FOR A WHILE NOW, news has repeatedly kept popping up about India overtaking China in the population race. This week was the turn of the United Nations to predict the crossing to be imminent. As news agency AP reported: “The U.N. report said India will have about 2.9 million people more than China sometime in the middle of this year. India will have an estimated 1.4286 billion people versus mainland China’s 1.4257 billion at that time, according to U.N. projections.” This is, as they say, an estimate. There is really no way to correctly come up with the exact number of Indians in a country where vast swathes remain unaccounted. But that India is going up while China is going down in numbers is clear, and it is even possible that we are already the most populated nation. At some point, the gulf will become large enough for certainty. Plus, Indians are younger and the Chinese are ageing. And yet, it is debatable whether that is reason to feel triumphant.
It seems like a good race to win if the economy is booming—many young hands will propel it even faster. But economies go through highs and lows and as soon as a recession hits, the population seems like a burden with all sorts of inbuilt dangers. If the youth entering the age of labour find no employment, there is social unrest. Crime, for example, goes up and radical political movements find members. China hit a sweet spot because they were growing at a blistering speed and created enough jobs. There is no guarantee India can do likewise. GDP numbers here are sanguine but not breaking any records and the economy cooling off might not even need domestic reasons. A giant global recession on the horizon could follow just from the overspending and currency printing that the Western world has done over the last decades.
India also has the baggage of being a largely agricultural country even now, the plots getting smaller with every succeeding generation. It is not possible for most pieces of land to sustain a household, let alone the ambitions and energies of young men and women. China harnessed it by becoming a manufacturing giant. For India to emulate that is a project of half-a-century and until then, what do the youth who come of age do? There are only so many Zomato and Amazon delivery personnel that will be needed and even the gig economy will be taken over by machines.
India’s population is becoming more educated but even so under 10 per cent are graduates, and this in a world where a degree doesn’t mean much. A Bloomberg report this week said, “It [India] has the world’s largest population by some estimates, and the government regularly highlights the benefits of having more young people than any other country. Yet half of all graduates in India are unemployable in the future due to problems in the education system, according to a study by talent assessment firm Wheebox.” India needs an industrialisation revolution for any hope of keeping its hands busy but until then, the demographic dividend will not pay.