An Indian Youth Crisis?

The political risk posed by the demographic reality of a young Indian population is a worrying issue for the ruling political party in India, the Congress Party. In a recent analysis following the hugely popular anti-corruption drive in India, a senior Congress Party official is quoted as saying, “This is India’s youth bulge. It’s as restive and impatient as say, the Arab youth bulge.”

"Youth bulge" indeed has become a buzzword and sometimes a reason for upheaval in recent times. However, is the youth bulge really a problem? 

Youth bulge can be defined as "extraordinarily large youth cohorts relative to the adult population." The youth bulge argument contends that countries with a large population of young people will experience more violence. It is mostly used as a predictive tool to assess which areas could experience more violence in the future and hence, links together security, demographics, and development.

By the next decade, 100 million Indians — the combined labor force of Britain, France, Italy and Spain — are projected to join the global workforce. Demographic dividend occurs when declining infant and child mortality lowers birth rates, leading to a change in the age distribution. This results in the country having a higher share of potential productive workers as compared to dependants, opening up a window of new economic opportunities.

Thus, demographics (with respect to the youth) and development could be represented in two ways:

As an abundance of human capital to assist in the path to development Alternatively, as a potential explosion waiting to disrupt social equilibrium and bring about turmoil and violence.

In spite of the dire consequences predicted by the youth bulge exponents, I believe that the youth agency, if harnessed and guided well, can be a major source of support in bringing about development. My primary disagreement with the youth bulge theory is that it presents an over simplification of a multi-faceted problem.

Expressed as a formula, this is what the youth bulge theory says:

Rising population pressure = resource scarcity (limited opportunities) = violent youth.

The direct translation of the youth bulge theory in policy formulation has been an emphasis on the first part of the formula i.e. curbing the rising population pressure by population control measures-sometimes enforced forcefully. It provides a convenient diversion from the questions that arise in the "resource scarcity" part of the formula. While rising population pressure is a strain on the environment and must be kept under control, it is not a means of handling potential violent youth. Interventions need to be made in the "resource scarcity/limited opportunities" part that will be far more impactful than population control. No one is questioning why governments have not developed capacities to support the young or how the resources and opportunities are distributed. This is where, I think, the youth bulge debate fails.

Despite having youth-dominated populations, governments rarely have youth-centric policies. Concerns raised by the youth bulge theory have been met with very simplistic solutions. Population control is one such solution and the other is an emphasis on employment. Cultural factors, local pressures due to globalization and other such qualitative factors are not considered. The youth bulge debate also follows a narrow stereotypical definition, mostly identifying young men as "violent."

Seeing the youth as a deviant group prevents us from looking at them as potential partners for growth. Thus, it is time to reassess the view of youth as a threat to society. The Congress Party needs to have a stronger youth focus in its agenda, instead of solely relying on the Gandhi family scion, Rahul Gandhi, as their best bet to attract the growing number of young Indian voters. 

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