We’re paying the price for digging holes around the ground we stand on

For years together, people talked about the ‘demographic dividend’. Thanks to high fertility ratios in the past, a large number of young people would be entering the workforce, and we as yet don’t have a very large aged population, so the ratio of workers to non-workers would be favourable. It would boost economic activity and taxes, and allow us to make investments in many public goods and services.

This was not a bad picture to paint. But it had one important assumption – namely, that the young people entering the workforce would be skilled and productive.

But we totally missed that bus. A very large percentage of the young people entering working age received either a very poor education or none. As a result, they landed up on the wrong side of the ledger. Rather than contributing their productivity and taxes that would support the welfare of others, they ended up needing to be supported themselves.

At some point, it will be too late to do anything about it, and we may be already close to it. Each year, about 3 million people are being added to the ranks of the unemployed / under-employed. In most major states, including Karnataka, fewer than half the children are getting to graduate from schools.

A few common errors in our governance contributed to this situation.

1. We assumed that something that is theoretically possible would automatically happen. That was a delusion, but such delusions have allowed us to believe that development is always someone else’s responsibility, so we quite willingly participated in this charade. Various messianic political leaders also told us they would deliver a new paradise, so it was quite easy to pretend they were on the job.

2. Given an infinite faith in jugaad, we told ourselves that serious policy and governance interventions are not needed, because some kind of ‘adjust’ model would always be adequate to take the place of the real thing. By the time employers declined to foot the bill for this pretense, the horse had already bolted the stables. But we haven’t yet abandoned our deep belief that ‘somehow’, India will come out on top despite all this.

3. We kept telling ourselves that we can ‘leapfrog’ from under-developed status to grandeur, by skipping the mistakes of other nations that had trudged a longer path to development more slowly. That can work well for a few things, but not for learning – and especially since we didn’t reform any of our systems of learning either. Leapfrog, therefore, turned into a slowly boiling frog in the well.

We’re in for a hard slog. It’s the price of digging holes around the ground we’re standing on. We now have the largest collection of poor people in any country in history within our borders. And two generations of wholly avoidable suffering is the logical consequence of the choices made so far. At current levels of growth and inequitable development, it will take 40+ years to become a middle income country. And that’s if we stop digging the hole now.

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