Engage with youth to translate demographic dividend into democratic dividend
In my work, I meet with youth across India. Four themes have emerged from these interactions, which require a response if we want to keep Young India vested in our democracy.
First, outside of a well-networked micro-set of young people, most feel they are not taken seriously, nor are their problems prioritised. It’s not just that their opinion doesn’t matter, but even decisions are made for them without asking them. This is a genuine complaint. Young people are talked at but rarely listened to. And this is reflected in our public discourse. Other than unemployment, problems of young people are, by and large, not prioritised. India is seeing the largest number of young people on the move for education and employment, and accommodation is an overriding preoccupation. Yet, hostels are not part of mainstream discourse. Similarly, our public discourse on education is geared towards experts not students, riddled with abstractions about budget, institutional autonomy etc, which many young people don’t understand.
Second, there’s a pervasive sense of lack of fair play: Most young people will say some version of, “the ‘system’ is corrupt”. There is an acute sense that access to already inadequate opportunities is being skimmed by influence instead of merit. The definition and question of “merit” is irrelevant, as is whether they would reasonably qualify if that definition were fairly applied — what is notable is that there is a deep sense of injustice and resentment. This is perhaps why the youth takes so readily to “anti-corruption” mobilisations — for the satisfaction of potentially upending the existing power balance which excludes them. Third, there is palpable aspiration but overwhelming lack of direction. Large numbers of youth are first-generation students. This group has no built-in information networks and their understanding of possible pathways is constrained. Often, there is a demotivating lack of overlap between their aspiration and what they are doing. When asked, who do they turn to for advice, rarely do young people mention an informed mentor. This is worrying not only because of the missed opportunities, but equally for the lack of constructive authority structures to keep them grounded.
Finally, there is a touching search for identity and self-pride, which makes young people susceptible to being used for commerce and malevolence. The young person posting selfies is trying to stand out. The young thug, too, is looking to assert some sense of self. They are also just passing time. It is our collective failure that we haven’t shown accessible pathways to a progressive sense of identity, that instead of instilling a sense of self-pride, we have left most with a sense of being pushed around.
What is the consequence of our youth feeling this way? Unfortunately, while there is understanding of the need to mainstream youth economically (jobs), there isn’t adequate focus on mainstreaming them politically. This is crucial because the resultant disaffection may erupt (and already has) in violence.
Some urgent response is required, not merely out of responsibility but tactically, if one is concerned about peace and progress. There’s the paradox of “apolitical” young people turning out in huge numbers to vote for Narendra Modi in 2014. But it’s not that young people are not interested in politics; the political class is not talking about the things which interest them. Consequently, they are coalescing around the most bombastic personality with the hope that he will “do something”. This is their most-often cited reason for supporting Modi, “at least he is doing something”. The PM gets away with it because most young people are uninformed, relying on perception instead of facts to make decisions. Few can accurately explain any policy initiative launched by Modi; most cite his political rhetoric as reason for support.
The onus of keeping young people engaged and vested in the democratic process is on us. We must speak directly on issues which matter to them in a language they understand. Some of these issues may seem mundane, but they reflect the lived reality of the vast majority of young people. Putting them front and centre in our public discourse and national politics is the only way to make the youth feel that they are seen and heard. Only then can we convert our demographic dividend into our democratic dividend.
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