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Parthasarathi Shome: Children's condition - Wither demographic dividend?

India should focus on the impediments to meaningful education and adequate nourishment for children

Parthasarathi Shome 

India and the international community have been talking about the demographic dividend that India should reap until mid-century. United Nations Population Division data indeed reveal that the share of the working age group of 15-64 years in total population will grow in South Asia until 2040, in some until 2045, and in Afghanistan until 2075. The challenge is to convert this population into productive citizens through nutrition and education. It is just like the challenge of converting savings into productive investment rather than into non-performing assets as has emerged increasingly in Indian banking experience. Also, the rural-to-urban migration will be steep in all of South Asia, with urban India reaching 50 per cent of population by 2050, adding a further onerous dimension of absorptive capacity and implied social infrastructure – health and education – needs into this witch’s brew.

Who will finance this need in India? In 2010, those with a daily expenditure of $10 to $100 a day comprised less than 5 per cent of India’s population in contrast to 20 per cent for Sri Lanka.1 This marginal economic class should find financing social infrastructure – nutrition and health – an uphill task unless every paisa is well spent in this endeavour. On top, the state of child nutrition and health is shocking. In 2005-06, 45 per cent of rural babies under three years were stunted, more than 40 per cent underweight, and more than 20 per cent wasted.2 For urban babies the numbers were 10 to 20 per cent less bad. Mother’s education had a strikingly salient effect on outcomes. Almost 55 per cent of babies of mothers who had not completed 10 years of education were stunted, 50 per cent underweight, and 25 per cent wasted. For mothers with that education, these numbers were 30 to 60 per cent less bad, quite a remarkable difference.

Education numbers appear less alarming. There is 100 per cent rural and urban primary (I-V) school enrollment for six- to 10-year-olds. For secondary (VI-VIII) level, it is 80 per cent for rural and 90 per cent for urban; for IX-X, 60+ per cent for rural and 80+ per cent for urban and; for XI-XII, 40 per cent for rural and 60 per cent for urban.3 Female attendance ratios decrease with levels of education, are 5 to 15 per cent less than those for male, but nevertheless are not as bad as one might expect.

Discontinuation of education vitiates the enrollment figures. It increases with age, from negligible under five years of age, and 2 ½ per cent between six and 10 years, to 40 per cent among the 16-17 in rural, and 30 per cent in urban cohorts. The reasons for discontinuation are wrenching. Top reasons are financial constraints and disinterest. Strong corresponding reasons include the need to join the labour force and completion of desired education level. Discontinuation reveals a male-female divide on two grounds — marriage, and parents not interested in further studies of females. Thus, while Indian children are enrolling, many of them leave before completion reflecting the need to work primarily for males, or because females are packed off to marry; and the vicious cycle of under-age, under-nourished mothers bearing under-nourished babies keeps repeating. Some government programmes such as mid-day meals have helped retain children in school despite their many challenges and shortcomings, but the quality that makes education interesting is also a major factor in discontinuation. More revealing information can be gleaned from the surveys cited. From statistics alone it is clear that a demographic dividend cannot be realised at the current rates of nutrition and education.

Moving from the quantity of education, its quality is particularly suspect by Western standards for the majority of even privileged children. There is little standardisation in curricula, lesson plans or requirements, and testing varies widely. Even within a state, the method varies in different schools. One pervading expectation is that students should be able to memorise rather than be allowed to think freely or innovate.

The questions to ask here are: are we successfully changing systemic rote learning so that students are able to think independently? Can they appreciate a painting or have time to read a book and judge its merit by the time they are out of school? Are they allowed to express themselves, even if chaotically, if they wish to without being reprimanded? Can they critique the teaching of their teachers in class?

An incongruity appears to be the emphatic commendation of high achievers and a focus on the poorly faring – paradoxically, lucky – students whose performance needs to be improved in the interest of the school’s reputation. The middling majority is, more often than not, left to fend for itself, as it neither brings any glory nor poses any serious threat of disrepute. What lessons exist from other countries?

Let us remind ourselves that we celebrated Education Day this month. To take up the challenge of turning a probable demographic nightmare into a dividend, we have to be on a war footing. That could occur only with strong control and rapid dissipation of moral hazard, leakage, graft and corruption. That should, in turn, improve public expenditure productivity and outcomes by monitoring if school funds are being siphoned off or a child is being robbed of the right to a school meal. There is little time to lose or to get to work.

The author is Director and CEO, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, New Delhi.
All opinions and views are exclusively the author’s.
1 Ejaz Ghani (2011), Reshaping
Tomorrow: Is South Asia Ready for
the Big Leap, World Bank, OUP, Washington DC, page 7.
2 National Family Health Survey,
3 National Sample Survey, 2007-08,

First Published: Mon, November 21 2011. 00:21 IST