The burden of illiteracy

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Bump ahead A failure to invest in schools in UP and Bihar will blunt India’s demographic dividend
Bump ahead A failure to invest in schools in UP and Bihar will blunt India’s demographic dividend. Photo: AP

India’s population is stabilising. The boom was down to 17.7 percent during 2001-11 from 21.5 percent in the previous decade. But this happy trend hides the challenging story of a demographic swing. As more developed states become increasingly less fertile, the economically less privileged Hindi heartland is witnessing a population swell. Almost half of India’s under-14 population — 17.5 crore — now lives in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

We are a young people. While children below 14 years constitute nearly 31 percent of the population, those above 60 account for less than 9 percent. But we are also an unequal society. The better-off states are getting older, and the poor younger. While in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, for example, less than 24 percent of the population is between 0-14 years, 35-40 percent in UP, Jharkhand and Bihar fall in that band. On the other hand, compared to Kerala’s 11.22 percent, Bihar’s share of above-60 population is just 5.84 percent.

Already, one-fourth (19 crore) of India’s population (75 crore) in the working age bracket of 15-60 is from Bihar, UP and Jharkhand. At the present growth rate, these three states will contribute one-third (34.6 crore) of the country’s population (104 crore) in working age after three decades. In other words, the working age population of the three states will increase by 82 percent against the overall national growth of 36 percent. If we factor in Rajasthan and MP, nearly half (46 percent) of the country’s population in the working age bracket will come from the Hindi heartland by 2043.

Of course, socio-economic development will make this growth rate plateau like it has in a number of states, particularly in the south. But it is a slow process, made slower by inadequate and piecemeal investment in social infrastructure. Unfortunately, the longer the so-called BIMARU states take to get a grip on fertility, the tougher it will get to turn around a largely undereducated, unskilled and underproductive population.

It will not be easy. These states have limited resources. Nationally, student attendance declined from 73.4 percent in 2007 to 70.9 percent in 2011 in rural primary schools. The Hindi heartland was the worst affected. In primary schools of Bihar, the average attendance of children fell 9 percent since 2007 to 50 percent in 2011. In MP, it dropped from 67 percent in 2007 to 54.5 percent in 2011, while in UP, from 64.4 percent to 57.3 percent.

The standard of education, according to Assessment Survey Evaluation Research reports, in government schools in the north is declining steadily with the exception of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. In 2011, 40.7 percent of schools in India met the required student-teacher ratio. In Bihar, Jharkhand and UP, only 8.8 percent, 15.3 percent and 16.1 percent, respectively, schools came good. An average schoolteacher in Bihar was saddled with 53 students against the national median of 26. The gap in capacity and infrastructure is visible at all levels. At the end of the Tenth Plan period, India had 122 districts without a polytechnic; Bihar (27), Jharkhand (11) and UP (13) together accounted for 51 of those.

Figures in % Extrapolated from single year age data 2013 of Census India | Figures in crores • Combined share of UP, Bihar and Jharkhand is 19 crore (25%), • • Combined share of UP, Bihar and Jharkhand is 28 crore (29%), • • • Combined share of UP, Bihar and Jharkhand is 34.6 crore (33%) | * At current birth rate
Figures in % Extrapolated from single year age data 2013 of Census India | Figures in crores • Combined share of UP, Bihar and Jharkhand is 19 crore (25%), • • Combined share of UP, Bihar and Jharkhand is 28 crore (29%), • • • Combined share of UP, Bihar and Jharkhand is 34.6 crore (33%) | * At current birth rate

Nationally, 41.4 percent of students enrolled in secondary education are girls. While Goa boasts the highest percentage (59 percent), Bihar has the lowest engagement of girls (30 percent) in higher education. This is not surprising because the Hindi heartland, particularly Bihar, has an alarmingly skewed sex ratio that spoils most gender statistics. According to the civil registration-based Vital Statistics of India 2009, the country’s sex ratio at birth was 893. While UP does not even keep gender-based registration data, Bihar recorded a dismal 715, far below even Punjab (822) and Haryana (853).

It gets worse when we factor in infant mortality. In 2009, for every 100 infant male deaths, 86 infant girl deaths were recorded in India. For Bihar, the corresponding number of infant girl deaths was a staggering 1,291. While not a single infant boy death was reported from urban Bihar, 959 baby girls died. No data was available from Jharkhand and UP.

The implication of such a lopsided, largely uneducated and unskilled population boom is manifold. While a skewed sex ratio hampers social stability, inadequate education and skill compromises economic output. At the same time, the swelling ranks of youth also present the country with an opportunity. In fact, several studies have pointed out the high learning capacity of students from Bihar.

But if the Centre and the state governments fail to invest adequately in building capacity and infrastructure for schooling and bringing down the opportunity cost of higher education, this shift in demography may, in the long run, affect the quality of the famed human capital and India may feel the pinch if future job markets expand significantly in soft-skill sectors such as it. But long before that, a surge in crude labour force may strengthen certain social stereotypes.

The UN quoted NSSO 2007-08 to report that 326 million or 28.5 percent of the Indian population are internal migrants. It also identified UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and MP as the top four source states of this migrant population. A bulk of this workforce gravitates to urban centres of the National Capital Region, Maharashtra or Karnataka. From realty to low-end service sectors, migrant construction labourers, domestic helps, drivers, security guards virtually run much of our metros.

Yet, there is a strong local bias against this workforce. Some of it is politically motivated. Shiv Sena must hate Biharis for stealing jobs from the Marathi manoos. Sheila Dikshit must blame migrants for spoiling the crime records of her otherwise civil Delhi. In any case, the bulk of crime in any society is committed by those on the lower rung of the social order, often because of their limited means. But, increasingly, the migrants of Bihar and UP are being considered social misfits who are crime-prone and particularly disrespectful of women.

Much of it is plain racism. The rest seeks justification in the fact that quite a few accused in sexual crime in Delhi or Mumbai can be traced back to a specific region. For good reasons, we do not maintain crime data based on caste or communal identities. But state crime figures tell a curious story. UP, Bihar and Jharkhand rank 30th, 27th and 24th respectively, on the criminality list. But the picture changes when it comes to heinous crimes such as murder or rape.

Barring insurgency-ridden J&K and the Northeast, only Chhattisgarh, Haryana and MP show a higher rate of murder and attempt to murder than Bihar and Jharkhand. Patna, Agra, Ranchi, Meerut and Kanpur are the cities that witness murders most frequently. In kidnapping, UP and Bihar are only second to Rajasthan. However, the reported frequency of rape in UP and Bihar is lower than even in Himachal or Sikkim and only tells the story of abysmal reporting.

If anything, these statistics point to a social imbalance fuelled by lack of education and opportunity. If empowered, the swelling youth of the Hindi heartland may well turn the tables, define a new India and her workforce in decades to come. Business as usual, on the other hand, may soon create ethnic fissures around a growing population considered a social and economic liability.

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