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Saturday, June 25, 2022

What data tells us about the lives of the young Indians

Menaka Guruswamy writes: At one level, their lives mirror the lives of their grandparents. This has implications for the constitutional promise of a fraternal nation.

Written by Menaka Guruswamy |
Updated: February 19, 2022 8:15:37 am
When you are the world’s largest constitutional democracy, and the second-most populated country on the planet, one is justified in being curious about the mammoth undertaking that is India and the people who comprise it. (C R Sasikumar)

I have often wondered: Who and what are Indians? The Constitution adopted by “We, the people” describes India as “a sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic, securing to all its citizens justice, liberty, equality and to promote among them all fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation”. Be that as it may, the Constitution is rather far removed from most people’s lives. For a moment, let me leave my constitutional lens aside and look more closely at those who adopted this text — the people of the country.

When you are the world’s largest constitutional democracy, and the second-most populated country on the planet, one is justified in being curious about the mammoth undertaking that is India and the people who comprise it.

The United Nations World Population Prospects 2019 report projected the world population in 2021 to be around 7.87 billion. The Worldometers.info site projects that in 2022, India’s population will be around 1.4 billion. To put this in context, Indians will comprise 17 per cent of the population of the planet.

Significantly, even though we are a young person’s country, our population is also slowly declining. The average age of India is 28.4 years. This is in stark contrast to other parts of the world — Western Europe or North America, even China — which have ageing or greying populations.

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Since we are a youthful nation, I have often wondered what my younger compatriots think or feel or believe? Is India growing more into the country of her Constitution? A country of constitutional morality — of equality, liberty, and fraternity? Are neighbourhoods more mixed today? Are inter-caste and inter-religious relationships more common?

I am eternally curious about my country. This is one of the primary reasons that I practise law. Every day, litigation provides insights into one life or many lives, a cause of action, a motive of one or many Indians. A courtroom offers you a window into the many stories that comprise our country — whether that is one of commerce, one of a family coming undone (divorce), a murder, or many murders. Last week, one of my more exciting cases involved a triple murder and 24 accused set in a part of the country I had never been to. But it brought alive the context of these many lives undone by an enduring rivalry.

Therefore, I was excited to come upon a book that uses data to explain India and Indians. Rukmini S, a data journalist, is the author of the book titled Whole Numbers and Half Truths – What data can and cannot tell us about modern India. (A note here: It is deeply unfortunate that the book’s publisher Westland books has been closed.)

The book relies on data collected from the Census, National Statistical Office, National Family Health Survey, National Crime Records Bureau and Election Commission, among others. Rukmini S also relies on reputed private sources for data including India Human Development surveys, the Lokniti-CSDS surveys and the Social Attitudes Research survey. A particularly riveting chapter is titled ‘Eat, Pray, Enjoy, Love, Marry — How India Lives Life’. I have reproduced its findings in this portion of the article.

What does India eat? Based on the surveys, Rukmini S reports that the country is only one-quarter to one-third vegetarian. She notes that surveyors reported a reluctance of people to report meat eating. Seventy-nine per cent of people from the Scheduled Castes and 82 per cent Scheduled Tribes eat meat, as do 68 per cent of Other Backward Castes and 65 per cent of upper castes. Importantly, the data shows that meat-eating has been growing in India since the early 2000s.

What about marriage? As of January 2018, 93 per cent of married Indians had an arranged marriage. Just 3 per cent had a “love marriage”, and 2 per cent had a “love-cum-arranged” marriage — they were introduced by their families, fell in love, and got married. Importantly, this is only marginally different from the study of octogenarians, of whom 94 per cent had an arranged marriage. Therefore, the author concludes that young Indians get married the way their grandparents did.

Significantly, the prevalence of arranged marriages means that marriages remain within one’s caste and religion. A 2011-2012 survey found that only 5 per cent of urban respondents had an inter-caste marriage, like the findings of a 2014 survey that reported only 5 per cent of urban Indians had a family member who married outside their religion. The 2011-2012 survey by the National Council for Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland found that 5.08 per cent of the poorest Indians have an inter-caste marriage and only 4.89 per cent of the richest segment of Indians participate in such a union. Finally, the book points to the 2021 Pew Research Centre study, which concluded that 99 per cent of Indians marry within their religion.

Separate from practice, what of attitudes? In 2016, 55 per cent of young people professed an acceptance of inter-caste marriage. Among the 6 per cent of young people who said they had a love marriage, one-third was inter-caste. There have been other positive trends as well. The legal age of marriage is 18 years for women and 21 years for men. Rukmini S observes that women and men are getting married later. She demonstrates this by noting that “nearly half the married women in their forties were married by the time they were 18 years old, but among women currently in their early twenties, that proportion is down to 25 per cent.” However, the data also suggests that the poorest 40 per cent of women and those who have not gone to school or have only a primary education are the ones who marry below the age of 18 years.

What must we conclude then about this country, whose average citizen is in their late twenties? At one level in their own lives, the lives of the youth of India mirror those of their grandparents. Yet, their attitudes are changing and may prove to be different. The Constitution imagines a fraternal nation — one in which caste, class and gender will not be a determinative factor in shaping choices. To get to that constitutionally promised land, we clearly have much work to do.

This column first appeared in the print edition on February 19, 2022 under the title ‘Who we are’. The writer is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India

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