We Are Growing Younger; China, Others are Ageing. Advantage India

Published: September 24, 2014 14:31 IST
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Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.

Once in a while a phrase comes along that captures the imagination of police-makers across the political divides in our society. In India today, that phrase is "demographic dividend". Like "Brand India" a few years ago, the cognoscenti are buzzing with talk of such a dividend, one that could transform our country's fortunes in the first half of the 21st century. What is India's potential demographic dividend and how can we harness it?

Today, India is a young nation. We have 605 million people below the age of 25, while in the age group 10-19, poised for higher education, we have 225 million. This means that for the next 40 years we would have a youthful, dynamic and productive workforce when the rest of the world, including China, is aging. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has predicted that by 2020, India will have 116 million workers in the work-starting age bracket of 20 to 24 years, as compared to China's 94 million.

It is further estimated that the average age in India by the year 2020 will be 29 years as against 40 years in the USA, 46 years in Europe and 47 years in Japan.  In fact, in 20 years the labour force in the industrialised world will decline by 4%, in China by 5%, while in India it will increase by 32%. And the IMF, in 2011, reported that India's demographic dividend has the potential to add 2 percentage points per annum to India's per capita GDP growth over the next two decades.

So the demographic dividend is the advantage that will accrue to India of being blessed with a young population in the first half of the 21st century - provided, of course, we can educate and train it to take advantage of the opportunities that the 21st century world offers.

One does not need a stint in MHRD to realise that education is the most significant instrument of individual self-realisation and democratic empowerment in our times. In a fractured, impatient and yet hopeful society like India, it is simply indispensable for social mobility and economic progress. Though for the greater part of human history, martial prowess and mercantile abilities were accorded greater importance, increasingly we have reached a stage of historical evolution where the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge trumps all other attainments. In the 21st century, knowledge, and the instrument of its spread, education, will increasingly become the prime determinants of the success and worth of any nation or civilisation.

And over the past two decades, the meaning of success in this country has also undergone a paradigm shift. Before the 1990s, India was often referred to through the metaphor of the elephant, an animal whose association with our nation had less to do with local zoology and more with the perception of both the country and the animal as lumbering, ponderous, slow to move and slower to change. This was, of course, owing to India's seemingly lethargic pace of economic and social progress, anaemic policy reforms, and the modest dreams of its population for change, which were made worse by the weight of its own burgeoning population. As I was to observe in one of my books, the metaphor had begun to outlive its already limited utility when a major change rendered it practically irrelevant.

That watershed moment arrived in 1991 when, in a spectacular break from past practice, India undertook a dramatic transformation through economic liberalization. Declaring that "no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come," then Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh launched a slew of economic policy reforms that launched India into an increasingly globalising world. The economic reforms -- featuring conscious liberalisation, measured privatisation, and increasing globalisation of the country's economy -- opened a wonderland of opportunities for India. Two decades of impressive growth, averaging nearly 8%, followed.

With the newly favourable demographics and the enormous economic opportunities available in the globalising world, education remains the most important tool for realising the full potential of our youthful nation. There is no escaping the fact that a sound basic education is a prerequisite to empower each individual in the quest to pursue these economic opportunities. I have often remarked that books are like the toddy tapper's hatchet, striking through the rough husk that enshrouds our minds to tap into the exhilaration that ferments within. The analogy applies equally to education in a broader sense, which is crucial in transforming the collective energy of our youngsters into mature ideas, well-developed skills, and a sense of confidence, hope and capability.  

India's ability to seize the opportunities available to our young population in the 21st century will depend on the success of its efforts to address the key challenges plaguing Indian education and vocational training. If we succeed, we ensure the prosperity of our own people and become the workhorse of the world, as other countries' ageing populations turn to us for the provision of goods and services. If we fail, our demographic dividend risks become a demographic disaster, since unemployed, frustrated and unemployable young men become prey to the blandishments of extremists and fanatics, as we have already seen in a number of insurgencies, particularly in our educationally under-served tribal areas. These Maoist or Naxalite insurgencies, in about 165 of our 625 districts, exploit the available pool of young men without education, unemployable as well as unemployed, who have no stake in our society because we have not equipped them with the education or skills to take advantage of the 21st century economy. This makes good, effective and relevant education and skill development not only a social and economic necessity but a natural security imperative for India.

This educational vision - which I had outlined when in Government -- is not a partisan one. There is nothing in it that can't be pursued by the BJP or Mr Modi. Only in this way can we have any chance at all of making the Indian Dream a reality in our times. And then we can celebrate our demographic dividend!

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