The 2018 Oration

14th JRD Tata Memorial Oration

PFI Foundation Day, 12th October, 2018

Dr. Rajiv Kumar, Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog

 Women Empowerment: The Key to India’s Demographic Dividend

Honourable Chief Minister of Sikkim, Ms. Poonam Muttreja, a friend of long standing, Distinguished Guests, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by thanking the Population Foundation of India and its Executive Director, Ms. Poonam Muttreja for inviting me to deliver the 14th JRD Tata Memorial Oration on PFI’s foundation day. JRD was an inspirational business leader for whom India was much more than a geographical impression. He was a strong advocate for the achievement of holistic economic and social progress in the country, especially in areas like women’s education and empowerment, that remain extremely relevant. He was in many ways the first social entrepreneur – who thought well beyond the economic ‘bottom line’. Instead he focused on maximising societal return as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, today, India is on the cusp of transformation. A New India has begun to emerge. An India that will be on the trajectory of prosperity for all. Continued high, sustainable and inclusive growth that will be critically dependent on the ‘democratic dividend’ and the ‘demographic dividend’.

For reaping the full dividends of democracy, cooperation and competition among states plays a key role. After all, in a federal polity, strong states make a strong nation state. Over the last few years several measures have been taken for promoting competitive and cooperative federalism in India. An important first step was the establishment of the NITI Aayog in 2015. States have increasingly emerged as equal partners of the Central Government in policy design and implementation of development schemes. Competition among them has improved the time for the implementation of several key reforms and schemes. For instance, some states have reformed central laws in the areas of labour and land acquisition on which the centre has faced some challenges. Following the Fourteenth Finance Commission’s increase in the share of tax revenue devolution to states from 32% to 42%, NITI Aayog has been nudging states towards transformation by developing inter-state rankings based on multiple indices in the areas of health, education, water management, nourishment and agricultural reforms. The indices are playing an important role in shifting the discourse from inputs and processes to outputs and outcomes.

Of course, promoting competition has to be accompanied by the provision of technical assistance in the form of human capital and management practices. This is vital because states that are lagging behind on development outcomes are typically also the ones with weaker capacities. In addition to ranking states, therefore, NITI is also focused on providing development support services and building a repository of best practices.

Another notable initiative for fostering competitive and cooperative federalism is the Aspirational Districts Programme which aims to transform 115 districts in the country that have lagged behind across a range of specific development parameters. This programme is converging the efforts of the central, state and local governments in these districts and putting in place a real-time monitoring mechanism for assessing progress in areas such as health, education, agriculture and basic infrastructure. Districts will be ranked continually on their performance on a real-time basis. Those falling behind will receive special attention.

Let us turn now to the demographic dividend which is all about human capital and its development. According to the Population Reference Bureau’s latest projections, by mid-2050, the Indian population will become 25% more than that of China. Currently, the population of China is approximately 1.38 billion while India’s is 1.31 billion. By 2022, both countries are expected to have approximately 1.4 billion people. Thereafter, India’s population is projected to continue growing for several decades to 1.5 billion in 2030 and 1.7 billion in 2050. China would remain at 1.4 billion unless they revise their current population policies.

India currently accounts for 17.74% of the world population. This number is expected to settle at around 16.94% in 2050. On the other hand, our share of the world’s land area is only about 2.5% and we have approximately 4% of the world’s water resources at our disposal. We face a real challenge. The key clearly is in making a massive effort at human resource development.

While the world population is growing older with a higher dependency ratio, India will continue to enjoy for some time a distinct advantage of having a younger population, which should facilitate the country’s development.

Undoubtedly, India’s hopes are pinned on the country’s young people. Today, India’s population is already markedly younger than China’s. The average age of India’s population is 28 years, and in China, it is 37 years. More than 50% of India’s population is below the age of 25 and 65% is below the age of 35 years. Approximately 37% of the population is between the ages of 15-35 years. This forthcoming bulge in the working population poses both significant opportunities and challenges.


It is projected that by 2050 India will be home to the largest number of working-age people in the world. According to the UNDP’s Regional Human Development Report 2016, India’s working-age population will grow to over 1 billion by 2050 from 850 million between the ages of 15-64 years in 2015.

