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Tackling the challenges to India’s demographic dividend

By Yogesh Vajpeyi
The dichotomy is tantalizing.  While on the one hand, India’s population growth confronts development professionals with grim challenges, it also opens some windows of opportunity because children and youth account for a large share of this growth. 
“It is an advantage for India now because the country is entering the demographic dividend phase while China is exiting it,” asserts Bikram Sen, a former Indian census board director.

Demographic dividend refers to a period – usually 20 to 30 years – when a greater proportion of people are young and in the working age-group. This cuts spending on dependants, spurring economic growth.

India is hoping by the time this dividend phase ends around 2045, it would have achieved a stable and balanced population.

However there are a number of challenges facing the country that impact on this.

The low sex ratio remains one of the most disquieting features of India’s population growth. There were 933 women per 1,000 men according to last 2001 Census – only a marginal improvement for the 1991 figure of 927.

This underscores the need to tackle the serious challenges posed by the neglect of the girl child, high maternal mortality, sex-selective female abortions, and female infanticide.

The most worrying aspect of the scenario is that the ratio is tilting more and more against the girl child.

According to the 2001 census, the ratio for 0-6 age group fell from 945 women per 1,000 men in 1991 to 927 in 2001 – one of the lowest in the world. In city after city across India there has been a sharp drop in the number of girl children.

In a country with a strong culture of son-preference, mushrooming of neo-natal clinics has made it easy for parents to detect the sex of their unborn child and abort if the child is a girl.

Misuse of advanced prenatal diagnostic techniques has led to sex selection with the widespread termination of female foetuses, contributing to a rapidly declining girl to boy child sex ratio. With a higher level of access to such techniques, some of the wealthiest states in India have the worst child sex ratios.

Unless urgent action is taken across all sectors to reverse this trend to eliminate gender discrimination and restore a balanced population, the social repercussions for future generations could be devastating.

If this is not enough consider this …

Every 7 minutes a woman dies due to complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth in the country! This translates into a high MMR of 301 deaths for every 100,000 live births.

They die not due to disease but due to treatable and preventable causes that discriminate against the poor and women in particular.

Early marriage and repeated births, a woman’s poor nutritional status, the lack of antenatal care and skilled birth attendants, delays in getting help if things go wrong during delivery, lack of referral transport facilities, inadequate services if a woman reaches a hospital or health centre - all contribute to high maternal mortality ratio.

Studies indicate that children who have lost their mothers are 10 times more likely to die within 2 years than those with both parents alive.
Taking advantage of the demographic dividend requires a healthy nation and a balanced population. The low sex ratio and high maternal mortality pose a challenge to the role of the youth in development of the country in the years to come.

Contributing further to the challenges is the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) in India which is currently estimated to be around 60/1000 live births per year.

It is close to the world average but still in the unacceptable range and a great deal needs to be done.

The wide variations between different regions of India pose another set of problems for the government’s campaign to bring IMR down. There are states with lower IMR like Kerala (14/1000), followed by Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab (below 50/1000). But states like Uttar Pradesh (83/1000) and Orissa (96/1000), Bihar and Madhya Pradesh continue to pose a problem with their high IMRs.

For those who survive, the ground reality for a vast majority of children in India continues to be grim, despite a number of government and civil society initiatives to improve the state of children and youth.

Out of every 100 children, 19 continue to be out of school. Of every 100 children who enroll, 70 drop out by the time they reach the secondary level.

India is also home to the highest number of child laborers in the world. And it has the world’s largest number of sexually abused children - 53 percent -according to a recent study released by the government.

The prevalence of HIV/AIDS poses another major challenge for India although recent figures released by National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) suggest that the overall rate of new HIV infections in the country is slowing.

Overall, around 0.9 percent of India’s population is living with HIV. This may seem a low rate but given the vast population a mere 0.1 percent increase in the HIV prevalence would increase the actual numbers by over half a million.

The impact of HIV status on parents and children in terms of social stigma and discrimination is of particular concern and needs urgent redress. 

The involvement of youth volunteers in creating awareness about HIV and AIDS, maternal mortality, birth registration, sanitation and other social issues shows that young people represent a powerful resource pool to address social problems that affect them. 

With more than one-third of the country’s population below 15, children and youth should become the focal point of national development efforts if India is to take advantage of the Demographic Dividend.

(With contributions from Alka Gupta and Jyoti Rao of UNICEF)



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