With two-thirds of the population under 35, the world’s largest democracy can afford to dream. The average Indian is expected to be only 29 years old in 2020, as against 37 in China and the United States, 45 in Western Europe and 48 in Japan. The dreams are taking concrete shape; it’s what the world calls a demographic dividend.
In India, it translates into a growing number of literate youngsters, which are both a challenge and an opportunity. India has 459 million youngsters who were born after 1975. These youngsters, from those, who have just entered their teens to those about to pass into middle agedom, constitute the people, who can and do lead the nation, in business, in arts, in politics and in society. Of these, 333 million are literate, which is 73 percent of the total youth population. This population of literate youth has grown at 2.49 percent between 2001 and 2009, which is good news for those who read, according to the National Youth Readership Survey (NYRS-2009) by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER). Television has not made a dent on newspapers as a source of information; being seen by 54 percent as a source for entertainment and 22 percent for news and current affairs; about 63 percent of the youth read newspapers to gather news and information on current events; only 10 percent read for entertainment. The Internet-accessed by only 3.7 percent of the youth is more of Entertainment Central than an information one-stop shop. It is used for entertainment 14 percent of the time, for reading books 4 percent of the time, and for searching for new book titles for 1.2 percent of the time. It is accessed at Internet cafes in 46 percent of the cases, at home in 23 percent of the cases and at the workplace in 13 percent of the cases.
The interests of India’s emerging leaders throw up a surprise. While 35 percent care about science and technology, 34 percent are concerned about environmental pollution. More expectedly, 77 percent are interested in music and films, 72 percent in news and current affairs, and 59 percent in religion. “With 67 percent of the literate youth agreeing to reservations for women in Parliament and local government, there is clearly a slow shift in attitudes in the next generation. The fact that so many were from villages and yet voiced opinions of this kind are very promising,” says sociologist Dipankar Gupta.
From Mumbai’s school dropout Ajjay Agarwal, who began the fast-growing Maxx Mobiles as a Rs. 5-lakh start-up to Krishna Mohan Reddy from Berhampur, Orissa, a self-taught dancer, who started a group of mostly laborers to win the Colors reality show, India’s Got Talent; from the talented, mint fresh National Award winning music composer Amit Trivedi to wrestling champion Sushil Kumar, they have shown determination, innovation and gumption to build their careers.
Many of their narratives echo what the survey shows, that there has been a general tendency on the part of the literate youth to move from rural to urban areas. Rural mobility for long has been confined to the working class, but with the increase in demand for skills, which require higher education, the rural youth are no longer averse to moving out. This is apparent from 82 percent of the literate youth in the villages being “matriculates or below” and only 6 percent being graduates, driving them to look beyond the rural limits for their careers. The survey also shows that the average age of the Indian youth completing their highest education level is around 15. Data shows that 76 percent of the literate youth have not gone to college.
And more worryingly, the growth in the number of literate youngsters was more rapid in urban India at 3.15 percent per annum than in rural at 2.11 percent, which means that access to education inside India is still low. A clear rural-urban divide is also discernible, in that the proportion of youth with higher education attainments is relatively greater in towns than villages, and gender differences are stark. “The quality of the human resource is of paramount importance,” points out Rajesh Shukla, senior fellow, NCAER, and author of the NYRS. The demographic dividend can become a liability unless the growth is made inclusive, notes Isher Judge Ahluwalia, chairperson, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. “The current GDP growth rate cannot be termed sustainable as a large chunk of society is not able to reap the benefits,” she adds. This can become both an economic and social problem. Economic, because an additional 110 million youngsters are to be added to the workforce by 2020. They will need jobs, good jobs. And social, because of the diverse composition of this force-for instance, 40 percent of the literate youth are OBCs, 62 percent live in rural areas, and the biggest chunk, 23 percent, is from south India.