Keeping the large young population in mind, we need to provide quality sexual and reproductive health services with the right messages on reproductive choices. A 2014 study by leading economists found that ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health – which includes family planning – would yield a phenomenal return of USD 150 for every dollar invested. Every 1% reduction in fertility is likely to increase GDP by 0.25%. Moreover, every 7 dollars spent on family planning over the next four decades are likely to reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a ton. These are some of the undeniable gains of a coherent and well implemented population policy.

The 2009 release of the Guttmacher Institute’s ‘Adding It Up’ provides additional evidence about the economic reasons for investing in family planning. If global investments in family planning increased from USD 3.1 billion to USD 6.7 billion, it would more than offset the cost of providing a recommended package of maternal and neonatal health care. The cost of providing the recommended maternal and new born care package would decline by USD 5.1 billion – from USD 23.0 billion to USD 17.9 billion – because the number of unintended pregnancies would greatly decrease with better access to family planning. And the cost of providing both services in an integrated manner would reduce costs from USD 26.1 billion to USD 24.6 billion – a net saving of USD 1.5 billion, compared with investing in maternal and new born care alone.

The Indian government is implementing several interventions in the area of family planning including Mission Parivar Vikas for substantially increasing access to contraceptives and family planning services in 146 high fertility districts of seven high focus states. There are additional schemes for expanding the contraceptive basket and launching a 360-degree media campaign to generate contraceptive demand, especially among men.

There is still a lot of work to be done, however, especially because there is wide variation between states in terms of population growth. India’s overall Total Fertility Rate declined to 2.2 in 2015-16, marginally above the replacement rate of 2.1. It was pegged at 2.7 in 2005-2006 by the National Family Health Survey. While the fertility rate in 23 States and Union Territories – including all the southern states – was already below the replacement rate in 2015-16, it was substantially higher in a number of states in central, east and north-east India. Bihar, for instance, has the highest rate at 3.41, followed by Meghalaya at 3.04 and Uttar Pradesh and Nagaland at 2.74. There is an emerging North-South divide with reference to population growth.

However, even as the country is striving to reach replacement levels in the northern states, ageing is already under way in many southern states, leaving the country with the potential twin burden of too many young people on the one hand and of rapidly rising numbers of old people. Both concentrated in different geographies.

The government estimates that India will have 340 million people above 60 years of age by 2050 which will exceed the total population of the US. India seems to be ageing much faster than earlier estimated. Nearly 20% of the country’s population may be above 60 years of age by 2050.  In fact, during 2000-2050, while the overall population of India is expected to grow by 56%, the population in the 60+ and 80+ age groups will increase by a whopping 326% and 700% respectively. It is crucial therefore that we find ways of retraining and engaging senior citizens meaningfully. There is a lot to be learnt from Japan’s experience in this context where people of retirement age are kept engaged with the world around them, gradually moving on to work and activities that demand less responsibility.

Internal migration is also on the rise as a result of marked differentials in population growth. It is expected that while India’s overall population would grow for another 20-30 years, much of the growth would happen in poorer states, resulting in a huge spike in internal migration. This is because Kerala or Tamil Nadu are closer to Western Europe in terms of the fertility rate, while the Gangetic belt is closer to Africa. The Economic Survey of India, 2017 estimates that the magnitude of inter-state migration in the country was close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016, while Census 2011 pegs the total number of internal migrants in the country (accounting for inter- and intra-state movement) at a staggering 139 million. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest source states, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal. Major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. While every India has the right to work anywhere in the country, his or her movement should be driven by choice, not compulsion. Balanced regional development is therefore a must.

State-wise Total Fertility Rate in India (2015-16)

The most critical factor for harnessing India’s demographic dividend, however, is nourishment. The impact of persistent malnutrition can be devastating. Under-nutrition is the primary culprit in over 40% of under-five child deaths. Low IQ scores and productivity in adults can be attributed to under-nutrition, anaemia and iodine deficiency in childhood. According to NFHS-4 some progress has been made. Yet, over one-third of all under-five children are stunted, every fifth child is wasted, and more than 50% of the children are anaemic. Compared to India, other emerging economies such as Brazil (stunting – 6.1%, wasting – 1.6%), China (stunting – 6.8%, wasting – 2.1%) and Mexico (stunting – 13.6%, wasting – 1.6%) fare much better on nutritional indicators.

