Today's Editorial

10 September 2018

Dividend or time-bomb

Source: By Vikram Sen: The Statesman

For the past few years we have been constantly hearing the phrase ‘demographic dividend’ in the speeches and utterances of our political leaders. It is almost as if this is the magic wand which will address all our chronic problems and take us to the promised land of bliss.

For those of us brought up with the notion that population explosion or overpopulation is the root cause of all our ills, this may seem to be rather ironical. How come the most serious stumbling block to all our developmental efforts in the past half century and admittedly our abject failure to control the Malthusian growth of population is suddenly being flaunted as our valuable asset? We need to take a close look at the population data and analyse the facts and figures in the light of prevailing socio-economic realities. The idea is to ascertain if the runaway growth of population has in reality been to our advantage.

As per the census of 2011children in the 0-14 age group consist of around 35 per cent of the total population of India. In absolute numbers, this comes to around 36 crore ~, more than the current US population of 32.5 crore. As regards China, the most populated country in the world, the 0-14 age-group of the population is 23.49 crore or 17.1 per cent of the total Chinese population. In terms of the young, we definitely have an edge over the developed countries which have an ageing population with higher percentage of middle aged and the older.

In point of fact, this is only a reflection of the demographic transition that we are passing through at present with medium fertility and birth rates and lower death rates. As both birth and death rates decline, we are expected to attain a stable population by around 2050 when the share of the 0-14 age group will decline steadily and the percentage of the middle-aged and the old will rise consistently.

Already the fourth round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 4) conducted in 2015-16 indicates that the below-15 population has declined to 28 per cent compared to 34.9 in NFHS 3 conducted during 2005-06. At the same time it is true that for the next 20/30 years India will continue to enjoy this advantage of having the highest number of young working population in the world. But are we really prepared to put this transitional advantage to its best use for constructive development or is this a demographic time-bomb silently waiting to explode when millions of poorly educated, unskilled, frustrated and angry young men and women attain the working age and demand their share of the cake. But before that it is important to examine the conditions under which the majority of children grow up, conditions which are vital inputs for their future well-being and conduct as adult citizens.

As per the latest Sample Registration Survey (SRS) data released by the Registrar-General of India, 34 children out of every 1000 “live births” die before they reach their first birthday. This means that every year about seven lakh children below the age of one are lost. These deaths are to a large extent due to malnutrition, poor living conditions and lack of primary healthcare. According to a survey conducted by the office of the Registrar-General, the major reasons of neonatal deaths are premature birthslow-birth weightneonatal infectionspneumonia and diarrhoeal diseases.

These factors point to sordid living conditions under which the majority of future citizens are born and brought up in our country. The National Health Mission started by the previous UPA Government had fixed a target to reduce the IMR to 25 per 1000 live births by 2012, but as per data till 2016 that goal still remains a distant dream. Even the Under 5 Mortality Rate (U5MR) is very high compared to other developing countries. As per NFHS 4, it is 50 per 1000 live-births with rural areas reporting such deaths at 56.

Compared to this, the world average released by UNICEF is 40.8. Even among our neighbouring countries the rate is much lower. In case of Bangladesh, it is 34.2Bhutan 32.4China 9.9Nepal 34.5 and Sri Lanka 9.4. Only Pakistan has a higher U5MR at 78.8. If nothing else the data on IMR and U5MR should put our overworked politicians busy with electoral calculations and its religious ramifications to shame. Proper medical care and attention to the nutritional needs of the growing children is another area where are record is abysmal. As per NFHS-4, 38 per cent of Indian children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth due to under-nutrition which has serious repercussions for their future health.

Another 36 per cent of the under-5 children have lower weight corresponding to their age. Instead of boasting the demographic advantage we should ask ourselves as to what the country can expect from the future citizens when 74 per cent of the children grow up poorly fedundernourished and underweight. According to a recent World Bank report prevalence of underweight children in India is the highest in the world and is double that of sub-Saharan Africa. The report observes that this has very serious consequences for mobility, mortality, productivity and economic growth in India. There is also a severe problem of anaemia among children between 6-59 months as 58.4 per cent of them are anaemic.

