If there was ever a time for the demographic dividend that India is banking on to start paying off, it is now. Census data released on Friday shows that India’s youth bulge is now sharpest at the key 15-24 age group, even as its youngest and oldest age groups begin to narrow.

The office of the Registrar General of India and Census Commissioner released ‘single year age data’ for the 2011 Census on Friday, which refers to the number of people at each year of age in the population. The data shows that India’s working age population (15-64 years) is now 63.4% of the total, as against just short of 60% in 2001. The numbers also show that the ‘dependency ratio’ — the ratio of children (0-14) and the elderly (65-100) to those in the working age — has shrunk further to 0.55. “Even as the western world is ageing, these new numbers show that India’s population is still very young,” Census Commissioner C. Chandramouli told The Hindu.

As fertility falls faster in urban areas, rural India is younger than urban India; while 51.73% of rural Indians are under the age of 24, 45.9% of urban Indians are under 24. However urban India still has a higher proportion in the key 15-24 age group than rural India.

India, as expected, is not getting any younger. India’s median age has risen from around 22 years in 2001 to over 24 years in 2011, as per The Hindu’s calculations. Overall, India has 472 million people under the age of 18, and 49.91% of its population is under the age of 24.

The proportion of the population under the age of 24 has dropped by four percentage points, but demographers caution that this should not be interpreted as a sign that the youth bulge is shrinking. “With falling fertility, the number of infants and children is what reduces first and this is what we are seeing with the number of under-25s falling,” Faujdar Ram, director of the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences said.

Indeed the numbers show that the proportion of children in the 0-4 and 5-9 age groups has fallen in comparison to 2001. For the first time, the proportion of children in the 10-14 age group has also fallen, as the effect of families reducing the number of children they have begins to be felt. However the proportion of those in the 15-19 and 20-24 age groups has risen over 2001. “The key issue in terms of a demographic dividend is whether this growing youth bulge has the right skills for the workforce,” Mr. Chandramouli said.

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