Devender Singh

Large Young Population in India

With an average age of 29 years, India is the youngest country globally. Young people constitute 35% of India’s population; 365 million young people in the age group of 10-24 years (2011 Census).

This large cohort of young people represents a unique demographic opportunity, resulting from the earlier higher, and now fast declining fertility.  The ratio of dependent older persons as well as children is lower than economically productive young persons. NITI Aayog in its Vision and Action Agenda-2020 has underlined the importance of India having this once in a lifetime opportunity for a demographic dividend. It acknowledges that India will have a working population of 962 million by 2030, the most significant in the world. More than 60% population of India is in the working-age group. An increase in the working-age population accounts for 85% of the population increase during 2001-31. 

But this is a potential, it is not a given; we need the right conditions to realize it. In order for persons in this cohort to realize their full potential, and for the demographic dividend to realize, young people must be healthy and well-nourished, appropriately educated and skilled, and have access to opportunities for growth and productive engagement in work as well as in civic life.

Policies and Programmes

In the last few decades, the government has undertaken several policy initiatives and started several missions and schemes to address the bottlenecks and ensure access to universal health care, education, and skills development. The National Youth Policy, 2014 is aimed at the 15-29 year cohort and envisions to “empower the youth of the country to achieve their full potential, and through them enable India to find its rightful place in the community of nations” (National Youth Policy, 2014, Govt of India). Five objectives have been defined, along with 11 areas identified as priority action areas. The objectives are: 1) create a productive workforce; 2) develop a strong and healthy generation; 3) instill social values and promote community service; 4) facilitate participation and civic engagement, and 5) support youth at risk and create equitable opportunity for all. Some other significant legal instruments are the Right to Education Act, 2010, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, Child Labour Act,1986, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

The enhanced focus and investments in education, and health over the past decades, have produced positive results. The 2011 census indicates that literacy, as well as enrollment in higher education, has improved significantly. Child/early marriages have come down drastically. The age of marriage has gone up. The prevalence rates of some communicable diseases among young people have decreased, largely due to effective immunization campaigns. The use of tobacco by young people is also less common than before (GATS 2), likely due to widespread education and publicity about the negative effects of tobacco on health.

Needs and Issues of the Young

Despite impressive progress on the accounts of investment in education and health, gaps and vulnerabilities remain, as shown by the impact of COVID 19, which adversely affected several of these gains. The key issues and challenges before the young and us as a society and country are:

First, there is widespread poverty and inequality, which hamper the possibility of the individual to secure services on the one hand and affect the state’s capacity to deliver education, health, and skills as it has limited resources at its disposal, on the other hand. Second is the poor quality of education at the school level and in higher education and the lack of skill training in the Indian workforce.  As per estimates, only 2.3% of the workforce in India had had some formal training. Despite increased school enrollment and literacy, numeracy, as well as completion of schooling is relatively low. One in 10 adolescents and one in 7 youth were illiterate as per the 2011 census. The mean years of schooling are 5.12 (Planning Commission Twelfth Five-Year Plan, 2012-2017 Govt. of India), lower than the average for developing countries: 7.09 years. The main reason for dropping out is the need to take on an adult role – for girls, this is generally taking care of the household and children, and for boys, it is the compulsion to earn at a young age. This lack of schooling and early entry into the workforce and household sphere severely constrains building a foundation for more education, training, and better-paying work options. The mental health of adolescents and youth is of major concern, with self-harm and violence over-taking maternal health-related issues as the leading cause of mortality in this age group.

What do we need to focus on in the future? 

Over the years, several attempts have been made to address the needs of adolescents and youth – mainly through central and state schemes related to education, nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, empowerment of girl-children, and changing social norms and customs that restrict the growth and development of young people, particularly girls. Civil society organizations, too, have innovated and there are some excellent examples from the public and private sectors. However, efforts have been patchy and uneven, and have not resulted in the robust foundation for youth that is necessary for sustained development. The following should be the focus areas in the future.

  • Focus on Data and Research
    • To address gaps in research on critical aspects of adolescents and youth development, making the planning and roll-out of programs difficult;
    • To address the limited capacities to undertake research on young people;
  • Replicability and Scale-Up
    • Lack of scientific impact assessment of schemes on the ground leads to poor replicability and scale-up. There is a need for higher Investment to ensure universal coverage.
    • Innovations should be scaled up to reach the vulnerable and marginalized sections in the hard-to-reach areas.
  • Enhance Multi-Sectoral Participation
    • At present there is limited engagement of the private sector, and other donors with government shouldering a larger share of the burden. This needs to be corrected with the private sector offering financial resources as well as mentoring support to young people.
  • High Level Council/Mission Mode
    • Time is of the essence – demographic dividend opportunity is slipping away. India needs to work toward the realization of the potential of its young people in a mission mode.
  • Many schemes by many departments and ministries, leading to scattered implementation and impact. These policies, schemes, and programs fall under different ministries and thus lead to dissipation of resources, efforts, and energy. There is a need for an overall high-level umbrella body for guiding and monitoring the implementation of youth policy and programmes.

India invests more than Rs 90,000 crores per annum (37,000 crores through youth-targeted (such as in higher education, skill development, healthcare, etc.), and 55,000 crores through non-targeted schemes designed for various demographic segments of which youth are significant beneficiaries as food subsidies and employment programs) on youth development programs or approximately Rs 2,710 per young individual per year (Union Budget 2011-12). This is a significant amount, and if invested wisely can make a difference not only in the individual lives of adolescents and young people but in the future of the country.

Read more by Devender Singh Getting Old Before Getting Rich: Are we as a society and a country ready for a fast ageing India? on IMPRI Insights

About the Author

Devender Singh

Devender Singh, is the Former National Program Officer (Population & Development), UNFPA India (2015- 2021) and a Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI.