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Will India Waste Its Demographic Dividend?

Will India Waste Its Demographic Dividend?

A recent population report says half the world population growth will be in the following countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Egypt, US…India leading! By 2027 India will have overtaken China. Several editorials in India commenting on it sounded alarmist. Certainly, we have reasons to be alarmed, but only if our society is unwilling to equip its rising generations with the needed life skills.  Paul Morland who studies the issue of population exhaustively in his recent book “The Human Tide” (John Murray Publishers, London, 2019), admits that lack of foresightedness can be a disaster.

When Population Explosion Catches a Society Unprepared

For example, the recent “population explosion” in the Middle East which gave rise to a sudden “youth bulge” (high proportion of young people in society) has led to unprecedented political instability and social insecurity in the region. Two or more fast-growing ethnic groups in the neighbourhood get locked in a conflict to decide their future. In the absence of healthy nationalism and clear political vision to unite them, fundamentalism easily fills the vacuum. It serves as a temporary bond among different ethnic groups and Sunni/Shia differences. But it is highly fragile. Loyalties shift according to colliding group interests. The choice for extremists is between tribal radicalism and religious fundamentalism.  

Similarly, sub-Saharan Africa has quintupled its population from 1950 (Morland 271). It is growing twice the world rate and has the lowest median age (ibid 267). By 2100 African population is likely to quadruple again (ibid 272). Meantime we have witnessed a blood-curdling genocide in Rwanda (ibidem 8), and a civil war in Congo that carried away the lives of 6 million people (ibid 271). In population growth Nigeria leads the continent, with 6 children per woman. Uganda and Congo are not far behind (ibid 270). By the end of the Century Nigeria may reach 800 million, which would mean 7% of world population (ibid 272). Human future very much belongs to Africa. ‘The last shall be first’ (Lk 13:30).

It is not that the more developed parts of the world did not go through similar painful experiences when they were caught unprepared. John Malthus’s fears were not totally unfounded.   In fact, in the 19th century English population doubled twice (ibid 43), leading the nation to “social barbarism” as Leonard Woolf describes it. As rural poverty deepened, helpless farmers fled to London and settled in slums, which resembled animal “lairs, with their dirt, drunkenness and brutality” (ibid 4-5). Sewers remained open, children slogged in factories. Charles Dickens witnesses to some of these inhuman conditions.   However, with the awakening of social consciousness, “The Great Stink” of the 1858 came to an end.   The concept of a welfare state made progress, public health care received more attention, hygienic conditions changed, and the general situation improved   (ibid 72).

With better living conditions, life expectancy rose in England, population shot up, and colonies that were built up by irresponsible young adventurers were taken more firmly in hand. We need not emphasize that every step forward in colonial expansion was achieved through violence. Meantime other European nations had been catching up, ambitions were mounting, and the world was getting ready for two major wars that carried away millions… with the Holocaust and Hiroshima added to the tragedy.

Youthful violence, then, is not the monopoly of the Middle East or Africa; Europe had shown the way. And today, Indian leaders with their jingoist postures at Doklam and Balakot (forget for a while Partition killings, communal clashes), Chinese policy makers with their South China Sea claims (forget for courtesy the Civil War, Cultural Revolution, etc) do not give the impression of being any bit different from the raving imperialists of another era.

Population Is National Strength, Ground for Hope (Perceptions)

For all these possible aberrations, population is a nation’s strength. It is its ground for hope. In the same way, falling population is a cause for anxiety. Tacitus worried for the future of Rome. He compared the small Roman families with the bigger German ones. The Germans could put huge numbers into the field. Their hordes overran the empire. Rome Collapsed. Augustine wept.

Ibn Khaldun, the Medieval Arab historian thought that a sinking population stood for the reversal of a civilization. Louis XIV of France put the greatness of kings in the number of their subjects. Napoleon said he loved that woman who gave France the most number of children. The Prussian general Clausewitz was sure that it was number that led to victory. Voltaire claimed that God was on the side of ‘big battalions’ (ibid 20). Frederick the Great declared, “the number of people makes the wealth of states” (ibid 21).