Recognising the enormity of this challenge, the government launched the POSHAN Abhiyaan in March, 2018 to provide policy and programmatic guidance to high burden states and districts; facilitate multisectoral planning and convergence; catalyse resource mobilisation; and develop a real-time monitoring and surveillance system for nutrition. The overall goal of the POSHAN Abhiyaan is to reduce stunting, undernutrition and low birth weight by at least 2% and anaemia by at least 3% per annum respectively. We have to strive to do better than these targets. As part of the Abhiyaan, there is a focus on technology-enabled, real-time monitoring from the time the pregnant woman registers at the Anganwadi Centre until the first 1,000 days of the infant’s life. Other notable features of this initiative include measuring the height of children at Anganwadi Centres, setting up Nutrition Resource Centres and mobilizing communities to create a jan andolan for nutrition. Further, incentives will be provided to shift the focus firmly on outcomes and performance.

A key strategy under the POSHAN Abhiyaan is community outreach and engagement. To enable this, a Strategy Group for Jan Andolan has been created in NITI Aayog. The Group is working with all the key ministries and stakeholders to design and identify evidence-backed messages which will be used for amplifying the Abhiyaan. It was on the suggestion of this Group that the month of September was observed as National Nutrition Month to create a never-before buzz, visibility and jan bhagidari on nutrition in every nook and corner of the country. May I use this opportunity to request the Population Foundation of India and all of us to make the elimination of child malnutrition a top priority in our work programmes.

The second important condition for realising the demographic dividend is women’s empowerment. It may not be too misplaced to say that women constitute half the country’s population, shoulder three-fourths of the responsibility to run society yet get only one-fourth of the respect and resources they deserve. This needs to be changed by focusing on the ‘4 Es’– Educate, Employ, Empower and Enjoy.

A fundamental aspect of empowering women is ensuring that they stay in school longer. Free education for girls should be extended until Class XII and be made compulsory. Telangana, for instance, has announced free education for girls from kindergarten to post graduation, while in Punjab it has been extended till the doctoral level. The Karnataka government has decided to make education free for all girls from class 1 to graduation level in all public schools as well as aided private schools and colleges. Data shows that girls who stay in school not only have their first baby at an older age but also have fewer children. Lack of education, on the other hand, robs women of reproductive control. Combined with younger pregnancies and higher childbearing rates, it also constrains women’s economic choices.

According to the National Family health Survey-4, women with no schooling have an average 3.1 children, compared with 1.7 children for women with 12 or more years of schooling. Similarly, women educated up to the 10th standard, had their first baby at a median age of 20-21 years whereas women educated up to the 12th standard had their first baby at a median age of 25-26 years. This five-year gap is crucial for ensuring that the health of the mother is not affected adversely. Moreover, babies who are born with a gap of less than 24 months are at high risk of malnutrition.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, India succeeded in fully closing its primary and secondary education enrolment gender gaps. For the first time we nearly closed the tertiary education gender gap as well. However, the high drop-out rates for girls at the secondary school level need to be addressed. As per the Annual Survey of Education Report 2017 findings, while on average the difference between enrolment levels of boys and girls at age 14 is declining, by 18 years, 32% girls are not enrolled, compared to 28% boys.

States like Sikkim have made great strides in keeping girls in school for longer through initiatives like the Small Family Scheme which encourages girls to marry late by offering monetary incentives. A similar approach has been adopted by the Jansankhya Sthirata Kosh which focuses on delaying the age of marriage of girls, delaying the age at which the first child is conceived as well as ensuring greater spacing between the first and second child through suitable incentives to couples.

Another crucial element of women’s empowerment is increasing the female participation rate in the labour force. As per the last three rounds of Annual Employment – Unemployment Surveys conducted by the Labour Bureau in the years 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2015-16, the Worker Population Ratio for females in the age group 15 years and above according to the Usual Status Basis was 25%, 29.6% and 25.8% respectively. According to the World Bank, India’s Female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) was 27% in 2017, compared to 53% in Brazil, 61% in China and 57% in Russia. The CMIE Consumer Pyramids Household Survey, however, estimated that the Female LFPR was as low as 10.7% during May-August, 2018.

This decline in FLPR from nearly 30% to a mere 12% as reported by CMIE would be both alarming and devastating. I have had the occasion to look into the CMIE data in some detail. As Dr. Surjit Bhalla has pointed out in his article in Indian Express on 11th October, CMIE has estimated the FLPR by taking the total female population into account and not those who are in the labour force i.e. between the age group of 15-65. By using the correct methodology, FLPR though still unacceptably low, rises to 25% or about twice as high as that estimated by CMIE. We will have to wait for NSSO household survey-based employment data to have a clear picture.

