A recent BusinessWeek piece on the elderly in China led me to do some research. After all, we in India, at the drop of a hat, brag about 65% of our population being below 35 years, and the “demographic dividend" and so on. What’s going on in China, and how will the demographics of the two countries compare in the coming decades?

According to projections made by the United Nations (UN), China’s population will peak at about 1.4 billion around 2030, and then start dropping, when the country will feel the full impact of the one-child policy and growing urbanization (the country’s fertility rate fell below replacement rate in the 1990s). In the 2080s, the number will drop to below a billion, and by 2100, there will be less than 950 million Chinese.

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But what is really fascinating is the projected composition of these populations. By 2030, while India will remain a youthful country, China will be greying. The Indian median age will be about 32 years (up from the current 26), while China’s will be 43 (it’s 35 right now). While Indians 65 years or older will form about 9% of the population, it’ll be 17% for China. According to the Vienna Institute of Demography (VID), by 2030, dependency ratio in China will be nearly 0.3, that is, every 10 Chinese of working age (15-64 years) will have to support three people of 65 years of age or older. By 2050, the ratio will cross 0.5. As VID puts it: “Over the coming decades, the world’s biggest national population will experience some of the most rapid and most massive processes of population ageing in world history."

In 1990, China had nearly two and a half times as many relatively educated young men and women (aged 15–24 years, with a high-school education or better) as India. But, India should overtake China on this aspect by 2020. By 2030, according to VID, India’s pool of relatively well-educated young people will exceed 125 million—more than any other country on earth. China will have fewer than 75 million. And if one looks at all the people of working age with a high-school education or better, India’s number was only a third of China’s in 1990, but is set to outstrip China by 2040. Indeed, this number for India is estimated to jump 80% in the coming two decades, from 360 million now to 660 million.

Says Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute: “No other place on earth will see anything like this sort of jump in relatively educated manpower."

And if we in India are ashamed of our gender imbalance, China is affected far more by the curse of female foeticide. The 2011 census estimates 107 Indian men for every 100 women. The 2000 census figure for China was a shocking 119 boys for every 100 girls. In 2004, the Chinese government brought in tough laws banning selective abortions of female foetuses. But demographers project that the imbalance will start slowly decreasing only by 2025-30. “In less than a generation, a fifth or more of Chinese men in their late 30s or early 40s may be essentially unmarriageable," says Eberstadt. “This…may presage unpredictable social strains or political pressures."

All these numbers look awesome for India, right? Well, here’s what I think these statistics may not be showing up in any way. These numbers are all averages—they do not take into account the huge disparities existing within the country; in fact, to the close observer, they could portend even wider iniquity. The averages do not reflect the massive material poverty we are mired in. India’s public healthcare system is at least 25 years behind China’s. About a third of India’s working age population is illiterate, while almost no one in that group in China is. The statistics for “relatively educated" does not in any way indicate quality of education and employability.

These seemingly rosy projections could also imply crippling regional skews in our developmental future. While some states will excel, others—and these are bound to be the more populous ones—could keep lagging. This can only lead to greater and greater migration from the poorer states to the richer ones. This has already been on for decades, and we have seen the social tensions being generated, which are being exploited to the hilt by cynical politicians. Unless India can manage to get the laggard states to catch up, we may be sitting on a socio-political time bomb that could just blow all the best-laid plans and economic dreams sky-high.

What should be bothering us is not China, but our internal irregularities. For India, arithmetic averages may hide far more than they disclose.

Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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