After the Franco-Prussian war the French began to worry about their declining population. In 1906 British doctors lamented that while patriotic doctors were saving lives, selfish couples were preventing the arrival of new citizens (ibid 88). Adam Smith linked national prosperity with the number of the nation’s inhabitants. During the first stage of a society’s prosperity, with better living conditions, child mortality falls, living standards improve, and the population rises. Then a society moves on to the second stage of prosperity when fertility begins to fall. This is called the “Demographic Transition.” Between the two World Wars there was a sharp fall of fertility in Europe. Theodore Roosevelt condemned the ‘wilful sterility’ which led to national death (ibid 111). France encouraged bigger families between the wars, and motherhood was promoted with benefits and medals (ibid 121).

Afghanistan having a median age below 20, has been able to stand against the mighty forces of Russia first, and then of the entire West-combined (ibid 20). Afghanistan has a fertility rate of 7 per family, Iraq 5. Bigger families plant into the hearts of individuals a greater determination. They grow up to be more venturesome, creative, ready to take risk, prepared to try out new things, constantly eager to learn. If they are uneducated and unmotivated, they can be conscripted into the service of any venture, including suicide bombing and mob-lynching. If assisted and guided at the early stages, they can also spearhead new economic ventures, become producers of world-class goods, and hold up noble ideals before a society with pride.

Population as Power, Ground for Self-confidence (Facts)

A young population provides a powerful labour force and a large population ensures a vast domestic market (ibid 24). It was the population growth which went with Industrial Revolution that made of England a leading power in Europe (ibid 11). In Queen Elizabeth I’s time England was one-fifth of France, in Napoleon’s time one-fourth. But by 1900, UK had outgrown France.   French families grew smaller, industrialisation sagged, rural life kept the population imprisoned (ibid 50). Germany learned from England, and Russia from Germany. At the time of the Spanish Armada, England was half the size of Spain. Three hundred years later it was double its size (ibid 86). Britain had emerged as a World Power.

Population allowed Britain to become the “factory of the world,” the financier of global business (ibid 57). The British pushed their excess population into Canada, Australia, New Zealand (ibid 58), and the rest of the colonies. With their colleagues from Scotland and Ireland, in addition, the British exercised their might worldwide. With their technology, they left their stamp upon the world (ibid 59). For all these achievements, when the World War I came, it was the arrival of American numbers that decided the issues (ibid 69). Numbers counted.

British papers had been lamenting already in 1903 the falling birth rate in England. One country in Europe feared the population rise of the other. A French writer expressed anxiety about the German population growth and their consequent military might. German Friedrich Meinecke feared the high fertility of the Russians and other Slav people (ibid 69). Thus, as the French feared German growth, the Germans feared Russian growth.

In Napoleon’s time, French population was 10% bigger than divided Germany. By 1914, France was reduced to mere 60% of united Germany (ibid 79). Learning from England and basing themselves on their population growth, the volume and quality of their products won world admiration. Germany grew rich (ibid 80). Mussolini pleaded for ‘demographic strength.’ He followed it up with loans for families, imposed taxes on bachelors (ibid 124). Hitler too wanted bigger population (ibid 125).

And when we look objectively, even though all these societies blundered all along, the fact that living standards have risen worldwide despite population growth, stands for the triumph of humanity. Human creativity has manifested itself in unimaginably new ways, which reveals its strength best within a wider population (ibid 8). Finally, when individual wealth equalizes, countries with bigger population will command bigger economies and exert greater influence (ibid 23).

For Pragmatists Population is a Problem, Artificial Control

While visionaries looked into the future and longed for numbers, pragmatists worried about their day-to-day responsibility of handling hungry millions. They looked at population as a problem. The Soviet State was one of the first to legalise abortion (ibid 123). Others followed. Carl Djerassi and Gregory Pincus discovered ‘the Pill.’ Feminist movements advancing female education played their role (ibid 141-42). Fertility levels fell all over the West. Germany has the lowest fertility rate in Europe (ibid 145), and possibly the biggest number of immigrants and guest-workers.  

