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Demographic dividend fast becoming a curse

Rupa Subramanya  |  New Delhi 

Tragically, less than a year after the December 16 gangrape of a young woman in Delhi, a similarly horrific crime took place in Mumbai recently.

While violence and sexual assault on women has many causes and no two incidents are identical, what is striking in these well-publicised cases, as well as in many others that aren't often widely known, is the demographic characteristics of the attackers.

In the December 16 case in Delhi, all the alleged attackers were young men holding down mediocre jobs and with little prospects for upward mobility. In Mumbai, the alleged attackers were also young - the youngest was 19, while the others were in their 20s. All the five were unemployed or, at best, making a few rupees doing menial jobs here and there.

India's much-talked 'demographic dividend' is often seen as a positive. These hundreds of millions of young people are the workers of tomorrow and may help propel India's economic growth well into the middle of the century, if not beyond. That a large numbers of people are involved in this huge demographic transition is not in dispute. The median age in India is 25. Compare that to rich countries of the West, where the median age is typically about 40.

But the demographic dividend has a huge potential downside - many of the young men entering their 20s are poorly educated and, therefore, have little prospects of finding jobs that would match their aspirations, unleashed by the economic liberalisation of 1991 and thereafter. What's more, many are single and sexually frustrated, as the sex ratio has been skewed for several decades. In fact, there are about 37 million more men than women in India.

According to official statistics, the youth unemployment rate in India in 2010 stood at 9.9 per cent for men and 11.3 per cent for women. This is far higher than the overall unemployment ratio of 3.8 per cent. Of course, official unemployment statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, as about 90 per cent of the workforce is in the informal sector. Therefore, someone who reports himself/herself as employed and is so recorded in the statistics, might be self-employed or underemployed, doing odd jobs for little money and with lots of time on their hands.

There's a large body of social sciences research that finds a strong relationship between unemployment, especially of young men, and the incidence of violent crime.

This is a global phenomenon but is especially problematic in countries with skewed sex ratios in large numbers of idle men with plenty of time on their hands, such as India and China.

While it's tough to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between the 'youth bulge' and crimes against women, there's important ethnographic research that vividly documents the relationship. Craig Jeffrey, a geographer at Oxford, has written an important book, Timepass, which tracks idle young men in Meerut and the social pathologies that come out of this idleness, including violence against women. Speaking to me about the Delhi gang rape sometime back, Jeffrey said, "Rapid social change in provincial India has created a vast army of educated and semi-educated 'loafers' among young men." Jeffrey's research shows the prevalence of such young men, with poor prospects of a career or marriage, hanging around college campuses and provincial towns, fuels anger and resentment that could sometimes spill over into harassment or violence against women.

In the context of the Delhi gang rape, Ravinder Kaur, a sociologist at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, said unemployment "is definitely a factor in exacerbating sexual harassment of women". Kaur's field research in Haryana documents the large number of loafers from villages who travel to nearby towns and cities to spend time before returning home in the evening. They're either unemployed or underemployed at low wages and, just like Jeffrey's work shows, many of them idle around and harass women.

It's important to note the phenomenon Jeffrey and Kaur describe isn't confined to the hinterland of North India, but is pervasive throughout the country. Even in major metropolitan centres such as Mumbai or Bangalore, one often sees knots of idle young men hanging about chai stalls, near railway stations, college campuses, etc.

It's not just scholars; the Verma commission (set up after the Delhi gang rape) makes similar observations. The report talked about the "mass of young, prospectless men", whose harassment of women which may begin with "eve-teasing" and end up in something much worse - sexual violence and rape. The report said many young men in India were "fighting for space in an economy that offers mainly casual work". The report's conclusion was "large-scale disempowerment of urban men is lending intensity to a pre-existing culture of sexual violence".

If this wasn't bad enough, it's not just violence against women that's likely to worsen as the demographic transition proceeds. Due to basic failures in public education, as well as the failure of successive governments to liberalise and reform labour laws, there's a dearth of labour-intensive manufacturing activity in India that would be necessary to absorb the surplus labour force. Just imagine if the young men, the alleged perpetrators of the Delhi and Mumbai crimes, held down well-paying and productive jobs, were married and had kids; with the prospect of continued improvement in their lives, they would have stayed on the straight and narrow. Even if tempted, the opportunity cost of attempting a sexual assault would be so high, chances are they wouldn't take the risk. A single, unemployed loafer has much less to lose and, therefore, is more likely to succumb to sexual frustration and engage in criminal behaviour.

Education and employment for India's young is not only a necessity for getting India back on a high-growth trajectory; it might also be necessary to preserve social harmony and help reduce the scourge of violent crimes, including violence against women.

Disclosure: This piece draws on my research and writing for the Wall Street Journal India in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape.

First Published: Fri, August 30 2013. 00:28 IST