Thanks to the notion of a “demographic dividend”, popular perception has long moved away from viewing a large population as a burden. It is now commonly believed that a sizeable labour force can be a driver of economic growth. But such an interpretation overlooks several issues.
The Times of India on Wednesday reported that Uttar Pradesh is likely to have the largest population of young people in the next few decades— giving it the lion’s share of the employable labour force in the country—while educationally advanced states such as Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu will see increasingly ageing workforces.
The underlying cause is, of course, the demographic transition in these states. Southern states have historically been ahead on the transition curve, and their fertility rates have peaked long before that of Uttar Pradesh. However, there are other problems here.
The demographic dividend can only be realized if the working age group can find gainful employment. In this, as C.P. Chandrasekhar, Jayati Ghosh and Anamitra Roychowdhury point out in a paper (“The ‘Demographic Dividend’ and Young India’s Economic Future”, Economic and Political Weekly, December 2006), it is more useful to look at the ratio of actual non-workers to workers rather than the ratio of the non-working age to working age population. In simpler terms, few job opportunities coupled with low health and literacy conditions in Uttar Pradesh means a large working age group population does not translate into more employment.
One future fallout is that with jobs scarce in the state, people in the working age group will look for work elsewhere. This raises the politically controversial issue of mass migration to other states, especially as many of these, such as Maharashtra, will have far lower populations in the employable age group.
The second and more serious outcome is an unemployed, largely uneducated young population. India’s experience in Jammu and Kashmir and the examples of several underdeveloped countries in the region show that an idle mass of youth can often pose a law and order problem.
If India is to avoid these fallouts, it must not only create job opportunities, but also equip its youth to take up gainful employment through education and health facilities.
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