Sugar-coated lie

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The so-called ‘demographic dividend’ is so much bunkum and no more. Limited access to education and healthcare among young men and women has left them with no awareness about family planning and HIV/AIDS. A demographic disaster is in the making

An excellent report by the International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai, has demolished the ‘demographic dividend’ theory; one which has been urban India’s euphoric rejoinder to stave off any concerns about the questionable social health of Indian youth. The report points in no uncertain terms to a demographic disaster taking place, having “squandered” the potential that could have given that dividend.

Titled A Profile of Youth in India the report is a State-wide study and systematically captures the urban-rural split, as well as the male-female disparities in education and reproductive health among adolescents and the youth — a huge segment of India’s population. The report has to be taken seriously because it was published by a Government organisation under the aegis of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The image of an exuberant youth, educated and resilient, has been shattered through this report. Here are some of the highlights:

A significant proportion of the youth were found to have received little education. Many were illiterate and several were burdened with onerous familial responsibilities. The enormous lack of education that prevailed among the female and rural youth left no opportunity for them to contribute to development or the tremendous challenge of nation building. A third of the females and only two out of every five men were found to have completed 10 years of schooling. Only two out of five adolescents were found actually attending school, leaving the rest of them destined to join the ranks of the uneducated and unemployable. One out of five teenage girls possessed no education, with one in three Muslim girls falling into this category.

The report found every third adolescent girl to be married. The element of gauna was found to be fractional, so negating the theory that child marriages were only symbolic. Early marriages consummated well before the legal minimum age of marriage had negated efforts to reach the goals of the national youth policy.

Limited use of contraception for spacing, and an over-reliance on traditional methods persisted after decades of chasing the family planning programme. Among the youth the unmet need for family planning soared. What did these young, married women know? Not even a fifth of the 20 to 24year-olds knew about the fertile days within the menstrual cycle; adolescent girls knew far less. Knowledge among boys was virtually non-existent. Yet the rhythm method continued to be the most preferred form of family planning despite knowledge about the menstrual cycle being so poor. For all the work that the State AIDS Societies claimed to have done, and all the money that they had exhausted, only 20 per cent of the female youth had comprehensive knowledge about the routes of transmission and prevention of HIV/AIDS infection. In several States only half such women had even heard
about AIDS.

Undernutrition and anaemia continued to be very high among adolescents and the youth, doubling health risks for pregnant and breast-feeding women, as well as their infants. Large-scale use of tobacco and alcohol prevailed among very young adolescents with negative health fallouts over a lifetime. A high prevalence of domestic violence existed and the social norms inherited by the youth still justified wife beating.

Obviously, several Government programmes despite incremental improvements are haemorrhaging badly at places. The claims made by the National Literacy Mission, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the ICDS programmes are clearly either coloured or false. Unfortunately, the report has no silver lining. The report has not spared either the outcomes of the family planning programme or the national AIDS control programme. At one level it is highly satisfactory that the present dispensation believes in transparency and has not pushed these facts under the carpet. On the other, it is disheartening to find that there are no outcries from the State Governments that ought to have either felt ashamed of their failure or combative if they did not subscribe to the findings. Instead a climate of ‘business as usual’ prevails and one can wager that none of the people in charge of youth affairs, woman and child development, education, literacy, or the prevention of AIDS and premature marriages have looked at the report.

Clearly, all the hard work is not reaching the most vulnerable people of this country. There is absolutely no case for more Government; we need smarter Government. While that exploration should take priority, for starters, the demographic dividend theory should be dumped publicly, because it is just a sugar-coated lie.


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