The first cut results of Census 2011 confirm what most demographers and economists had expected—India is in the midst of a demographic transition.
There are now 1.2 billion Indians, or around 181 million more than there were in 2001. It means we have added one Brazil to our numbers over the past 10 years. The good news is that the past decade has been the first since 1911-21 when the absolute addition in population has been lower than what it was in the previous decade. The decadal rate of population growth is not only dropping, but it is dropping faster than before. Even Uttar Pradesh has seen a drop of 5 percentage points in its rate of population growth. The past decade has seen the sharpest decline in the rate of Indian population growth since independence.
There are now 50 million fewer Indians below six years of age, a sign of declining number of children per woman. The problem here is that the proportion of girls in that age group is falling, either because little girls are being killed in the womb or are not given nutrition on a par with what boys get. It’s a national shame. But there is a silver lining. Female literacy is growing faster than male literacy. Overall, the scourge of illiteracy is receding.
These initial numbers show that India is changing. We are moving into a demographic sweet spot, with a huge bulge in the working-age population. This transition comes at a time when China is showing signs of ageing and its wage levels are rising. India needs extensive policy reforms to latch on to the opportunity and also to ensure that the rising numbers of working-age people are not forced into unemployment. The line dividing the democratic dividend and a ticking demographic time bomb is a thin one.
The other opportunity-cum-challenge is education. School attendance has been soaring, partly because poor Indians have realized that the returns on skills can be very high in a booming economy and partly because successful government programmes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan have improved access to schools. At current rates, India will be a fully literate country in less than two decades. Even now, most illiterates must be concentrated in the older age groups. The challenge now is to improve the quality of school education. Surveys by education activist group Pratham have shown that too many kids have inadequate language and math skills.
India needs to build on these advances—and take tough action against further retreat in the gender ratio of children below six—through public policies that can tap the potential and meet the aspirations of a new India.
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