On the issue of reproductive choice, we need to ensure that a variety of methods are available so that women and couples can switch to methods that better meet their changing needs. If we look at the Matlab Family Planning Health Services Project in Bangladesh, we find that once they started offering a full range of contraceptive methods, 80% of the women were using one of the contraceptive methods after one year, a dramatic increase over the 40% continuation rate when only condoms and oral contraceptives were available. Awareness levels also need to be increased. Civil society organisations have an especially important role to play in this. According to the National Family health Survey-4, only 54% of women were aware of other available contraceptive options while 47% had knowledge of the potential side effects of their chosen method.

Another challenge that needs to be addressed in this context is that Indian men have not taken up the responsibility of managing fertility adequately. By far, the most popular contraceptive method, at 36%, is female sterilization. Although male sterilization is less invasive and risky, it is one of the least chosen contraceptive options at 1% or less. Male condom usage is low as well, at 5.6%. The almost complete dependence of the Indian family planning programme on women is evident from the fact that the male to female ratio for sterilization stood at 1:52 in 2016-17. It is most unfair for women to bear this responsibility as well.

Some states in the country are making efforts to correct this trend. These good practices need to be scaled-up and replicated. Jharkhand, for instance, is organising ‘Saas Bahu Pati Sammelan’ meetings for improving communication about family planning and ensuring that men are involved as much as women.

As emphasised by our Honourable Prime Minister, a New India can be built only when women are empowered and given equal opportunities in social and financial matters. In his words “India is moving from women’s development to women-led development”. To enable this, several initiatives have been implemented by the government over the last few years. The government’s flagship program, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao has been expanded to 640 districts for creating awareness and improving the efficiency of welfare services for girls and women. For improving the health and nutrition of mothers, the Pradhan Mantri Matritva Vandana Yojana has been launched. It provides Rs. 6,000 as financial aid to pregnant and lactating mothers for their first live birth.

Indian women spend nearly 374 hours every year on collecting firewood. Under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, 50 million LPG connections have been provided to BPL households in only 28 months since the launch of the scheme. The scheme’s target has now been revised upwards to 80 million. Yet more needs to be done to ensure that rural households have a bigger set of choices for replacing their dependence on buying biomass for cooking.

The passing of the Maternity Benefit Bill in 2017 was a historic move to entitle working pregnant women to 26 weeks of paid leave. The underlying objective is to empower women, and provide them with legal and constitutional safeguards. Under the MUDRA scheme, the government is providing credit to micro-units, many of which are owned by women. In fact, around 79% of MUDRA loan beneficiaries are women entrepreneurs. NITI Aayog has an important role to play in monitoring the implementation of a number of these schemes and suggesting the necessary course corrections.

Finally, we must stamp out trafficking of women and children. Data from the National Crime Records Bureaus indicates that there were 8,132 reported cases of human trafficking across India in 2016. In the same year, 15,379 people were trafficked of whom 9,034 victims were below the age of 18. These are surely gross underestimates. In addition to localised forms of slavery, there are growing instances of trafficking across international borders. In the northeast, for instance, organised trafficking syndicates have been reported along the open and unmanned international borders, duping or coercing young, educated girls who are looking for employment outside their local area into sexual exploitation. It is important that the different contexts of localised and cross-border trafficking and modern slavery are recognised and necessary reforms undertaken. This would have to include measures to sensitize the police, better equip them for checking cross border movement and discourage underreporting. Regional cooperation is also of the essence because over 150,000 people are affected by human trafficking in the South Asia region every year, most of whom are women and children. Of course, we, as citizens, also need to take cognizance of this problem and help to end this scourge. Campaigns like No More Missing are aiming to do just that by building a neighbourhood watch system.

JRD Tata famously said “’I do not want India to be an economic superpower. I want India to be a happy country.” India can undoubtedly achieve both but only if we ensure a relentless focus on nourishing, educating and empowering our women and children as well as freeing them from all forms of oppression. We must continue to invest in nutrition, education and health, including reproductive health, as these are some of the best investments any country can make.

Investing in women empowerment has multiple positive externalities which work through the family and broader society. Therefore, perhaps focusing on women empowerment may yield higher welfare gains than from measures for population control.