Let us avert a youth back­lash

India needs in­vest­ments in health and ed­u­ca­tion in or­der to be­come rich be­fore it gets old, write SID­DHARTH CHAT­TER­JEE UNNI KARUNAKARA

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - - COMMENT -

An in­cen­di­ary and vi­o­lent jobs reser­va­tion protest by young peo­ple from the Jat com­mu­nity in Haryana got very close to bring­ing the cap­i­tal of India to a stand­still. Is this an omi­nous sign of so­cial up­heaval that looms in the hori­zon? Hen­rik Urdal of the Har­vard Kennedy School finds that glob­ally, it is nearly all young men who fight in wars or com­mit vi­o­lent crimes and found that a “youth bulge” made them more strife-prone. When 15-24-year-olds made up more than 35% of the adult pop­u­la­tion — as is com­mon in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries — the risk of con­flict was 150% higher than with a rich-coun­try age pro­file.

By 2020, the av­er­age age in India will be 29 and it is set to be­come the world’s youngest coun­try with 64% of its pop­u­la­tion in the work­ing age group. With West­ern Europe, the United States, South Korea, Ja­pan and even China ag­ing, this de­mo­graphic po­ten­tial of­fers India and its grow­ing econ­omy an un­prece­dented edge that econ­o­mists be­lieve could add a sig­nif­i­cant 2% to the GDP growth rate.

How­ever, West­ern Europe, the US, South Korea, Ja­pan and China have grown rich be­fore they have grown old. They in­vested in ed­u­ca­tion and skills, health, em­pow­er­ment and em­ploy­ment and en­sured women joined the work­force, as they were em­pow­ered to plan their fam­i­lies.

India is cur­rently en­joy­ing a ‘de­mo­graphic div­i­dend’, which means it has a higher labour force than the pop­u­la­tion de­pen­dent on it. While this may ap­pear a rea­son for bliss­ful com­pla­cency, it must be re­mem­bered that by the lat­ter half of the cen­tury India will have an in­creas­ingly ag­ing pop­u­la­tion, yet the coun­try lacks a so­cial se­cu­rity net ad­e­quate for the needs of its peo­ple.

A de­mo­graphic dis­as­ter also looms. This is caused by low lev­els of in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion and health. Cur­rently a ma­jor­ity of In­dian work­ers — nine out of 10 — are in the in­for­mal sec­tor, where em­ploy­ment is un­steady, pay is poor and so­cial se­cu­rity is lack­ing.

Ed­u­ca­tion, es­pe­cially sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion for girls, must be pri­ori­tised. The gross en­rol­ment ra­tio for girls at the sec­ondary school level is 73.7 (slightly higher than for boys) but the gov­ern­ment can­not rest un­til that num­ber is 100. The 10% cut in gov­ern­ment al­lo­ca­tion for the school sec­tor means the push to­wards to­tal gross en­rol­ment just got harder. We won­der if the Union bud­get be­ing pre­sented to­day will take note of this.

The coun­try must also gen­er­ate large-scale em­ploy­ment, to en­sure more women join the work force. Con­cur­rently, ac­cess to qual­ity higher ed­u­ca­tion must be ex­pe­dited; cur­rently, 75% of grad­u­ates — by some es­ti­mates — are not con­sid­ered em­ploy­able.

The health­care sec­tor is re­ally where India must up its game. Rates of mal­nu­tri­tion among India’s chil­dren are al­most five times higher than China’s and twice of those in Sub-sa­ha­ran Africa. A stag­ger­ing 75% of new moth­ers are anaemic.

Health­care in India is so pa­thetic that with­out a seis­mic change the de­mo­graphic div­i­dend may not last as long as en­vis­aged. The coun­try has one of the low­est gov­ern­ment ex­pen­di­tures on pub­lic health at a measly 1.2% of GDP. Fel­low BRICS coun­tries, China and Brazil, spend 5.5% and 9% of the GDP on health­care, re­spec­tively. In 2015, the In­dian gov­ern­ment slashed the bud­gets for both the ed­u­ca­tion and health sec­tors.

Con­sider some statis­tics: Around 700,000 un­qual­i­fied doc­tors are prac­tis­ing medicine in In­dian hospi­tals. Some 50% of In­di­ans (and 60% of those liv­ing in ru­ral ar­eas) travel at least 5 km to ac­cess a health­care cen­tre and in ru­ral India, 8% of pri­mary health­care cen­tres do not have med­i­cal staff. Less than 15% of the pop­u­la­tion has a health­care in­sur­ance cover. A sin­gle ill­ness in a poor fam­ily can push it below the poverty line.

Ap­pro­pri­ate poli­cies, strate­gies and pro­grammes need to be put into place im­me­di­ately. Pri­or­ity must be given to sub­stan­tially low­er­ing fer­til­ity (cur­rently To­tal Fer­til­ity RATE/TFR is 2.5) and low­er­ing ma­ter­nal and child mor­tal­ity While over­all, India is on track to achiev­ing re­place­ment level fer­til­ity of 2.1 chil­dren per woman, the TFR of 2.5 masks dis­par­i­ties be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas with TFRS of 1.8 and 2.6, re­spec­tively, and re­gional vari­a­tion be­tween states, notably be­tween north­ern states like Ut­tar Pradesh (TFR 3.3) where the il­lit­er­acy and poverty rates are high and more de­vel­oped south­ern states like Ker­ala (TFR of 1.8), which also has the high­est lit­er­acy rate in India.

As Haryana is show­ing, with­out con­certed ac­tion India could face a back­lash from the grow­ing num­bers of dis­grun­tled, un­em­ployed or un­em­ploy­able youth that will emerge as has al­ready been wit­nessed in many other parts of India.

How­ever, in a best-case sce­nario, if India makes health care the gov­ern­ment’s cen­tral pri­or­ity, it could grow at an un­prece­dented rate. The coun­try would do well to start by fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of African coun­tries, many of which in 2001 pledged to al­lo­cate 15% of their GDP to pub­lic health. A match­ing in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion and skills would be an ap­pro­pri­ate start­ing point.

So India, too, must grow rich be­fore it grows old. For that to hap­pen, in­creased in­vest­ments in ed­u­ca­tion and health must be cen­tral to its pub­lic pol­icy. All eyes are on the fi­nance min­is­ter to­day.

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