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  Opinion   Columnists  23 Apr 2023  Indranil Banerjee | World’s ‘youngest’ nation at an exciting crossroads

Indranil Banerjee | World’s ‘youngest’ nation at an exciting crossroads

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant.
Published : Apr 24, 2023, 12:46 am IST
Updated : Apr 24, 2023, 12:46 am IST

The great Indian census conducted every ten years since 1881 appears to have been shelved for all practical purposes.

The UNFPA’s estimates of India’s population is just that -- only an estimate. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade, File)
 The UNFPA’s estimates of India’s population is just that -- only an estimate. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade, File)

It took a United Nations agency to inform us and the world at large that India would become the most populous country in the world by the middle of this year. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in its 2023 State of World Population Report, declared that by the middle of 2023 India’s population would touch an estimated 1.4286 billion, against China’s 1.4257 billion -- a difference of 2.9 million.

Normally, one would expect such a key statistic to come from the Indian government. But in today’s India, statistics are deemed to have become damned lies or simply do not exist.

The great Indian census conducted every ten years since 1881 appears to have been shelved for all practical purposes. No one in India is asking why we have no census, which is the most basic statistical exercise undertaken by all nations. Without accurate demographics, no reliable economic projections can be made.

The UNFPA’s estimates of India’s population is just that -- only an estimate. No one knows for sure how many Indians there actually are. The Covid-19 pandemic prevented the census operations from starting in 2020, and since then the government has effectively scuttled the stalled exercise.

Bloomberg columnist Mihir Sharma writes that “India’s current government has a somewhat difficult relationship with data. Various surveys and calculations, from the national income accounts to household consumption patterns and jobs data, have been cancelled or reviewed over the past seven years. This census was set to be even more politically explosive. In famously diverse India, the census provides the last word on the relative sizes of various groups. And those numbers don’t just determine their voting power in democratic India, but also the distribution of welfare and public services.”

The Indian census not only counts the number of every Indian citizen but also other key demographics such as literacy, employment, lifespan, religious persuasion and much more. It provides critical data for analysts and policy makers; this data is the bedrock on which all economic estimates rest. In its absence, economic analysis and policy making in India can only flail in the darkness.

The UNFPA report underscores the need to have accurate data on the state of our population, not just the raw headcounts but how our citizens are actually doing.

Andrea Wojnar, UNFPA’s India representative, correctly pointed out that “population numbers should not trigger anxiety or create alarm. Instead, they should be seen as a symbol of progress, development, and aspirations if individual rights and choices are being upheld”.

But there is the inevitable big “if”. India’s huge population, especially its youth, could constitute a demographic dividend or a liability, depending on the quality of its people.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, reacting to the UNFPA report, was not off the mark in asserting that population dividends depended not only on quantity but also on quality.

A population’s capabilities in terms of skills, talents and innovation are the key to the future. Does India’s huge population possess these abilities?

The indicators are not very rosy. We might have a large population but its quality is highly questionable. Take one key metric: labour participation rates, which measures the percentage of the population actually engaged in productive work. India’s rates happen to be among the lowest in the world.

According to World Bank data (2021), the labour participation rate for India was a pathetic 48.5 per cent, compared to Bangladesh’s 58.2 per cent, Pakistan’s 52.7 per cent, China’s 67.1 per cent, the United States’ 61.2 per cent and Russia’s 62.2 per cent.

India only bettered a few countries like Iran (41.9 per cent).

Worse, very few women in India work: just about one in four, which is one of the lowest in the world. This year’s Economic Survey claimed that male labour force participation rates had increased to 57.5 per cent in 2020-21 while female participation had climbed to 25.1 per cent. But there is no telling whether these figures are authentic, and even if they are, they point to continued low levels of participation. No country in the world can progress if so few of its people actually work, especially its women.

Overall employment figures also remain low despite the government’s claims to the contrary. The 2023 Economic Survey claimed “labour markets have recovered beyond pre-Covid levels, in both urban and rural areas, with unemployment rates falling from 5.8 per cent in 2018-19 to 4.2 per cent in 2020-21”, but added that there has been a decline in the shares of regular wage workers, casual labour, industrial labour, and labour employed in “trade, hotel and restaurants”.

If the government is to be believed, the rise in employment is due to the increase in agriculture employment! The sad fact is that no country in the world has developed through agriculture; it is industry, particularly the cutting edge, hi-tech sectors that are capable of propelling an economy into a global frontrunner.

Industry needs skilled workers, effective managers and educated researchers and innovators. Literacy figures are one indicator of how well the population is doing knowledge-wise. In India, literacy has been rising but is still low on the world scale: 74 per cent in 2018 compared to Bangladesh’s 75 per cent, China’s 97 per cent, Iran’s 89 per cent, Russia’s 100 per cent, Pakistan’s 58 per cent, and Sri Lanka’s 92 per cent (World Bank data 2019-2020).

In other words, we also have the largest population of illiterates in the world – a staggering 371 million who cannot read or write a sentence in any language, leave alone acquire knowledge of any kind.

The other mind-boggling part of the UNFPA report is the estimate that nearly half of India’s population is below the age of 25 years -- that is 714 million young people looking for proper education, jobs, housing and so on. Who are all these millions?

Understanding their realities, starting from their demographics, would be the first step in shaping policies and a conducive environment for their future.

The UNFPA’s India head declared that “India is at a unique historical opportunity, witnessing a great demographic transition as youthful nation… As the country with the largest youth cohort -- its 254 million youth (15-24 years) -- can be a source of innovation, new thinking and lasting solutions”.

India is indeed at an exciting crossroads in history: however, whether it will reap a demographic dividend or disaster is an open question. What is not is the need for a population census at the earliest. Not facing the facts, no matter how politically inconvenient, cannot be an option.

Tags: united nations population fund, india population, census