India accounting for 17 per cent of the world’s population has significant influence on the demographic future of the world. Undoubtedly the demographic patterns in India are rapidly changing in recent years. In the past, demographic changes were viewed merely as a success of population control. However, in recent years, the attention has shifted from population control to other critical issues such as the effect of demographic changes on demographic dividend, gender equity, maternal health, human rights and so on. Perhaps, the shift in the focus is also the result of the rapid demographic changes taking place in the country. These changes are expected to provide greater opportunities as well as throw up several challenges.
Demographic factors have reappeared in the economic development debate with the emergence of the concept of ‘demographic dividend’. With India experiencing fast decline in fertility, there has been an overwhelming optimism that the demographic bonus will take the country to greater economic heights. At the same time, the ability of India to take advantage of its demographic dividend is doubtful due to severe institutional constraints particularly in providing productive employment to the working age population. Not only for the economy, but demographic changes also have several other implications; on gender issues, marriage patterns and more, which are critical for any society.
Glimpses of demographic changes
There is no denying the fact that there is deceleration in the growth of population in India in recent years. The population figures of 2011 census, undoubtedly, show decline in the rate of growth of population from 21.54 per cent in 1991-2001 to 17.64 per cent in 2001-11 census decades. The average number of children per woman in India has come down from 3.2 in 2000 to 2.3 in 2016 (Office of Registrar General, 2016). Thus fertility is coming closer to the replacement level of 2.1. Based on the current fertility changes, India will reach the replacement level within this decade (James, 2011). Thus, of late, the demographic scenario in India has been viewed more optimistically. On the other hand, India also witnesses one of the highest demographic heterogeneity. The fertility level varied from as low as 1.6 in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Delhi to 3.3 children per woman in Bihar. Of the 22 major states, constituting nearly 98 per cent of the population in the country, 13 states have achieved replacement level fertility of 2.1 or below (Fig. 1). Contrary to this, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh having 42 per cent of the total population are considerably away from the replacement level fertility (Census of India, 2011). However, decline in fertility is visible across states in India in recent years. Despite this projections indicate that the Indian population will continue to grow substantially in this century till about 2060. These diversities also have considerable repercussions in the country in economic, political and social terms.
India’s demographic dividend
The demographic factors once again came into the centre stage of economic development debate with the discussion on ‘demographic dividend’. During the states of demographic changes, there appears to be a window where the working age population will be maximum and the dependent population will be relatively low. This is a transitional phase but is expected to have favourable economic impact for growth and development. The experience across countries particularly from East Asia supports an overwhelming presence of demographic bonus during the course of demographic changes (Bloom and Williamson, 1998). Demographic changes in India, undoubtedly, are opening up new economic opportunities. The country will have an age structure with fewer in the childhood ages of less than 15 years as compared to the swelling working age group population. For instance, the 0-6 age group population recorded a decline during 2001-11 census years. This decline is expected to accelerate in the coming years. A larger proportion of the population (over 60 per cent) are now in the working age groups in the country. Thus there is potentially higher number of workers as compared with dependents. The adult population (aged 15 to 64 years) is expected to increase further and is projected to reach estimated 68 per cent of the total population by 2035.
This provides unique opportunities for the country in terms of economic advancement. However, the ability of the country to take advantage of demographic opportunity is often under question. This is despite the fact that there are still evidences to suggest that the states undergoing rapid fertility changes are also experiencing rapid economic growth (Aiyar and Mody, 2011). It is certain that the benefits of demographic dividend depend upon India’s ability to take full advantage of the swelling adult population in terms of providing productive employment. Of the many benefits of demographic changes, the ability of the country to provide employment opportunities to the swelling population particularly women comes critical to realise the demographic dividend. This is because the demographic changes provide women time away from child bearing and child rearing. They will be able to contribute effectively to the labour market thus enhancing the family welfare in addition to the country’s economic outcome.
