about us
  areas of expertise
  our projects
  ideas & resources


               Index of Articles          Index of Perspectives            Next Article



The Real Developmental Challenge

Omkar Goswami


It has been often said by our economic pundits that one of India’s great strength is its young population. The argument goes thus: unlike Europe, Japan and most parts of the developed world, over the next fifty years India will have a much higher percentage of its population comprising young people. Because youth have greater learning potential and constitute the bulk of the job market, India will therefore be the world’s greatest source of labour — both for manufacturing as well as services. In fact, proponents of this view argue that since our demographic constellation is even better placed than China’s, by the fourth decade of this century we will begin to capture an ever increasing share of the global labour market.


The demographics is true enough,. According to data from the United Nations Population Division, 51 per cent of India’s population in 2000 was in the age group 20-64, which could be thought of as the potential workforce. Of this, some 377 million, or 37 per cent of the population was in the age group 20-44 — which one could classify as the younger workforce. By 2030, this 20-44 year group will grow to almost 544 million, which would account for over 38 percent of the country’s population. This size of a young potential workforce will be the largest ever in the world.         


While the demography is correct, the inference need not be. In the knowledge age that we perennially speak of, this potential workforce requires to be educationally empowered to have a fair chance of being actually employed. That’s where the data starts getting pretty depressing. One of my colleagues, Vishal More, has been investigating the evidence on education based on the Seventh All-India School Educational Survey of 2002. Here is some of what he has found:

  •  Only 53 per cent of rural habitations in India have primary schools, i.e. serving classes 1 to 5. Orissa, Jammu & Kashmir, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Himachal Pradesh are below the national average.

  • Even more pathetic is the state of upper primary schools, that are supposed to usually teach classes 6 to 8. Only 18 per cent of rural India has such schools. J&K, Tamil Nadu, Assam, UP, Bihar, Himachal and West Bengal are below the average, with West Bengal at the bottom at 6.3 per cent.

  • Merely 18 per cent of primary schools in rural India have four or more teachers.

  • There are less than 64,000 secondary schools in rural India, which are supposed to teach classes 9 and 10. The number is low enough. How many of them actually function is yet another matter.

  • Rural India has less than 23,000 higher secondary schools.

I could give you more data that Vishal has culled out, but it isn’t necessary. What becomes glaringly apparent is that we just don’t have the basic school infrastructure in place throughout vast swathes of India to educationally empower the 342 million kids of ages 5-19, who will expect to be gainfully employed anytime between 2006 and 2020.


To me, that is India’s real developmental challenge. How can we put mechanisms in place that will meaningfully educate over a third of a billion people, so that they can have the basic wherewithal to be a part of tomorrow’s workforce? Given the numbers on the one hand, and the pitiful finances as well as governance of most states on the other, I am increasingly convinced that traditional brick-and-mortar school system will not suffice. We will soon have to leverage the power of IT to supplement inadequate school teaching with more interactive learning. This, in turn, will need major broad band connectivity — initially to the better-off districts and then moving down the line.


The task is enormous. But it has to be done as a key priority. Because the choice is simple: either India’s mushrooming youth will be educationally empowered to join the global labour force and reap the benefits, or it will revolt at its fate. Political enfranchisement without sufficient economic benefits can’t be a sustainable democratic solution. Less so with youth. For the sake of the polity of India, therefore, we had better focus on education. And soon.


Published: Business world, January  2005


                Index of Articles          Index of Perspectives           Next Article