China And India: The Tortoise And Hare And The Real Weight Of Demographics

The growth race is on
The growth race is on
Betty Ng*

In Aesop’s Fables, the story about the race between the hare and the tortoise tells people that the rabbit’s complacency and the turtle’s perseverance resulted in an unexpected ending to a seemingly predictable contest. In the 21st century, will the economic race between China and India also offer similar twists and turns, notably because of the age distribution in these two countries?

Both nations are highly regarded BRICS members of the fast-developing world, but in the past decade China’s economic growth and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) have far exceeded India's. Since 2001 China has risen from being the world’s sixth economy to the second, whereas India has advanced from 12th to 10th. However some people hold the view that due to China’s demographic distribution the advantage may turn in India’s favor in the next few decades. How reliable is this theory?

Currently, the populations in China and India are respectively 1.34 billion and 1.2 billion. But the two countries do have a different “starting point.” The biggest age bracket in China is 40-59 years old, in India it's 0-14. Within a few decades, China’s demographic pyramid will turn upside down, and leave young people in the minority. Meanwhile, India will continue to enjoy a young and vibrant population providing a massive labor pool to sustain its economic growth. These are the central factors that convince some experts that the economic growth gap between the two countries will begin to narrow and may soon even make it possible for India to overtake China.

Though there is a certain logic in these figures, the factors that determine economic growth are nevertheless complex; and the importance of the age distribution of a population should not be exaggerated. If a country’s economic pace relies mainly on age distribution then Africa and the Middle East possess even more advantages.

Japan is most often taken as an example in explaining the effect of an aging population on a dwindling economy. The truth is that the aging population has only exacerbated the economic slowdown, not caused it. Obviously, not all the countries with young populations are on the same economic level. Not all countries with young populations belong to the emerging market.

Although India has a much younger population in comparison with China, its education level is lower. India’s literacy rate is 61% for those older than 15, whereas it’s 92% in China. Undoubtedly, this stems partly from the gender gap in education. In China the comparative literacy rate between men and women is 96% to 88.5%, while it is 73.4% to 47.8% in India.

Of course, education is a necessary but not sufficient condition in promoting productivity. According to data from Global Demographics, China’s per capita GDP is lower than that of many other countries with the same literacy rate. This implies that both China and India obviously have plenty of room for improvement.

China's narrow gender gap

Though education itself does not guarantee growth in productivity, it remains nevertheless very important because it affects “employability.” The better one is educated, the most likely one is to find a job. Therefore the educational discrepancy between men and women in India will affect the participation of Indian women in the labor force.

Chinese working age women have a 71% employment rate while the figure is a mere 39% in India (83% to 75% when it comes to men). This means that a younger population in India does not necessarily imply a bigger labor force for the country. This in turn will also affect India’s growth in consumption. According to a forecast from BCG, an international consulting firm, Chinese women’s economic contribution will grow from $1.3 trillion in 2010 to $4 trillion in 2020, whereas in India it will grow to $0.9 trillion in the same period. In contrast, China has a much higher demand for luxury goods.

India will progress in its universal education. Global Demographics estimates that the average literacy rate will grow from the current 65% to 81% in 2032 in India, though that is still lower than China’s current average of 92%. The literacy rate will give respectively to China and India a 79% and 75% male labor participation rate, and a 68% and 40% rate for women. This shows clearly that even if India progresses in its universal education, its gender gap will still lag behind that of China.

As to the possibility of employment, currently China has Asia’s smallest gender gap in the labor force participation rate (12%). Meanwhile the 36% gender gap in India's workforce is nevertheless smaller than the average rate across South Asia (57%). Even though India has had both a female prime minister and president, women’s upward mobility remains limited to the rich and elite classes -- whereas in China there are many more career women with middle and upper management positions.

All these arguments in effect do not negate the importance of age distribution of a population. It just shows that the economic competition between China and India is a complicated process. Both countries have their own unique advantages and both rely on complex elements for economic growth. Economic growth alone cannot determine the rate of return on investment, so any prediction of productivity or GDP shouldn’t be based solely on the age distribution of the population either.