This is perhaps quite natural as NFHS 4 reports that 50.3 per cent of women in the child bearing age of 15-49 are anaemic. Poverty and ever-rising costs of essential food items are depriving expectant mothers as well as their newborn children of the means to obtain the minimum required intake for a balanced diet. The Global Hunger Index, 2017 ranks India as 97th among 118 countries with a very serious “hunger situation”.

Our claim to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world sounds quite hollow in the light of this child nutrition scenario. Hungry and undernourished, many with stunted growth, the majority of Indian children therefore grow up with natural resentment and hatred for the society that has denied their rightful claim to live with reasonable comfort and adequate sustenance. Such resentment is often reflected in the increasing violence and explosion of anger both in domestic as well as public life with scant regard for social norms or civilized behaviour that we witness in India today. The situation is further complicated by cynical exploitation of such resentment by the so-called democratic polity in India to suit the narrow selfish goals of unprincipled political leaders.

If on the other hand we look at the children from the growing urban based middle and upper income families the problem takes another dimension. There is no dearth of nourishing food here; rather it is a question of plenty. Though no reliable data on child obesity; it has been estimated through a sample survey in 2010 that 19.3 per cent of the Indian children are obese. This data roughly corresponds with NFHS 4 which reported that 20.7 per cent of the Indian women and 18.6 per cent of men in the 15-49 age are overweight or obese. Thus though we have majority of children with stunted growth or in undernourished condition we also have substantial prevalence of obese and overweight children.

The situation is equally dismal either way. The small family norms with one or two children have created a generation of pampered and self-centred boys and girls among these households with no sense of responsibility or attachment towards the society that has brought them up. Reports of increasing juvenile crimes that we now see in the newspapers almost daily are perhaps reflections of the living conditions which a child passes through to adolescence be it in poor or low income households or in an affluent family.

If we look at the education scenario, the existing status is equally gloomy. As per data released by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD) for 2013-14 academic years, 99.3 per cent students out of the total projected population in the relevant age-group were enrolled in primary classes across the country. But in the same academic year only 49.1 per cent from among the age-group concerned were enrolled for higher secondary classes. Thus between primary to Higher Secondary levels, more than 50 per cent of the students are dropping out of the school cycle at various stages. There cannot be any doubt that this continuous drop-out syndrome is the biggest problem now facing the school education system. The standard and quality of education being imparted in our schools across the country is equally dismal.

In the mad rush to increase primary enrolment the quality of this base of learning has been ignored by both the policy-makers as well as those in charge of monitoring. The result has been gradual erosion in the overall quality of primary education as has been repeatedly pointed out by independent surveys like ASER. As per the ASER report, 2016the percentage of Class 3 students in rural areas, who can read at least Class I level text in the vernacular language is 42.5 percent. In case of arithmetic only 27.7 per cent of children in class 3 can do a two-digit subtraction. In case of simple divisions it has been observed that the children’s ability in Standard V has remained at 26 per cent between 2014 and 2016. Even among Upper Primary students in rural areas the ability to do a three-by-one digit division in Class 8 has declined from 68.4 per cent in 2010 to 43.3 in 2016. The declining quality of learning at the basic level has affected the standards in subsequent stages and has created additional burdens for the Secondary classes. There is also a serious rural-urban difference in the system of education at the primary stage.

In urban areas most of the schools, both private and as well as Government, have two years additional learning at the pre-primary stage at 3+ age where the students get their first acquaintance of the words and digits and drawing lines and circles in a much more relaxed atmosphere when their minds are more receptive. In contrast most of the rural students are deprived of this two additional years and start at class I at 5+ ages having lost two vital years of learning. It is also a fact is that in the drive for new schools and additional classrooms under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) the pressing needs for secondary education have been ignored for far too long.

