The theme for World Population Day 2022 is “A world of 8 billion: Towards a resilient future for all – Harnessing opportunities and ensuring rights and choices for all”. It asks us to bear in mind that there are people behind the population numbers, and that we need to focus on people, their lives, aspirations and rights, and not just the numbers.
World Population Day, observed on 11 July every year, is an opportune time to reflect on important population issues of the day. India with a population of 1.3 billion is a young country and is bestowed with a unique demographic opportunity due to its fast decreasing fertility.
India entered the demographic dividend opportunity window in 2005-06 and will remain there till 2055-56. This is the time when the ratio of the working-age population is high and the dependency ratio in terms of the proportion of children and elderly people is low. But the highest working-age ratio will be between 2021 and 2041, with the peak in the working-age ratio occurring in 2031.
So, there is a potential demographic opportunity, which can be harnessed if the right conditions are there or created. These conditions include a healthy population, especially women and children; educated young people, especially girls; a skilled workforce; a high-performing economy that is generating required high-quality jobs; and people in gainful employment.
Also, it is important to note that these conditions have to be put in place well in advance, and not created when the demographic dividend is already on us, and in fact, fading away fast. For example, the maximum number of people entered the labour force in 2001-11 & 2011-21, to the tune of more than 1 crore per year. Did we prepare for it in advance by providing them with good health, education, vocational training and good jobs?
A broad sweep of some key parameters shows that we haven’t been able to create the right conditions. For example, as per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 5, more than one-third of children (35.5%) are stunted in India, indicating poor health, and educational and professional outcomes in later life. The same survey shows that 57% of women in the age group of 15-49 years are anaemic in India. A worrying and alarming figure.
The quality of the education is poor as shown by different Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER). With only 3% of the workforce in India with any formal vocational training as per the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), India cannot hope to increase productivity nor it cannot hope that young people will be in high-quality gainful employment.
Unemployment in general and among youth has been at an all-time high. Even when the economy was performing well, between 2004 and 2012, we were able to create approximately 7 million jobs a year, with more than 10 million entering the labour force. But of late, we have been able to create less than 3 million jobs a year. What is even more worrisome is that demographic dividend realization means a shift of workers from the primary sector to secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy but what we have witnessed in recent times is that the share of workers in agriculture has risen from 43% to 47% over the last three periodic labour surveys.
The CII in its report on ‘Harnessing India’s Demographic Dividend for Boosting Growth’ in April 2022 echoed the same views and warned that unless enough jobs are created and workers equipped with the skills to do those jobs, the demographic dividend will become a liability for India. Recent protests over Agnipath scheme show that lack of hope and jobs among youth can turn violent at any time.
From all accounts, it seems that the demographic dividend is slipping away. Mere lip service to the term ‘demographic dividend’ and hoping that it will happen just because we have a large working-age population is not going to work. We have already lost several years and any more delay will ensure that this opportunity is permanently lost to India. We need to take urgent remedial steps.
Top on the list to do should be to institute a High-Level Task Force on Demographic Dividend under the direct leadership of the Prime Minister, with members from population, health, education and development fields and representatives of key ministries and corporate. And, its mandate should be to ensure the presence and timely progress review of the ‘right’ conditions mentioned above.
Special focus needs to be placed on the north-central states because as per the population projections by National Commission on Population, more than 50%, 17 crores out of the total 31.1 crores population growth in India during 2011-2036, will occur in the five States of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh Maharashtra, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.
An associated issue with this is the issue of migration. While the working-age ratio will increase in the northern states, it will start declining in the southern states. This indicates an increase in migration from the young north-central states to the greying southern and western states. The plight and flight of migrants during the national lockdown during the first wave of the COVID 19 was there for all to see. It was indicative of the poor living and working conditions of migrants in the country.
On this world population day, it is high time to reaffirm our commitment to focus our policies and programmes on people, and not on population numbers and concomitant alarmist reactions or actions. It is time to invest in people, young girls and boys so that they can realize their full potential. It is time to design migration-friendly policies and programmes. It is time to invest in the health and well-being of women so that they are healthy and participate in the workforce and public life.
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About the Author
Devender Singh, is the Former National Program Officer (Population & Development), UNFPA India (2015- 2021) and a Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI.