Reality Check India

Youth bulge and India

Posted in Uncategorized by realitycheck on January 29, 2008

This blog propelled me to write this post. 

You have heard about the great “age advantage” that awaits India. We are told how we are about to reap the benefits of a young population, while the aging west pays the price for not reproducing.  India, today has a remarkable 51 percent of its population under 25 and 67% under 35.  By 2020, the average Indian will be 29, the average Chinese 27, and the average Japanese 48.  Wow !

The natural counter question is : Well, does the youth bulge guarantee economic success ? The answer is a resounding NO. In fact, it would be a miracle if violence can be avoided and conditions created for economic transformation. This is the essence of the popular youth bulge theory. The Law and Other Things blog makes a great attempt to put it in an Indian context. The theory is very compelling partly due to its plain speaking German author – Prof Heinsohn.  After all, it simply says that violence needs young unattached male fighers. Duh! I think there is much more in this simple theory than meets the eye.

First this theory in a nutshell.

Gunnar Heinsohn, a social scientist and genocide researcher at the University of Bremen, has an explanation for why this might be so. Since its publication in 2003, his eccentric and eye-opening Sons and World Power* (not available in English) has become something of a cult book. In Mr Heinsohn’s view, when 15 to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence tends to happen; when large percentages are under 15, violence is often imminent.


I will not bore you more with explaining this theory further. There are plenty of resources on the web. I want to focus on what this theory has for India.

A common misconception :

The population growth could “transform into a demographic dividend if every child was born healthy and was educated,” said Health Minister Ambumani Ramadoss.

Really, is it that simple ? According to the youth-bulge theory, education and health has little bearing on the proclivity to violence. In fact, well fed and educated youth are even more dangerous.  The north-east, Kashmir, Punjab have lower poverty and higher education. Sri Lankans, both Tamils and Sinhalese have high literacy levels.  So, obviously the excellent & free education system in Sri Lanka did not help them.  The less said about our public primary education the better.

What bulge

I pulled stats for India from the US Census bureau. Our population in 2020 looks is shown in the graphic below. This is when the youth bulge (15 – 35 ) appears to be most pronounced.


Fast forward into the future, in 2050 the population for India would be


You can see that in 2050, the youth bulge has passed.

If the youth bulge indeed correlates with violence, then

  • the worst years would be between 2020 to 2030.
  • the chance to formulate pre-emptive strategies is before 2015

The overall bulge means nothing

I explored further on this by reading many articles on the internet and also thinking a bit about the unique Indian socio-political scenario. For a country like India, the national bulge is not significant. Any statistic will drown in the sheer volume and complexity of India. 

Based on my own rather simplistic analysis, the two important take-aways for India are :

  • The youth bulge in the number of males who cant find partners (linked to the widening sex gap) .
  • The youth bulge in the groups which have grievances against the state (linked to how closely knit these groups are and what their expectations are from the state).

In street level talk, groups would measure their expectations with respect to what other groups have received from the state.There is no absolute measure of how much of the social pie is legitimate. This is an uncomfortable truth that no Indian would like to accept, no Indian columnist to write about, or media to call.  Yet this forms the core of new ideas in behaviour theory. See our earlier posts on Prof Russell Hardin and Mancur Olsen.

Security strategies based on the youth bulge theory

This is probably one of the most interesting applications of the bulge theory. Faced with an insurgent situation, the state can adapt its responses based on the bulge. Some strategies might be (State vs Insurgent-A) :

  • Wait for Insurgent-A’s bulge to pass. In the meantime, engage in offensive options that hasten the process. Sri Lanka might be following this method. Notice the remarkable levels of immigration to the west and the natural passing of the bulge.
  • Compromise the youth bulge of Insurgent-A. This happens by diluting the identity of the group itself.  See the example of Assam and its rising Bangladeshi muslim population as mentioned in this post.

India’s primary bulge problem

We are at a fork in the road, as this blog has mentioned several times in the past. As boring and bitter as it sounds, concrete and exclusive benefits linked simply to people being in a group is the recipe for disaster. The effects are :

  • Now youth bulges have to be monitored for a hundred new groups. Each one with a deadly potential for violence.
  • The total absence of data and the non-insistence (so far) of the judicial system of it, makes violence even more attractive. Sometimes it is the only legitimate route left (see the faith reposed in violence by Assamese tribals, the Gujjars, and the remarkable success of the violent route by the Vanniyars, the Christian-Hindu violence in Orissa’s Kandhamal district and so forth)
  • As population explodes and a severe crunch on natural resources like fresh water and clean air is felt – these violent groups can also stake territorial claims such as control over water bodies, hill resorts etc. Islands of pleasure, such as luxury residences in SEZs will be the first to be targeted.

What can be done

We have a short time window before the problem explodes in our face.  A possible strategy is.

