Monday, March 27, 2006 21:45 IST
So, India's much-feared population boom is actually turning out to be a boon, not a bane. A report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), The World in 2050, says that India can be the world's fastest-growing large economy between now and 2050, thanks mainly to its demographic profile.
Understandably, those opposing any form of population control are rejoicing. They have been making this point for long, taking strength from American economist Julian Simon's famous "population is the ultimate resource" theory. "The most important economic effect of population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge," Simon argued.
But merely gloating over the fact that India is going to have the world's youngest population isn't enough. Are we doing enough to nurture and capitalise on that dividend? The answer may just be not enough. Consider some facts.
Over 66 per cent of children in the 0-6 age group are undernourished, the District Level Rapid Household Survey, 2002-05 shows. Over 90 per cent of pre-school children are anaemic. The incidence of anaemia in pregnant women is also 90 per cent. This is hardly the foundation of a productive workforce. The chances of an unhealthy child growing up into a healthy and fit adult are somewhat dim. Not only will such a child not be able to make use of the opportunities that will available to it; it cannot contribute to the economy in any way. On the contrary, it may well be a burden on the economy. Take the case of tuberculosis, which affects 1.8 million people a year. It is estimated that three to four months of work is lost per patient. Mortality rates may have come down in India, but morbidity due to various illnesses is still high. There's little to indicate that out of the box solutions to the problem of public health are being experimented with.
Then there's the question of equipping the future generation with the right skills that the global marketplace needs. Here, too, the figures don't look good. Only 64 per cent of India's population is literate. And the literacy rate in the 15-24 age group is only 73 per cent. That's just not good enough. In any case, this is just basic literacy. Tapping global job opportunities will require far more than that.
There are still some eight million children out of school. Drop out rates are high and learning achievements low. Right now, primary education is on top of the agenda, but one needs to start planning for the stages that will follow. The Mid-term Appraisal of the Tenth Plan points out that if the SSA achieves the goal of universal enrolment in the primary stage, then secondary enrolment is likely to touch nearly 50 million by 2011. Our current secondary school system cannot cope with this load, either in terms of numbers or quality. But secondary education is one area where even a start has not been made.
The same is true of higher education. Currently, only about 6-7 per cent of the relevant age group goes into higher education. A well functioning developing country needs to hike that to 25 per cent. Our higher education system, still largely public funded just cannot cope with the load. But not enough is being done to encourage private participation in this area. Some measures have only resulted in the mushrooming of unscrupulous teaching shops.
What's more, the education system is still designed to get people into government service. That's not going to be the source of employment growth. There's been no significant progress on vocational courses in secondary and higher education. Vocational training in Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) is just not in sync with the needs of the domestic market, let alone the global market. Inclusion of new trades into the curriculum takes so long that they get outdated within no time. Attempts to involve industry in setting the curriculum have been patchy at best.
If basic human development issues aren't addressed with urgency, the demographic dividend could well turn into a burden. But it's not enough to open more schools and hospitals or train more teachers and doctors and nurses. Piecemeal and business as usual approaches to issues won't work. Illnesses can be reduced with better sanitation and safe drinking water. Roads and proper transportation are needed to get children to school. India has to fire on all cylinders simultaneously.
One of the reasons India will be the fastest growing economy is that the Chinese economy will slow down because of the drag caused by its ageing population. But the Indian growth story cannot be left to depend on the slackening of others. Our inherent advantages have to be nurtured and promoted. Without losing any time.