Gangrenous giant?

India is poised to become the most populated country in the world by 2050. Currently it is second to China in terms of population size. Its population has grown at the rate of 1.4 per cent over the past five years compared with China’s at 0.6 per cent over the same period. In the past, India’s population, often referred to as its ‘teeming millions’ in the West, was looked upon as a dead weight, a drag on its economic growth. This negative perception of India’s population stemmed from the fact that however fast GDP grew, per capita income remained stagnant or changed marginally because population was growing faster than GDP. The Indian economy was often likened to a human running in the same place. This negative perception of India’s population has changed in recent years with some experts drawing attention to the demographic dividend that could be India’s to reap. According to this perception, unlike the population of many western countries which is greying, that of India is largely youthful. Over 50 per cent of India’s population is below 25 years of age. Demographers point out that 35 per cent of the total population is in the prime working-age group ie between 15 and 59 years of age. This is expected to peak around 2020, when 64 per cent of the country’s population will belong to this group. Experts say that when other countries’ populations are predominantly old, India will have a surplus of people in the working age group, giving it a competitive edge in labour costs.

It means that India need not despair over its growing population. However, India cannot sit back expecting mere numbers to deliver the dividend. A large population that is illiterate, underfed and malnutritioned will make India a gangrenous giant, a gigantic liability to itself and the world. A large young population that is unemployable because it is illiterate or unhealthy is a recipe for disaster as it could trigger much social conflict.

Whether our population will be an asset or a liability depends on whether we are able to tackle problems like malnutrition and illiteracy quickly. If India fails to do so and remains reluctant to invest heavily on human capital, the demographic advantage it is hoping to reap could fritter away. We will then be left with a disaster.

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