The economic competition between China and India is not a simple race between the hare and the tortoise. The likely return on investments in these two countries requires ever more complex analysis.

*Betty Ng, columnist at Caixin media, is also a contributing writer for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

At the Mango Festival held in Aswan, Egypt

Nada Arafat

ISMAILIA – Every year during the month of July, crowds gather in the mango farms of Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, to pick the delectable summer fruit during its relatively short harvest season. But this year, as a result of erratic weather patterns throughout March and April, the usual bountiful mango harvest was severely affected with farmers witnessing a precipitous drop in yield. Some 300,000 farms saw an 80% decrease in productivity, leading to a supply shortage in the market and a corresponding 40% increase in the price of mangoes.

The effects of these climate fluctuations could have been mitigated by farmers, yet according to experts who spoke to Mada Masr, the agriculture minister failed to play a role in raising awareness among farmers and in providing agricultural guidance services.

Heatwaves kill crops

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. For germination to occur, the ideal temperature should be between 10 °C at night and 28 °C during the day, according to agricultural consultants. In Egypt, this weather pattern usually occurs in February. Mango trees then flower and the flowers turn into fruits that take 40 days to grow and be ready for harvest, according to Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer.

This year, however, according to mango farmers in Ismailia who spoke to Mada Masr, the beginning of the winter farming season experienced a sudden heatwave followed by another heatwave at the end of March. In both March and April, the temperature dipped to as low as 5 °C at night and as high as 25 °C during the day. Due to these erratic weather fluctuations, the mango flowers that develop into fruit fell before they could mature.

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres or 0.40 hectares) ranges between 6 to 8 tons. This year however, the yield per feddan averaged between just 1 to 2 tons, according to several sources.

Frozen mango suppliers multiply purchases

A farm owner in Al-Tal al-Kebir on the Ismailia Desert Road, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his farm produced approximately 35 tons of mangoes last year, whereas this year his yield did not exceed 4 tons. He added that many farmers in the surrounding area, which is famous for mango cultivation, experienced the same steep declines in yield.

The limited mango yield and the subsequent hike in prices has also prompted frozen mango suppliers to multiply their purchases from farms in order to capitalize and sell them next year at an even higher price, according to Ali Saqr, an agricultural engineer in a fruit export company, along with a number of other farm owners who spoke to Mada Masr. Mangos can stay frozen for up to two years.

Khaled Eweis, who buys mangoes and stores them in rented freezers then later sells the frozen mangoes to juice and dessert shops, explained to Mada Masr that juice shops usually use the Zebdia variety of mangoes, whereas dessert shops use Keitt mangoes. The latter is expected to be priced at 25 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) this year after having been sold for half the price at the same time last year.

Last year, Eweis bought Zebdia mangoes for 10–12 Egyptian pounds ($0.6–$0.7) per kilo then resold them for 16 ($1) after freezing them. This year, the Zebdia prices ranged from 17–21 ($1–$1.30) per kilo, and Eweis expects that the price after freezing will reach as high as 25 ($1.5).

Photo of an Egyptian man shouldering a basket full of mangoes

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres) ranges between 6 to 8 tons


Threat to water security

This is not the first time that mango production has been hit hard as a result of fluctuating weather patterns. A similar crisis in the mango harvest took place in 2018, and other crops, such as olives, potatoes, wheat, rice and cotton, have also been adversely affected over the last few years, according to Mohamed Fahem, the head of the government Climate Change Information Center. And human-induced changes to global weather patterns as a result of climate change point to increased agricultural challenges in the future.

The deadly heat waves, fires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that have dominated headlines in recent years will only become more frequent in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on climate change released in August. In its sixth assessment report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called human-induced changes to global climate systems "unprecedented." While the report calls for drastic cuts to the global emission of greenhouse gases, much of the effects of climate change are already locked in for decades to come.

Among the areas most vulnerable to climate change is agriculture. A 2018 report titled Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changes in Egypt found that climate change can have drastic effects on agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall, CO2 levels and solar radiation. Meanwhile, a 2020 European Union report also found that climate change will pose a threat to global food production in the medium to long-term through projected changes in daily temperature, precipitation, wind, relative humidity and global radiation.

