26/08/2016 10:43 AM IST | Updated 27/08/2016 3:51 PM IST

India's Warped Idea Of The 'Demographic Dividend': Extracting From The Youth, But Not Investing In Them

Jitendra Prakash / Reuters

India is all set to test the assumption that the "youth bulge" is a source of demographic dividend and an economic advantage. The assumption is that greater the number of people in an economy who work, save and pay taxes, the higher will be the economic growth. With 356 million 10- to 24-year-olds, India has the largest youth population in the world.

Recently, three young girls seem to have tested the assumption with their bodies. Their verdict is that all things remaining the same, the demographic dividend may be on life support.

Inherent in the phrase "demographic dividend' is a focus on what young people can give to India and not what India can give to them.

A 15-year-old government school student in Ganjam gave birth in her classroom. She bled in the bathroom, and confused, she ran back to her class. Before her class teacher could get help, she delivered a child right there. The infant later died. The young girl went home with her parents. She will now recuperate at the mercy of a quack or the rare doctor at a primary healthcare centre. Her child's mind will grapple with the machinations of the body, the death of her infant, the accusatory stares and loud whispers and scathing judgements. Was she sent into the backyard to hide the shame? Will she ever go back to school?

Jasmine, a class 9 Ghaziabad student, could have been marching to the tune of patriotic songs, had she not committed suicide last month. Just ₹12,000 to furnish her school fees dues could have saved her life. But her father, a security guard, didn't have enough. Just some empathy from her school and her teachers could have saved her life. But instead her school teachers turned on her, donned the role of profiteers and extortionists, arrived at her house and humiliated her father publicly. If only she was a student of a government school providing free education, she would still have been alive. However, her father had aspirations – he wanted his three daughters to get an English medium education, and was ready to make every sacrifice.

Vaishali, a class 2 student in Pune was waiting for someone to do her a good turn. Her body was failing her. She needed an expensive heart surgery. Her father, a small-time painter was too poor to be the provider. Vaishali beseeched the Prime Minister for help in a letter. Her call for help made headlines, help arrived and her smiling countenance of recovery made headlines and brought some political cheer as well. This story left me wondering whether she couldn't have reached out to a government official closer home, maybe a district collector or chief medical officer. Is begging for help the tried and tested method to access services -- has the language of rights escaped our national consciousness?

These three girls do not know each other but would have understood each other. They belong to the group which has been gilded with the magic phrase of economic growth -- demographic dividend. The future of India, we are told, rests on their fragile shoulders.

The young will generate the dividend only when the country invests in them – and not just by providing them skills to make them a cog in the wheel...

A short close stare at the phrase "demographic dividend" should allow us to deconstruct it, and glean the extractive intent behind the phrase. While the concept of dividend, in any other context cannot be seen separately from initial investments, we make a comfortable exception when it comes to the young people of India -- as though irrespective of what and whether we invest in them, they are either duty bound to produce dividends or are unthinking automatons that will do so, despite everything. Inherent in this phrase is a one-way extractive method of garnering returns, focusing on what young people can give to India and not what India can give to her young.

Taking the demographic dividend for granted will be the one most lethal mistake we can make. Without increased investments in human capabilities, the future is likely to be less than glorious. In addition, as the 2016 Human Development Report of UNDP warns, without fully unleashing the power and potential of women, the demographic dividend will remain marginal at best.

The young of India will generate the dividend only when the country invests in them – and not just by providing them skills to make them a cog in the wheel of a huge economy, but by investing in their overall life skills and ability to deal with the challenges of growing up in a complex and challenging environment. The increasing absence of the factory-led model of generating employment needs to be acknowledged, and the impossible promise of jobs to young people needs to be tempered lest the fall from grace be fatal. The demographic destiny of India is at the mercy of institutions that deliver high-quality education, universal and affordable healthcare, nutrition and livelihood opportunities.

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