  • Primary education. I know, this will only worsen the potential for violence, but it has a good counterbalancing effect. It will make people aware of the need of data and check the political forces and co-operative media. This further leads to weakening of group identity. The end result is the non-effectiveness of a youth bulge in any group. The group itself is irrelevant as competing claims to benefits have to pass the data test.
  • Trim bulges in dominant extremist groups.  India is going to have a youth bulge in 2020, this need not mean that naxals also get to enjoy a proportional share of this bulge.  However, if unmonitored benefits accrue to groups at the exclusion of the really deprived (atleast in their own view), then the ranks of established extremists will swell. The naxal bulge will become much more pronounced than the overall Indian bulge. 

Sorry to bore you again, but the central culprit is the entrenchment in India of adhoc and unmonitored benefits to groups favoured by the state. This might lead to more pronounced youth bulges in the extremist ranks compared to the already big Indian youth bulge.

When that happens, the following would suddenly make a lot of sense.

“LOOK AT IT THIS WAY,” Gunnar Heinsohn said. “Your family is in a shooting war with a family across the street. Your forces consist of a father, mother and one child, perhaps two. The other family has a father, mother and seven children, perhaps eight or nine. For your family, the loss of one person would be devastating. The larger family can take casualties and continue fighting.”

Internet resource on Prof Heinsohn

More on this later.


14 Responses

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  1. xyz said, on January 29, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    For the first time i am seeing an article on the demography of india linked with the cohesion of the state apparatus and its relationship with the population.Excellent work.Keep it up.

    Yet i have to go back to my familiar rant.The dominant ‘backward’ groups just lack the intellectual depth and integrity to even recogonise the problem.I have expressed my admiration for you the way you have consistently raised this crucial issue again and again.

    I was recently in the gounder belt of TN for a fair length of time.The gounders are extremely hardworking and the dominant peasant community of the region.The agriculture is mechanised.There is intensive cash crop cultivation for the market.Rural infrastructure and education is excellent by indian standards.There is a tradition of entrepreneurship in textiles,food processing and small scale industry.The brahmanas are insignificant here.There are 72 engineering colleges in the region,mostly owned by naickers and gounders.Yet there is a dalit underclass as well as relative poverty in other castes as well.

    I was talking to a lecturer in engineering college who has come back to his native area after many years in industry in the metros.He was urbane,suave and a connossieur of classical music.Yet while describing himself as a member of the dominant landed caste,he described his caste as bcs.There was not a hint of irony.The BCs are a political label.One cannot think of a naxalite rebellion in coimbatore.The economy is booming and there is a shortage of manpower.

    Ofcourse the situation would be different in many other parts.Most educated ‘upper castes’ feel that they are helpless.They concentrate on their carrers or migrate to greener pastures,if they can.Or join the dork media.

  2. realitycheck said, on January 29, 2008 at 6:04 pm


    Interesting comment. “Indian liberals do not support social justice, they support the current caste + religion list”

    If I recall correctly, Coimbatore Gounders were treated as a forward community until the 70’s. Even today, it is hard to blame advanced individuals of communities for taking full advantage of such benefits. They have to measure their actions only against others in their own group or in similarly placed groups.

    In the Coimbatore area , a youth bulge in the dominant Naicker community may not necessarily lead to violence. It is the bulge in the others such as Muslims, and Dalits, and some most backward groups that need to be watched. These are the groups that may be nurturing legitimate grievances (at least in their view) against the state.

    As you correctly mention, Brahmins do not matter because their projection is negligible. For the really backward, they may not even exist and it will not make an iota of difference.

  3. Prabhat said, on January 29, 2008 at 7:21 pm


    I must say this article was quite different than the popular theme, which is obviously “this is India’s century”. But what really caught my eye was the linkage between youth bulge and violence. I have been researching for some time on a similar topic in which I was linking population growth with its possible culmination in street violence.

    In fact we can see some such effects already; the controversy around Singur/Nandigram/land procurement in general, multiple public lynchings in Bihar etc. I believe that govt. must put its focus back on the root of the problem which is controlling population growth and inclusive development. Till now the govts. (in my opinion) have been treating the symptoms.

    Myself, I am an “aam aadmi” of India and do not have much (or any) leverage in the corridors of power. So I think as responsible citizens, we (you as well as) must try to put this idea across to those who do have some say with the policy makers e.g. analysts, news channels etc. Hopefully some of us will wake up and we will some action before its too late (e.g. you reasoned for 2015 threshold).

    All the best.

  4. Revathi said, on February 1, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Interesting to read. a rather scary scenario.

    In his book on the collapse of civilizations by Jared Diamond outlines causes for the death of civilisations and population explosion can but not must lead to violent situations. In fact, he attributed the genocide in Rwanda atleast partly to the very high pressure by the population on the natural resources. When europe came across this problem, they migrated to other places taking massive risks. What should India do? Colonise outer space? I must say that Jared Diamond, thorough though he was, didnt foresee the change in male/female ratios in societies- would be interesting to see how he would react to that.