According to various studies, climate change gradually reduces the duration of spring, autumn and winter, which in turn affects the crops that are cultivated during those seasons. In Egypt in particular, the country's agricultural crop map will likely change as a result of a prolonged summer season, according to a study by former Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid, published in 2010 when he was heading the Center for Agricultural Studies. The study predicted that grain cultivation will gradually move north from Upper Egypt due to increases in winter temperatures, though it did not give a projected timeframe.

Cold and heat waves

Climate change also increases salinity levels in soil due to rising sea levels, which in turn renders the soil only suitable for crops that can handle high salinity yet still require intensive irrigation to mitigate the salinity levels. At the same time, Egypt is currently facing a threat to its water security due to the changes in rain patterns and droughts as well as the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to Fahim, the increased cold and heat waves Egypt has experienced has led to the emergence of new, mutated varieties of pests and fungal diseases that are resistant to chemicals. For example, in 2018, aphids and whiteflies spread due to the shortened winter season, and the accumulation of these pests led to huge losses in potato and cotton yields. Meanwhile, palm trees were harmed due to the appearance of red palm weevils.

How farmers counter mango losses

The severe losses in the 2021 mango yield were hard to avoid, but is there a way to counter them?

Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer, believes that better methods of agriculture, irrigation and fertilization, along with raising awareness among farmers about the dangers of climate change and how to monitor weather fluctuations could succeed in mitigating such outcomes.

However, Egypt appears currently incapable of providing sufficient safety networks to farmers in order to enable them to confront the effects of climate change.

An example of this is apparent in the failure to enforce mechanisms for warning farmers about potential difficulties in upcoming farming seasons. In June, a report by the Center for Agricultural Studies warned about a decline of as much as 85% in the productivity of farms in Ismailia, where mangoes are mainly cultivated, as well as farms in Sharqiya, Suez and Beheira, due to climate change. However, this report only reached about 13 farmers and owners of mango farms, according to agricultural sources who spoke to Mada Masr.

Ahmed Asal, a mango farmer in Qantara in Ismailia, told Mada Masr that there has been no guidance from authorities in helping farmers understand climate change and how to respond to it. "No one told us what to do and we never received any compensation for our losses," Asal said.

Photo of a hand picking a mango from the tree in Egypt

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/ZUMA

Agriculture engineers must become climate engineers

Agricultural guidance is a service offered by the Agriculture Ministry to raise awareness and educate farmers about all aspects of farming. The service is usually provided through agricultural engineers who are based in the agricultural cooperatives that exist in every city and town.

Fahim, the head of the Climate Change Information Center, works to play a similar role through his Facebook page and, at times, on various TV channels and newspapers, by raising awareness about weather fluctuations and their effects on agriculture. However, his insights do not have a wide enough audience, particularly at a time when the agricultural guidance is dwindling despite the opening of the Agricultural Guidance Center in Qantara earlier this year under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry.

"Agricultural guidance has been doing a good job lately, but only in the media, not on the ground," said Alaa Khairy,* an engineer at the Central Laboratory for Climate Change. "If they were really working on the ground, farmers would not have lost as much as they did."

More important crops like wheat will be next

What exacerbates the crisis is that those who are harmed the most are small farmers — those who have between 10 to 20 feddans of land — who cannot afford to take preemptive precautionary measures to mitigate erratic weather patterns nor hire experts who can help them make better decisions about how to handle sudden climate fluctuations. Those farmers also cannot afford to provide covers for their fruits during hot seasons, which is one way to prevent crop damage that is quite costly.

This year's crisis is expected to be repeated in the coming years due to the rapid consequences and effects of climate change on global food security. Aside from mangoes, the effects of climate change are projected to affect far more important crops, such as wheat, with reports showing global wheat crop losses due to heat and drought, a particularly worrisome development for Egypt — the largest importer of wheat in the world.

"In the coming period, agricultural engineers must become climate engineers as well," Suleiman said.


Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!