Russian fertility began to fall between the two wars. After the 1970s it began falling below replacement level (ibid 167). Think of it: Afghanistan is growing 10 times faster than Russia (ibid 166). Further, alcoholism keeps the Russian male life expectancy low (ibid 180). Suicide rate is highest in the world: 50,000 in 2000 alone (ibid 181). Putin acknowledges demography as the central problem (ibid 813). Get this right: the fall of Russia was not the fall of Communism, it was the fall of its population. The rise of Russian aggressive nationalism too was due to falling of Russian numbers (ibid 177-78).

Population Falling to Painfully Low Levels

Japan was once the most densely populated nation in the world (ibid 201). After the war, there was a short population boom. But soon enough its decline began (ibid 204). Life expectancy remains high, but fertility rate has fallen to painfully low levels (ibid 206). Unlike the US or the EU, Japan has not encouraged much immigration (ibid 207). Consequences are chilling: Japan already has 8 million empty houses; every year over 30,000 die alone at home unnoticed, often enough discovered after months! (ibid 208).

China always had the largest population in the world, though the biggest proportion lived in poverty (ibid 212). Mao believed in population, “Of all things in the world, people are the most precious.” In the 1950s the population grew at nearly 3%, with six children in a family (ibid 213). Mao’s Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution carried away millions (ibid 214). Fertility began to fall in the 1970s due to planned urbanisation, female education, and political direction (ibid 215).   With Mao gone, Hu Yaobang party chairman was able to admit in 1978   that the population problem was their greatest problem. So, from 1979 to 2015 the “One Child Policy” was imposed with the greatest rigor. Twenty million abortions used to be administered in China those days…most insensitively! (ibid 218). Fertility rate today is below replacement level (ibid 216). And China is ageing fast. The workforce stands threatened most of all. Predictions are ominous (ibid 219).

For a change, look at Syria which at its independence had a population of 3 million, and which today has grown to 20 million (ibid 243). In the same way, Yemen grew from 7.5 million to 25.5 million between 1978 and 2012. In this region median age is below 30; Iraq and Sudan below 20… with ‘Youth bulge’ and all its consequences (ibid 225).   Pakistan keeps growing, Muslim minorities everywhere keep growing. Low female education, early marriage, ISIS influence…all these play a role (ibid 233).

Now for another change, in the Islamic world, Iran was the fastest to make the Demographic Transition, just in twenty years (ibid 231). The result has been disastrous. This is clearly the case of a success that has led to undesired consequences. Ali Khamenei says, he is “shaking with fear,” not for the American threats, but over the ageing population of Iran. He is offering incentives for high birth rates (ibid 234). Korea, Singapore, and other early achievers of East Asia are in the same situation. Ageing seems to catch up with all Miracle Economies. With everyone! It is a matter of time.

The same thing is true of over-achieving communities within larger societies: the Chinese in Malaysia and Korea, Christians in Lebanon, Parsees in India, and others. Off record, some have been expressing the same anxiety about the older Christian communities in India that have made a breakthrough to financial self-sufficiency and beyond through higher education, and are more influenced by ideas prevalent in the “ageing” part of the world. Only those who are perceptive of social processes and have a deep sense of responsibility towards their community will start to “shake with fear” about their long-term destiny. Others would be happy enough to be concerned with day-to-day successes and differences over trifles, as the inevitable overtakes them unprepared.   This aspect may be further studied, but it is beyond the scope of this article.

In any case, Paul Morland says, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are already below replacement level (ibid 264), possibly South India as a whole. Responsible social evaluation and self-criticism is needed to build up a sure future.   However, looking at India as whole, Morland feels more confident about her future than of China. He says “India has the prospect of a long demographic dividend to enjoy, while China faces imminent challenge of a declining workforce and an ageing population (ibid 266).