Thus we are treated to the spectacle of overflowing classes often with more than 60 students and teachers forced to take up subjects they are not qualified to teach. Hence the increasing demands for general category teachers like those in languages, history, civics or geography rather than more qualified and specialized science or technology teachers. Of the 49 per cent boys and girls who complete the full school cycle, only about half or 24.5 per cent in the 18-23 age group enroll themselves in undergraduate courses. As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), 2015-16 the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for boys is 25.4 while that for girls is 23.5.

This being the age of technology it is ridiculous that around 41 per cent of the total undergraduate seats are occupied by students studying arts or humanities. Unfortunately, we are still blindly following the colonial model started by the British and have failed to attune our education system to the needs of a modern technology-driven society. There is need for many more polytechnics, engineering and medical colleges, marketing and entrepreneurship training centres, business schools etc. where the bulk of the students may join after completing the secondary course instead of losing two precious years at the Senior Secondary level.

Many of the students who join undergraduate courses in the general stream do so because they have nothing else to do and soon become campus trouble-makers who are picked up by political parties to join their student wing to be groomed as their future political workers. What about the missing 51 per cent of the students who dropped out from schools at various stages as well as the 25 per cent who fail to get admitted to the undergraduate courses? Some of course join polytechnic schools after completion of 10th standard in schools but, as pointed out by the U R Rao Committee, the number of such diploma polytechnics in India is extremely limited. Whereas ideally there should be four polytechnics against one engineering college in India, the reality is just the reverse. Till 2016 there were only 500 AICTE approved polytechnicsagainst 3345 engineering colleges.

Most of these institutions have outdated instruments with students passing out ignorant of the latest tools and machines used in modern factories. Less than one per cent of the school and college dropouts can get themselves admitted to the polytechnics and the remaining 50 per cent of our young remain as outcasts. Uneducated and unskilled, they hardly have any future to look forward to. Many in the rural areas many join their fathers’ profession as cultivators or as landless agricultural labourers either in their own areas or in other States. But agriculture as an occupation is shrinking sharply as reported in the last three decennial censuses.

In 1991 cultivators and landless agricultural labourers consisted of 67 percent of the total working population. In 2001 agricultural occupation declined to 58.40 and in 2011 to 54.60 per cent. Thus the scope of further manpower absorption in this traditional occupation is steadily declining as in all developing countries. Other traditional family occupations such as masonry, plumbing, washing, small trades, cook, barber etc. are also fast dwindling in the face of relentless pressure from the organized sector. Shrinking job opportunities in the rural areas have led to the shifting of urban centres particularly during the day, creating problems for an already stagnant urban job market.

Finding no other way, many of these jobseekers are forced to take up petty crime and later, enter the underworld. Others take up odd jobs that are temporary, with poor pay and an uncertain future. This in fact is the story of more than half of the Indian youth without formal education beyond the Upper Primary stage and without any training in skills. They are joining the ever-increasing ranks of the unemployed. A more or less similar situation was faced by China in the 1970s and 1980s but its response was through reforms in education with full emphasis on mathematics and science subjects and providing for skill development on an unprecedented scale.

This helped to create an army of new entrepreneurs in the small and medium sectors often in the export-oriented units with State support and opening its doors to massive foreign investment with the lure of cheap labour and tax concessions.

Under this ever increasing pressure on decent sustenance and survival, the traditional Indian social fabric is slowly being torn apart. The age old custom of concern and care for aged parents is fast dwindling, thus creating serious living problems for the growing 60-plus population.

Stories of domestic violence against aged and defenceless parents are reported in the newspapers almost every day. What is of far greater concern is that such domestic turmoil and pressure on living conditions is also affecting traditional Indian social norms and culture of tolerance as we are gradually turning into an intolerant, violence-prone and uncaring society?

This is reflected in every sphere of social, political or religious interaction shutting out the contrary viewpoint while the credibility and control of institutions responsible for the maintenance of our society are deliberately being eroded. Thus instead of the proclaimed demographic advantage we are actually sitting on a potential powder-keg with the fuse slowly but surely running out; Unless our cynical leaders have time to sit down and grasp the gravity of the situation, our survival as a nation may soon be at stake.



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