OUT of the total Indian population of 1028 million, 347 million are in 15-34-yr age group, according to the Census of 2001. The youth thus form one-third of the total population. It is expected that this large number of youth will offer a great economic advantage to India. It is also generally said that because of the presence of such a large number of young people, who are more open to the consumerist western culture, the economic cultural landscape of India is changing, and we must take note of this phenomenon while formulating our policies.
It is therefore, important to look in some detail at who constitute these young people of India. It is convenient to divide the young population, which normally is said to mean the population in the 15-34 years age-group, into two groups: The young falling in the 15-19 age-group, and the young adults in 20-34 age-group. Economically, the two groups are different. The former are in the process of completing their education and are economically dependent; the latter are participants in the economy either as active workers or as unemployed seekers of jobs. Of the 347 million young people in the 15-34 years age-group, about 100 million are in 15-19 age bracket and about 247 million in the higher age bracket of 20-34 years. For the purpose of this article, we look at mainly at the latter group.
Urban- Rural and Male-Female Distribution
Of 247 million of young adults in the 20-34 yrs age group, about 171 million are in the rural areas and only about 76 million in urban areas. The urbanisation ratio among the young adults is thus around 31 per cent, which is only slightly higher than the urbanisation ratio of the total population at around 28 per cent. The young adults are thus not significantly more urban than the rest of the Indian population.
The urban areas differ greatly in size, and consequently in the socio-economic profile of people living in them. Of the total urban population of India, about 27 per cent lives in cities and towns of more than a million; only these large towns, numbering about 30 in all, are probably exposed to the modern western culture and economy in a serious sense. About 38 percent of the urban population lives in towns of less than a lakh. These small towns are essentially extensions of the rural areas around them, and the economic and cultural life there is essentially rural. Thus, of the urban young adults numbering about 76 million in 2001, at most about two-third, or about 50 million, are likely to be exposed to the modern economic and cultural influences, and only about half of them, numbering about 25 million, living in large cities of more than a million, are likely to be seriously committed to such life-styles.
As against 40 million urban men in this age group, there are only 36 million women. In rural areas, on the other hand, there is a slight excess of women. This is largely because adult men of this age-group are under greater pressure to migrate to the cities in search of work.
Levels of Education
Both the capacity of the young adults to be absorbed in the economy and their socio-cultural attitudes depend crucially on their level of education. Of the 247 million adults counted in 2001 census, about 74 million, forming about 30 per cent of the total, have studied up to matriculation or above. Among these 74 million educated adults, about 32 million have studied only up to matriculation level, another 21 million up to Higher Secondary level and only about 21 million are graduates. Given the fact that Indian economy and the employment market are greatly skewed towards the service sector, where a certain level of formal education is essential, the economic opportunities seem to be closed to a large proportion of the young adults. It can be said that of the 247 million adults, at the most 74 million are employable in activities other than those related to agriculture and manual labour, and perhaps the number of seriously employable is limited to 21 million graduates alone.
This low level of education seems to negate, to a large extent, the youth advantage that is supposed to accrue to Indian economy. It also indicates that the talk that we hear about rapid westernisation of Indian youth is greatly over-stated. Young adults who have not studied beyond the Higher Secondary level are likely to be struggling for mere survival in the Indian economy of today; it is hardly likely for them to strive for and engage in consumerism of any kind or to have much appreciation of the western consumerist culture that their few better-placed compatriots have begun to engage in.
The levels of education are even poorer in rural areas, where only about 22 percent have studied up to matriculation and above; and amongst them there are only 6.4 per cent who have passed Higher Secondary and there are only 4.4 per cent graduates. Further break-up of the literacy figures indicates that while education levels among young adults in the 20-34-yr age group are low across all segments, rural women, who form one third of the total population in this group, seem to be hardly completing school.
The proportion of matriculates and above is not very different in the younger age group of 15-19 years. Of 100 million persons in this age group, about 28 million have studied up to matriculation or higher secondary, some of the latter shall probably complete their graduation as they move to higher groups. Thus, notwithstanding the rapid increase in school intake, the proportion of young people completing school remains low at less one third of the total, and does not show any signs of improving.
Any policies that we evolve must take into account the fact that in a population of 247 million of young adults in the 20-34 yrs age group, there are only 74 million who have completed school, and of these there are only 21 million who have received any kind of higher education. While the total number of young people in India is expected to rise over the next couple of decades, the present trends do not indicate that the proportion of educated among them is likely to improve significantly.
If we are to make use of our youth advantage, we shall have to find avenues for gainfully employing this large number of young people in activities that require little formal education and are available in the villages and small towns where more that 80 per cent of the young people live. Only sectors of economy that offer such possibilities are agriculture, agricultural processing and small-scale manufacturing. Growth in the latter of two of these is obviously dependent upon growth in the primary activity of agriculture.
Indian economy today puts great reliance upon the growth of service sector industries like those of information technology, business process outsourcing, banking, insurance, finance and marketing, etc., and upon highly automated manufacturing. These sectors of economy can offer opportunities to only highly educated urban youth. But there are only about 21 million graduates of any kind among the total of 247 million in the youth in the 20-34 yrs age group. We have to find ways of creating opportunities for the remaining 226 million. Perhaps some of them can also be employed in the construction and building activities. But, large numbers of young persons can be employed in a dignified manner only in agriculture and associated activities.
In the demographic cycle of a nation, like in the life-cycle of an individual, youth comes only once and then for a brief while. Nations, like individuals, begin greying within two or three decades of reaching the peak of youth. We, as a nation, do not seem to be prepared for fully exploiting the opportunity that has come our way, because of the blossoming of the growth potential of the Indian population in the two or three decades immediately following Independence. The high birth rates of those decades, not withstanding out great efforts at suppressing the growth impulse of the Indian population, have given us the youth advantage of today. We are not unique in this. Many other nations, especially in Asia and Africa, and also, to an extent, the United States of America, are enjoying similar advantage today. They are finding ways of exploiting that advantage. We must also find ways of fully and gainfully employing our youth.
A large majority of the young population of India, given its educational and residential profile, is likely to gain from a staid polity rooted in the Indian realities that offers greater opportunities of meaningful education, especially in the rural areas, and greater opportunities of gainful work in the agricultural sector, as also in small-town manufacturing and service activities that largely serve the needs of agriculture. Given the difficult economic situation in which a majority of the young people of India live, they shall be also grateful if a certain level of decency and faith is restored in the public polity of India. Even educated urban young seem to yearning for such restoration of decency and faith in the public life of India if one is to go by the large numbers of such young people flocking to the temples and going around the country on religious pilgrimages.