The work participation of females has been generally quite low in India. Despite the rapid demographic changes, the female work participation has not recorded any significant changes over the period. Not only that the women’s work participation is relatively low, it has also displayed an erratic trend over the last two decades. The NSSO quinquennial employment survey provides information on the trends in female work participation in India. While NSSO data in 2004-05 reported a considerable increase in the work participation of women compared to the previous round in 1999-00, it recorded a sharp decline between 2004-05 and 2009-10. The work participation rate of women aged 15-59 had declined from 45.4 per cent in 2004-05 to 34.5 in 2009-10. The decline was visible both in rural and urban areas and was especially steep in rural areas with a drop of around 12 percentage points during the same period.
Similarly the 2011 census result also indicated near-stagnancy in the work participation rate among females in the decade between 2001 and 2011 when the demographic changes have been rapid in the country. Even in those states with below replacement level fertility such as in southern states, the work participation among females is quite low. For instance, the work participation rate among females in Kerala has been one of the lowest (18.23 per cent in 2011). This is also true in the case of urban India. Although the fertility rate in urban India is low, the work participation among females has been lower than in rural areas. Thus, it shows that the major pathways of achieving demographic dividend is nearly absent in India.
It is also argued that not only in providing employment, but there is also serious deficit in the human capital development due to policy failures. The educational and skill differences are also startling across states in India. Thus the characteristic of the current adult population is such that they may not be able to contribute significantly to the economic changes in the country. It means that not only in terms of providing productive jobs, but even in terms of ensuring quality education and skills for the growing working age group population is conspicuous by its absence.
It is also important to mention that the demographic changes are welcome but not necessarily an unmitigated blessing always. While the economic deficits are already discussed, it also has several other implications. In India, the demographic changes have also gone hand in hand with strong son preference leading to adverse sex ratio in the country. The masculinity in childhood years is consistently increasing. The census data show consistent decline in the ratio of female to male in the childhood years (0-6 age group) from 945 to 914 females per 1000 males between 1991 and 2011 census years. Even with considerable demographic change, the age at marriage has moved only marginally in the country. According to the latest round of National Family Health Survey, the median age at marriage has increased from 17.2 years in 2005-06 to 19 years by 2015-16. Nearly 40 per cent of the women get married below the legal age i.e. 18 years, according to this survey. Early marriage results in women having children at a young age. Malnutrition among pregnant women is also one of the highest in the world. Perhaps due to such child bearing pattern, infant mortality remains relatively high.
The demographic diversity also creates its own inherent problems. There has been large scale unskilled migration from those states with lesser demographic change to those with rapid changes primarily known as replacement migration. It has been well documented that the conditions of such migrants are abysmal in many contexts. The political implications of demographic diversity has also been often contested with wider implications due to demographic heterogeneity in the country. If the current population is considered for deciding the parliament seats in the country, demographically advanced states might lose many seats as compared to the central India with high levels of birth rate.
At the same time, it is not that the demographic changes in India are not without any benefits. The small family norm has enhanced the aspiration of the parents and educating children is becoming a norm. Therefore, the next generation of adults will have much better education as well as skill levels compared to the current generation. This also provides unique opportunities for the country in terms of economic advancement. As already pointed out, studies have observed that those states undergoing rapid demographic changes are also experiencing rapid economic growth. It is also argued that even with all the deficits in the human capital development and policy failures, the demographic change itself is able to make substantial contribution to the economic changes in the country.
In conclusion, India’s demographic pattern generates a broad optimism, but also strange paradoxes. Undoubtedly the higher population growth in some parts of the country is a matter of concern. It creates an unbalanced economic growth pattern and recent experiences show the potential for larger migration of unskilled labourers from north to demographically advanced southern states. Therefore, further enhancement of demographic advantage depends upon the faster demographic changes in these states. At the same time, the demographic changes provide other major challenges to the nation. It is important that the government and the people at large pledge themselves to take care of these emanating challenges.
Aiyar S. and Mody A., 2011. The Demographic Dividend: Evidence from the Indian States, IMF Working Paper, No. 11/38, International Monetary Fund. Available at: https://bit.ly/2s8eT8k
Bloom D. E. and Williamson J.G., 1998.Demographic Transitions an Economic Miracles in Emerging Asia, World Bank Economic Review, 12( 3): 419-456.
James K.S., 2011. India’s Demographic Change, Opportunities and Challenges, Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), July, 29.
Office of Registrar General, 2016. SRS Statistical Report 2016: Office of Registrar General, India. Available at: https://bit.ly/2HenQBB