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How do India and China compare?

India’s Population Boom Is an Opportunity—and an Economic Threat

The country’s rising population could be a huge tailwind for growth—but only if it can solve its unemployment problem

By Megha Mandavia, WSJ

April 24, 2023 6:30 am ET

India is set to reach a notable milestone this year—becoming the world’s most populous country. That squarely positions it as an alternative to China: Both as a manufacturer and, perhaps someday, as the world’s largest market.

The onus is now on the South Asian giant to fulfill that promise or bear the consequences.

India’s population should reach about 1.429 billion by mid-2023, slightly higher than China’s 1.426 billion people, according to a new estimate from the United Nations. According to Pew Research, people under the age of 25 account for more than 40% of India’s population—at a time when the U.S. and China are rapidly aging.

However, the rosy comparisons stop there. While India was the fastest-growing of the five largest world economies in 2022, real spending power still lies largely in the hands of a lucky few. India’s gross domestic product per capita was just $2,257 in 2021 against China’s $12,556 according to the World Bank. The scope for discretionary spending is much more limited than in China or even Indonesia, according to HSBC. India’s wage earners often have more mouths to feed, the bank says, given low female labor-force participation and large family sizes.

Even so, consumption rather than investment disproportionately drives growth. And high unemployment remains an enormous challenge, largely because India’s private sector remains cautious about investing in the formal economy.

The unemployment rate was 7.8% in March 2023, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, an independent think tank in Mumbai. That rate has remained at around 8% for most of the past four years. And that is particularly concerning, given India’s very low labor-force participation rate—at only about 40% according to official data.

Education is also a challenge. Leaving aside those from the country’s top engineering and management schools, Indian college graduates often struggle to find jobs. Last year, business advisory Wheebox found that only 47% of male graduates it tested passed its National Employability Test. Fifty-three percent of female graduates passed.

More manufacturing jobs and increasing female labor-force participation would help. Mahesh Vyas, the chief executive of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, says India needs to create an environment that encourages large-scale private-sector investment—something that has been absent for several years now, he says.

In contrast, China has been extraordinarily successful at funneling its enormous population into the global manufacturing labor force. Manufacturing was 27% of China’s economy in 2021 versus just 14% of India’s, according to the World Bank. And while New Delhi’s recent policies to boost Indian manufacturing have met with some marked successes, much more is still needed—especially heavier infrastructure investment and labor market reforms.

Time is of the essence. While India looks young now, the nation’s population could peak as early as 2047, according to the U.N.

With the West increasingly leery of China and that nation’s own demographic dividend ebbing, India stands at a crossroads. It will either leverage its enormous human resources to become a superpower—attracting enormous investment inflows in the process—or miss the moment and scuttle its potential.

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