Demographic dividend should not turn into a disaster

India is an ancient civilisation but a young nation state that is still engaged in nation building. 

The lack of internal cohesion; the tensions generated by the inadequacies in governance and the delivery of justice; and, widespread poverty are leading to situations that increasingly pose serious challenges to national security. 

In such a socio-economic environment, the armed forces and the Central armed police forces (CAPFs) cannot be expected to manage the complex threats and challenges to internal security all by themselves. The effort has to be a national-level endeavour that follows a ‘whole-of-government’ approach and includes all the organs of the state as well as all the citizens of India. 

The concept of comprehensive national power (CNP) has gained currency in the last two decades. The CNP of a nation is a product of its strategic culture; its economic strength; its military power, including the state of its preparedness for war; its strategic partnerships and diplomatic influence; its internal cohesion; its ability to deliver good governance and justice; the capability of its human capital; its advancement in science and technology and innovation; its knowledge and information base; the advantages of geography and natural resources that it is endowed with; the firmness of its national will; the resolve of its leadership; and, the attractiveness of its soft power. 

While India is gradually moving up the ladder in almost all other parameters of CNP, a few fault-lines are discernible. Among these is the lack of internal cohesion. Political divisiveness, social inconsistencies like the inequalities inherent in the caste system, which is a relic of a feudal past, and varying personal laws; sectarian differences; religious intolerance; ethnic tensions; fissiparous tendencies; inter-state issues like tensions over the sharing of river waters; and, corruption in public life and electoral politics, are all factors that contribute to the internal cohesion fault-line. 

The popular catch-phrase ‘unity in diversity’ has not quite played out the way it was intended to. Instead, vested interests, encouraged and supported by inimical foreign powers, have for long been fanning the flames of disunity.

Another major fault-line has been created by the inequities that have crept into India’s economic growth. Elitist education and haphazard economic development have created some islands of excellence but have resulted in numerous cesspools of mediocrity and extreme poverty.

The reliance that had been placed on a public sector-led economic growth model and the trickle-down benefits of growth did not work out as well as the ruling elites had hoped it would. 

Meanwhile, the phenomenal reach of television and the smart phone, with easy access to social media, are fuelling the desire of families across the country to possess the full range of consumer goods being flaunted by in-your-face advertising. 

However, the lack of employment opportunities in many economically backward areas makes it impossible to earn enough to meet these desires. The growing anger due to unfulfilled desires, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to the advent of a revolution triggered by rising expectations. 

Dealing with a large-scale urban/semi-urban uprising will shake up the state. With rising expectations and inadequate employment opportunities, amid social tensions, a revolution driven by rising expectations is staring us in the face. 

India’s huge ‘demographic dividend’ (the country has the youngest work force in the world) that economists exult so much about is likely to turn into a demographic disaster if additional opportunities for employment are not forthcoming at the required rate. 

While India’s growth rate has clocked an impressive 7%-plus per annum, much of it has been ‘jobless growth’ – growth in the manufacturing sector that does not create new jobs in keeping with the quantum of investment. 

A good example of jobless growth is the multi-billion dollar oil and gas refinery at Jamnagar on India’s west coast, with a capacity of 1.24 million barrels per day, incidentally the world’s largest single refining complex. It employs 2,500 people working in three shifts – and, many of them are gardeners.

Educated but unemployable

Around 10 million young women and men join the work force every year over the next 20 years. Most of them will be educated but unemployable; that is, they will have gone through secondary school, but will have no skills. Only about 1.20 million of them will have the skills necessary to join the manufacturing sector every year. Unless the requirement of 100 million new jobs every year is met, including jobs for the unskilled work force, the country will have a major demographic challenge to contend with. 

The government has initiated several measures to promote ‘skilling’, but it will take five to seven years before tangible results are achieved. The government can act as a catalyst, but the main drive for skilling must come from the private sector.

The lack of internal cohesion, rising expectations and a high rate of unemployment, in addition to the Maoist militancy and other ongoing internal security challenges, could lead to instability of an insurmountably large magnitude.

In comparison, the French Revolution of 1789 will look as if it was a walk in the garden. The Central armed police forces (BSF, CRPF, ITBP, SSB, CISF etc) number about 1.2 million today and are almost equal to the combined personnel strength of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. 

All the CAPFs together will be inadequate to preserve internal security in such a volatile situation. Dealing with these 

challenges will require astute political leadership and a dynamic inter-ministerial, inter-departmental, inter-agency strategy that is multi-disciplinary in nature. The government should formulate a comprehensive internal security strategy to meet these foreseeable challenges without further loss of time.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)