  5. realitycheck said, on February 3, 2008 at 4:20 am


    Thanks for the link to Jared Diamond’s book. I had not heard about it. Does it have anything on India ?

    This environment angle is scary indeed. A great example is the sand mining currently in progress in south India. I was talking to a mestry the other day, he claims that there is only about 15 years worth of sand left in the major prehistoric rivers in northern TN. WIth export to other states, they supplies may be as low as 5 years. (This was also reiterated by a participant in a program on Makkal TV)

    The IT companies are making it worse by being one of the major consumers of river sand. These cash rich companies do not adopt the steel hi-rise building models of the west instead build solid concrete box like low rise structures.

    Ok I am rambling now. Maybe another post.

  6. Observer said, on February 3, 2008 at 8:54 am

    Malthusian fear-mongering has taken many forms over the last couple of hundred years. However, in each case, the projections have turned out to be untrue. In my opinion, this is largely an artifact of an unrecognized shift in the nature of technology when faced with stress of sociological, environmental, or political origin. Foodgrain production soared by over 250% per acre after the Green Revolution was unleashed around the world, especially in India by Swaminathan and co. Repeating such a feat may prove to be difficult again if one adopts linear thinking. But the rate of growth of the population may also trend lower sooner than currently agreed upon. If one looks at the UN population projection reports over the last 25 years, they have consistently overestimated the rate of population growth for India.

    • Dave is back said, on February 18, 2010 at 1:32 am

      I dunno, malthusian fear-mongering is a healthy stance to take. The way you sound, you’re expecting another Green Revolution any day now. Without said revolution, our populations are screwed.
      We need to find a humane, effective, and impartial system of birth control and environmental conservation, or else nature will do the job for us, and nature will not be kind to excess populations. Nor will those ‘excess’ people take kindly to starving or poverty. They might engage in a little war or terrorism to make themselves feel better. War has not stopped; humanity has not changed. Although all enemies are defeated we still fight. The population of India is the fastest growing population on Earth, all crammed onto a small peninsula. Its a powder keg waiting to explode. A nuclear tipped keg.

  7. Observer said, on February 3, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Rwanda was a different case. While the population density there was quite high, approaching India’s, there are cultural factors also at work related to ancient tribal rivalries (Hutus and Tutsis). Also, being a lower-tech society, with not much of an intellectual class to offer social solutions, the existing problems were compounded and erupted into violence. Some Rwandans were reported to have said, now that the population had come down, there would be more land for everybody.

    India still possesses a substantial intellectual class, and shares a common culture shaped over thousands of years. While the politicians are working hard to break down society into competing groups, I believe the level of rivalry and animosity is nowhere near that between African tribes.

  8. Barbarindian said, on February 3, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    The IT companies are making it worse by being one of the major consumers of river sand. These cash rich companies do not adopt the steel hi-rise building models of the west instead build solid concrete box like low rise structures.

    Ok I am rambling now. Maybe another post.

    The selective environmental alarmism needs to be analyzed. For instance, The Pioneer (Swapan Dasgupta) hailed the PM’s visit to Arunachal as a historic event of great strategic and economic importance. At the same time the lead story of CNN-IBN was a piece by Bahar Datt (Barkha’s sister) about how building dams etc. is creating environmental damage to Arunachal Pradesh.

  9. Mahesh said, on February 4, 2008 at 2:45 am

    Went through the post thoroughly.But,in my view the most alarming situation would arise due to the skewed sex ratio.For instance,as per certain reports men from Hariyana are on a bride-hunt in Kerala(my home state)-the only state in India that has a favourable sex ratio-1040f/1000m .And more pathetic are their living conditions there.Once they move to Hariyana, they become slaves literally – unhealthy and illegal activities are also common.With Delhi,Punjab,Hariyana&Chandigarh stooping to a record low of 800f/1000m,one couldn’t help but fear for the worst.This is clearly pointing towards a social disaster.The media is yet to throw much light on this issue.The Kerala government has to step up its measures as it did before a couple of decades on the controversial ‘Arabi Kalyanam’.

    • Dave is back said, on February 18, 2010 at 1:35 am

      the media does not want to admit that there is a problem in too much freedom. Its an unpopular subject, for there isn’t any good solution. You can’t force people to stop having babies in the modern political climate, and lets just hope that there isn’t a return to the 1970s policies of forced birth control. More than just the youth bulge is the skewed ratio of the sexes, and the dangers that this poses for women’s rights, masculine aggression, and India’s emigration to the rest of the world.

  10. realitycheck said, on February 4, 2008 at 3:23 am


    Thanks for the info. Punjab/Haryana is really worrisome and would contribute directly to the “dry branches” (young unattached males).

    Girls unable to find matches are also worrisome, but not dangerous.

    How does this Haryana bride scheme work ?

  11. Confused said, on February 4, 2008 at 10:52 pm


    Did you get my e mail? Check your Rediff id.. thanks.

  12. […] Reality Check – Youth bulge and India […]

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