Making Use of India’s Demographic Dividend

The greatest fear we have today is that India under Modi-esque leadership is going to waste its Demographic Dividend in its best years. During the period when we will have the highest work-force in human record, instead of becoming the biggest production centre in the world and leading global economy, the fear is that we shall be waging a Dharm Yudh among ourselves over trifles: cattle-related ravings and “Jai Shri Ram” howling.

If Modi wants to hit his $5 trillion target and reach beyond, he must have 1.3 billion Indians with him. He has to rope in Muslims and Dalits whose economy has been hit in the name of cow protection;   he has to co-opt the armed dissenters in Central India, the stone-pelters in Kashmir, the ‘Urban Naxalites’ who do independent thinking, and the illiterate masses who are fed only on Ayodhya fables and Brahminic devotions. He must bring round the RSS and their affiliates, BJP members, volunteers, cow-vigilantes, to nation-building undertakings, and not to polarising exercises.

But what we hear today is of the “elimination of the fittest”: the 10 Gonds shot down in Sonbhadra village, UP, by the panchayat chief, and Priyanka arrested; the four madrasa students beaten with bats and sticks for not singing ‘Jai Shri Ram’ at Unnao; the 3 men lynched in Bihar over cattle;   the victims of Yogi’s ‘police encounters.’   The ‘inclusive growth’ that Modi proposes is not visible anywhere. He has asked the first-time MPs to take up some human causes in their constituency “passionately,” e.g. education, leprosy, TB, water conservation. Great! Rahul, an old MP, has taken up one: the cause of 8,000 Wayanad farmers who have been served bank notices for their loans and whose properties have been attached.   Does Modi think that his ‘$5 trillion economy’ can be built up only with the help the 20 families on which he leans? Or by the cow-dazed crowds who shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’ for him?

Now, coming to the Opposition Party, does Congress offer some hope for change?   In their evaluation sessions they were asking themselves, “Why are MLAs and MPs selling themselves?” And searching for someone to replace Rahul they are ardently proposing a Hindu from the Hindi belt, nominally to counter the RSS, effectively to continue the Hindutva agenda in brazen terms. In fact, the Congress is ‘passionately’ maintaining the BJP-cow fervour. In MP, Kamal Nath will spend 300 crores for 1000 cow shelters for seven lakh ‘homeless’ cattle, and every year 132 crores for feeding them. The last government had already allocated 750 crores. Meantime there is no plan to provide night-shelters for the ‘homeless’ poor in the cities; no concern for malnourished widows attached to sacred shrines, for emaciated mothers, dying infants. The social concern that characterised Gandhiji’s religion has disappeared from the Subcontinent.

This is not a strategy to draw international investors! Or billionaire tourists! World Bank prediction of 7.3% growth has been hurriedly lowered to a modest 7%. Every possibility is that India will draw little profit from its Demographic dividend in a land where the cow alone counts, not citizens!

Shiv Visvanathan points out, “Civil society has become the greatest casualty of the Modi regime.” Intelligent thinking is imprisoned. Creativity is killed. Conformity is held up as the national model. Mediocrity is lifted to the highest positions. No doors open for alternative visions. NGOs are belittled. All must bend or break before Modi’s managerial style. Visvanathan asks the Opposition to confront the Ruling Party with the themes of ecology, culture and “ethics.”

Look at our ethical record: between January 1 and June 30 this year, 24,212 FIRs have been registered of child rape in the country. Hindutva ‘Moral Police’ have proved themselves no more than anti-social elements. Over 16 million accounts of Instagram in India have been proved fake, according to a Swedish agency that studied 82 countries. That is the level of our Vedic truthfulness. Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of the Infosys, speaking at St. Xavier’s College Mumbai lamented, “Values are vanishing.”

What we need today are re-constructers of hope.

(Published on 29nd July 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 31)