65 years and over: 5.6%

Life expectancy at birth: 67.1 years

Population in 2050: 1.69bn

India should be booming. It has an enormous and youthful workforce and it is predicted to overtake China as the world's most populous nation by 2030.

There are about 240 million people between the ages of 15 and 24. The youth of the population should translate into a demographic dividend, calculated by the IMF's Asia Pacific Regional Economic Outlook for 2012 to be worth about two per cent on the annual rate of economic growth, provided it is coupled with the right economic policies.

Instead, the Indian economy has dipped, with growth slipping below the 8 per cent the country needs and running at between 6 and 7 per cent.

The population figures hide another problem; a quite startling gender imbalance. According to the 2011 census, India had a ratio of 914 girls to 1,000 boys in the 0 to 6 age range, the widest gap since independence in 1947. The gap has widened since 1991, when the figure for girls was 934, and this despite an expensive public campaign, Save the Girl Child. There were 37 million more men than women in India at the time of the last census.

That is not an accident. Indian families want boys. Girls are expensive luxuries. The dowry has been illegal since 1961, but many parents accept that they are going to have to pay it anyway to marry off their daughters.

It used to be that unwanted baby girls suffered unfortunate accidents shortly after birth; now many do not even make it out of the womb.

Sex selection is illegal, but clinics that will scan the unborn foetus are everywhere. Sometimes they resort to a little subterfuge to avoid inviting censure, handing the parents a blue sweet as they leave to indicate a boy, a pink sweet for a girl, but the result is the same.

Some eight million female foetuses are believed to have been aborted in India over the past decade.

Such a gender imbalance has a damaging effect on society, says Claire Melamed, Head of the Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme at the Overseas Development Institute. 'There is an argument that it leads to more violence and conflict, both violence against women and more generally, as it produces a large number of unmarried young men who have less stake in society,' she says. 'Violence and instability are, on balance, bad for economic growth.'

The Indian government has, perhaps inevitably, sought to see the positives. The 2012-2013 economic survey, prepared by Raghuram Rajan, the chief economic adviser, and presented to parliament last month by P. Chidambaram, the Finance Minister, sees cause for optimism. 'The future holds promise for India provided we can seize the demographic dividend as nearly half the additions to the Indian labour force over the period 2011-30 will be in the age group 30 to 49'.

The report made clear that changes were needed if the promise was to be fulfilled. The country has too many poor quality jobs and not enough high-productivity manufacturing and service sector jobs.

More good jobs would pull the Indian economy into a virtuous cycle of growth with meaningful job creation. This 'would put purchasing power in more hands and increase demand into the bargain,' argues Krishnamurthy Subramanian, assistant professor of finance at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. In that context, the gender imbalance may not be so important.

'The first order issue is how we make industry more productive to create jobs. While gender inequality is an important issue in general, I don't think it is as material a concern in this context. We need to create jobs for both men and women irrespective of their proportion.'

India does have the benefit of a booming middle class, a growing number of welleducated young people on good salaries, fuelling a consumer boom. That is the face India shows to visiting world leaders, but it is struggling to find a way for that money to trickle down through the economy.

Venture a few miles outside the cities and there is a huge rural underclass with little or no prospects. Claims that India now has 74 per cent literacy are undermined by reports that show many government schools do not even have classrooms, let alone teachers.

It is true that India does have a lot of young people, but it is also true that many are in the wrong places, the poorest states, and not educated to a level where they can secure quality employment.

Indians often joke about the national mentality that everything will work out fine, but unless the country tackles its gender imbalance and the challenges of a population of under-employed young men, there are no guarantees that the story this time will have a happy ending.

Gethin Chamberlain writes for The Observer from India

 

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