that women dropout of the workforce.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that India’s female labour force participation is lower than the world average and declined by 6.9 percentage points between 1990 and 2016 and by 10.3% since December 2019. At the same time, employment among females declined by 7.9% from FY2019-20, with men taking over their jobs and claiming incremental job gains in the past two years.

Is there something to mourn about? Besides the decline of women in the workforce, the government has not able to generate the employment to absorb the young men and women that fall in the ‘demographic dividend.’ There is mounting concern that future growth could in turn be faced with joblessness due to de-industrialisation, de-globalisation, the fourth industrial revolution and technological progress. As per the 2017-18 National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)’s Periodic Labour Force Survey, India’s labour force participation rate for the age-group 15-59 years is around 53%, that is, around half of the working age population is jobless.

Most new jobs created in the future will be highly skilled and lack of skills in Indian workforce is a major challenge. India may not be able to take advantage of the opportunities, due to a low human capital base and lack of skills.

India needs a human ecosystem that enables it to reap the benefits of the ‘demographic dividend.’ A human ecosystem, as defined by ecological anthropologists and scholars, calls for an examination of the ecological aspects of human communities so that multiple factors such as economics, socio-political organisation, psychological factors, and physical factors come together.

The three central organising concepts to human ecosystems are conceptually distinct, but interrelated environments: The natural, human-constructed, and human behavioural. These environments furnish the resources and conditions necessary for life and constitute a life-support system. Presently in India we do not have ecosystems of these components. Then there are the low development indicators. India ranks 130 out of 189 countries in UNDP’s Human Development Index.

India’s ranking as the most populous country in the world is an opportunity, not just to capitalise on the ‘demographic dividend’ but on how to create a human ecosystem that benefits all its citizens.

This article is authored by Anita Anand, communication and development specialist and author of Beijing: UN Fourth World Conference on Women.

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