In­dia’s youth the fu­ture of the world

Bangkok Post - - WORLD - Mi­hir Sharma Mi­hir Sharma is a Bloomberg View columnist.

If you’ve ever been to In­dia, it’s likely that you’ve been star­tled by how young the coun­try looks; the streets of any In­dian town, even of its vil­lages, are full of 20-some­things. This isn’t a sur­prise: In­dia is a very young coun­try. Half of its pop­u­la­tion is un­der the age of 25.

Two-thirds are less than 35. As a re­cent Bloomberg News anal­y­sis dis­cov­ered, In­dia is likely to have the world’s largest work­force by 2027, with a bil­lion peo­ple aged be­tween 15 and 64.

Es­sen­tially, In­dia’s going through the sort of de­mo­graphic tran­si­tion that many other coun­tries have, ex­cept on a far larger scale. The generation in its 50s in China to­day is the one that has lifted the coun­try from poverty to mid­dle-in­come sta­tus; the generation in its 20s in In­dia to­day — this vast ocean of sub­con­ti­nen­tal mil­len­ni­als — will have to do the same for In­dia.

Will they? Can we pre­dict how this trans­for­ma­tion will turn out? It’s not that easy. For one, In­dia’s de­mo­graphic tran­si­tion is odd; it’s hap­pened patchily, and in stages. It’s easy to see this if you con­sider not just how many chil­dren are be­ing born, but where.

In­dia’s over­all fer­til­ity rate — the num­ber of chil­dren born to each woman — is now 2.6. Yet that con­ceals vast vari­a­tions across the coun­try. In ur­ban In­dia, the fer­til­ity rate is 1.8 — well be­low what’s called the “re­place­ment rate” needed to keep the pop­u­la­tion con­stant. Richer and more de­vel­oped states in In­dia’s south, and some oth­ers like West Ben­gal and Pun­jab, have fer­til­ity rates sim­i­lar to those in North­ern Europe. Kolkata has a fer­til­ity rate of 1.2 — lower than Ja­pan’s, which is 1.4.

So where are all these young peo­ple com­ing from? Mainly from the vast, un­der­de­vel­oped plains of north In­dia. The state of Ut­tar Pradesh, with a pop­u­la­tion some­where be­tween that of Nige­ria and Brazil, has a fer­til­ity rate close to 3; neigh­bour­ing Bi­har, which al­ready has 100 mil­lion peo­ple, has a fer­til­ity rate of 3.3.

This is not good news. These are pre­cisely the parts of In­dia that are the most de­prived of in­fra­struc­ture, short of so­cial ser­vices and dis­con­nected from the global econ­omy. Their gen­der ra­tios are aw­ful; the mil­len­nial generation in north In­dia has way more boys than girls. And they are worse ed­u­cated than the rest of In­dia, too; half of Bi­har’s women are il­lit­er­ate, as are about 56% of women in Ut­tar Pradesh.

There are two ways you can look at this pic­ture. It’s easy to de­spair at the scale of the prob­lem: If this is the generation that is to change In­dia, how can they do it from where they are, from some of the dark­est and least con­nected places in the world? How can they do it with­out ed­u­ca­tion, and with­out skills?

In­dia’s gov­ern­ment, shortly af­ter it came to power in 2014, an­nounced with much fan­fare a “Skill In­dia” mis­sion that aimed to im­prove skills for 500 mil­lion peo­ple by 2022 — a num­ber in keep­ing with the size of In­dia’s work­force. It then qui­etly aban­doned that tar­get in June this year, hav­ing only man­aged to train 11.7 mil­lion peo­ple in two years.

Looked at this way, it’s easy to be­lieve that noth­ing will work — this vast, male­heavy work­force will be un­able to find any­thing pro­duc­tive to do with their lives.

There’s an­other way to look at it, too. Of course, In­dia’s gov­ern­ment could still get its act to­gether and im­ple­ment the re­forms needed to get this work­force into fac­to­ries and of­fices. But, even if they don’t, per­haps these young peo­ple will solve their own prob­lems their own way.

Con­sider this: This vast co­hort is not just the largest generation in his­tory, it is grow­ing up in a highly dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment. Their equiv­a­lents in the West or China or else­where have ac­cess to other kinds of in­fra­struc­ture — banks, schools, roads, a func­tional gov­ern­ment.

For this new work­force in In­dia, their first ex­pe­ri­ence of many of these ser­vices will be on­line. That is where they will re­ceive their skills, form pro­fes­sional net­works, per­haps even bor­row and save money.

And so it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine ex­actly what sort of econ­omy, and what sort of coun­try, this generation will cre­ate. Once they do not have to rely on anyone but each other to find cus­tomers, busi­ness part­ners and fi­nanciers, they may well craft the world’s first bot­tom-up dig­i­tal econ­omy.

And so there are two ways in which In­dia’s great generation, this vast baby boom, this bil­lion-strong work­force, might change the world. It might fail, and make it a darker, more an­gry place.

Or it may suc­ceed, and dis­cover the answers to ques­tion about the fu­ture that ev­ery­one is ask­ing: What will growth, jobs, and pro­duc­tiv­ity look like in rest of the 21st cen­tury?

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