Investing in adolescent development: A case for India

A technical group on population projections, established by the National Commission on Population, estimates that by 2036 India’s population will likely have increased by 26% over the Census 2011 population estimates. The proportion of those above 60 years of age will roughly double, while there will be a decline in the younger population groups. The group suggests a sharp decline in India’s adolescent population—aged between 10 and 19 years—who comprise roughly 20% of the country’s population at the moment. Thus, India needs to prioritise investments in its large young population, given the limited window of opportunity to leverage its demographic dividend.

The Population Foundation of India commissioned the Institute for Competitiveness, a Delhi-based research organisation, to examine current interventions in key aspects of adolescent health and development in India, and assess the costs and benefits that will accrue from future investments in this population group. Focus areas of the study include: education, physical and mental health, sexual and reproductive health and prevention of early marriage.

The study seeks to understand current investments, strategies and programmes in adolescent health, education and well-being across various ministries, and recommend measures for sustainable efforts for adolescent development at the national level. It underscores the need for India’s education policy to focus on achieving universal enrolment for secondary education as the returns on education are higher beyond the primary level. According to the report, every additional year of education in India increases a person’s average income by about 6.7%. This return is higher for girls than boys—each additional year of education yields an 8.6-percent increase in women’s monthly wages, while for men it is 6.1%. The total expenditure for schooling an individual from Class VI to XII was projected to be between 182,015 and 3,30,774 per student. The individual benefits in terms of increase in lifetime wages were on average 14,94,591 after adjusting for opportunity costs. The study also found that every rupee invested towards the completion of school education is expected to bring an economic benefit between 4.5 and 8.2 in terms of future earnings of each individual.

The report reiterates persistent gaps in the implementation of programmes focussed on nutrition and mental health across the country. Anaemia and malnutrition are growing concerns, especially among the adolescent population. The study projected that the cost of distributing iron and folic acid tablets to prevent anaemia among school-going adolescent boys and girls and out-of-school adolescent girls would be roughly 3,000 crore per year. Considering the gaps in mental-health infrastructure and human resources in the country, the total cost of establishing adequate mental-health facilities for adolescents was pegged at 8,134 crores over the next six years. Another 2,745 crore would be needed per year to cover the treatment costs.

The study recognises that reducing child marriages in the country requires a holistic approach, which should focus on greater investments in health, education, empowerment of adolescent girls, changing social norms and ensuring community mobilisation along with providing economic incentives. A conditional cash-transfer programme linked with school enrolment could lead to significant benefits for India in terms of averting child marriages, increasing enrolment rates and enhancing labour-force participation. A pan-India programme targeting girls aged 13 years and above with a conditional cash-transfer scheme until they complete Class XII will cost the country around 7,000 crore annually.

Recommendations made in the study include a defined policy vision for adolescent development. A vision document for adolescent development would help determine the short- and long-term goals for the country and also enable coordination across the concerned ministries and government bodies. The study makes a case for achieving universal enrolment of adolescents in secondary education. However, it also points out that the returns to education are not always equitable. Therefore, investments towards improving education enrolment have to target vulnerable groups. A failure to do so can yield unequal outcomes.

The government also needs to reassess and revisit its adolescent-health budgets over the next decade. The study also identified an extreme paucity of periodic, large-scale datasets specific to adolescents. There is a need to capture regular, high-quality data on key areas of adolescent development. The availability of such data can significantly aid evidence-based policymaking and drive better governance outcomes.

The study has been accessed by clicking here.

(The study was commissioned by the Population Foundation of India and conducted by the Institute for Competitiveness.)