As India is poised to become the youngest nation on the planet, millions of its restless youth are expected to define the country's role in what is widely considered an "Asian century". The changes taking place in the world of young Indians could well have a global impact in areas ranging from economy to security, from culture to politics.
India has witnessed a huge transformation after the opening of its economy in the early 1990s set it on a rapid growth trajectory. Landmark changes are taking place in almost all spheres of life – 140 million people were lifted from poverty in the past 10 years alone. Improved standards of life and a concomitant socio-cultural liberalization have led to an awakening of its youth. Yet, India faces multiple challenges with over 250 million more still mired in poverty and abysmal human development indicators in healthcare, access to knowledge and standards of living.
India, the worlds' second populous country after China, is a young nation. More than half of its l.2 billion people are aged below 25 and 66 per cent under 35, according to government data. And one of every five people aged below 30 in the world is an Indian, population statistics show. The youth in India, popularly called Youngistan by the domestic media, are pushing for improvement in the country's economy, education and healthcare, intervening on crucial junctures to better their circumstances.
Between Tradition and Modernity
Interviews with young Indians reveal high levels of aspiration as well as anxiety about their socio-economic status and education. Governance and development, unemployment and poverty are their biggest concerns. But a majority is optimistic about their country's future. Aware about globalization, Indian youth are open to influences from across the world, tuned into the latest films and fashion trends as they attend concerts featuring the best from east and west. A new culture that is irreverent, values merit and holds mostly liberal attitudes is emerging across cities.
Ananya Anand, 23, a Delhi-based architect says today's youth are individualistic and materially driven, focusing on their needs and desires in contrast to their parents' generation, that lived in joint families and saved for their children. "Parental authority has been gradually eroding on key decisions such as choosing careers and marriage. Now, there are a number of inter-caste marriages, second marriages or live-ins in the cities, that were taboo till now. They (youth) are unshackling themselves from old, regressive beliefs and social evils."
With economic advancement and new options and avenues, young Indians are embracing change with a confidence that previous generations lacked. Higher education levels also mean a young India is crossing boundaries of social mores, making friends across gender, caste and religious lines in a still conservative milieu, a study "Indian Youth in a Transforming World: Attitudes and Perceptions" conducted by Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Konrad Adenauer Foundation observes.
Yet, it is not as if young Indians are spurning traditional value systems altogether but are rather adapting to modernity. By and large, they prefer to remain within the cultural codes of their family and social networks, media surveys show. Unlike the West where they are expected to be independent at an early age, youth prefer to stay with parents or in joint families even after they are employed. Arranged marriages are still the norm. They celebrate religious festivals and social events in Hindu-dominated India with much enthusiasm. One sees many young employees stop to offer prayers at temples on their way to work in the mornings. At swanky malls, college campuses, cyber-cafes and gyms, places where social controls ease, youth negotiate with modernity to create new identities.
The youth has evolved a bi-cultural identity; having elements of local and global identity, Sanjay Kumar says, director at CSDS and one of the authors of the study. At metro stations, one can find the young people engrossed in listening to Bollywood film music that feature collaborations with international artistes like American rapper Akon on their phones. Valentine's Day has become popular in India over the past decade – with the young celebrating the festival in growing numbers even in smaller towns. At the same time protests by Hindu and Muslim hardliners, who claimed the celebrations threatened Indian culture, have petered out. The youth support Slut Walk movements that challenge notions that provocative clothes encourage molestation, with hundreds participating in Delhi or Kolkata.
Recent years have also seen a vocal participation of the young in the world's most populous democracy. Connecting over social media networks and forming associations in a highly diverse country, they have taken to streets on issues of public interest and are playing a major role in nationwide movements. Youth power drove a campaign against widespread government corruption in 2011 that called for tougher laws to deal with graft. They also led the massive protests for justice in the fatal gang rape of a Delhi student in December 2012, that led to announcement of measures to protect women and the changes in the law.
Sandeep Kukreja, 24, and his friends braved cold winters, water canons and police restrictions to stage protests in the Delhi rape case. "Police tried to stop the protests, but the youth raised their voice and showed they count. It was a moment of awakening of the youth, a traumatic yet defining time in our history that jolted the government out of slumber and prompted it to act," said Kukreja, who runs an auto-towing business in the Indian capital.
"Be it protests against sexual violence, corruption, ending racist abuse of students or for repealing laws that treat homosexuality as a crime, an engaged younger generation is leading from the front," said Shikhar Golash, a 22-year-old engineering student in Delhi, who was active in the protests. Social analysts see a huge potential in this new activism and say India can change for the better if the young generation participates in politics to reform society and administration.
There were an estimated 150 million first-time voters in the 2014 elections – more than the population of a country like Russia. But Indian leaders are unrepresentatively old. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was already 81, when he demitted office, and India remains a gerontocracy with the average age of the previous cabinet being 65 years, media reports say. Even a "youth leader" like Rahul Gandhi, scion of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is already in his mid-forties.
Young Indians have robust interest in politics and democracy, but curiously display the lowest trust in political parties and the leaders, states CSDS-director Sanjay Kumar. "We have seen them actively engaged on social issues. But whether they will participate in politics as vigorously, time will tell. Till now, we haven't seen a substantially higher youth turnout at elections." At the same time, there is a larger participation in politics from youth from rural and semi-urban areas as well as from women, he says.
"We need to break from the cynical past"
However, some young Indians are frustrated with corruption and poor governance and want to emigrate. "Me and several of my friends are thinking of going abroad for higher studies and eventually to settle down there," says Ashima Doshi, who studies fashion design in Mumbai states. "Because we've had lawmakers with criminal records and a system where little seems to improve." According to Delhi-based Public Interest Foundation more than 150 of the 545 members in India's powerful lower house of parliament face criminal charges. Student Shikhar Golash counters that change needs to come from within. "We need to break from the cynical past and stop blaming government for all the ills in the society. India has enormous potential, the attitudes of its people needs to change."
Over the past years, India is seeing higher literacy and education levels. Enrolment ratio in higher education increased from 0.7 per cent in 1950 to over 20 per cent in 2012, according to a government survey. Many are spurning traditional professions and taking up career in arts or humanities. Admissions of girls from the Muslim community, that account for some 13 percent of India's population, are also increasing at the graduation level.
It is the youth in India's innumerable small towns who have the highest level of aspirations compared to those in cities or metropolitan areas. Half-way between opportunity and constraint, these are the "big sites" for harnessing the energy of youth in India today, Sanjay Kumar says. Garima Choudhary, 23, who moved to Delhi from Dhanbad in the eastern state of Jharkhand agrees. "People from small towns are more ambitious, want to achieve more, prove they can be better," she says. "The youth have not inherited fear and insecurity of the previous generations. We dare to think different and work with a can-do attitude, that our parents' generation lacked. This makes us different."
India's Youth Surge
As rich and developing countries age, India is growing younger. A United Nations report says it will become the youngest nation globally by 2020 with an average age of 29 years, and account for around 28 per cent of the world's workforce. In comparison, during the same time, the average age is expected to be 37 years in China and the United States, and 45 years in Western Europe. The single-most striking aspect of the booming youth numbers is that it places India on the threshold of a demographic dividend which it will enjoy until 2040.
Described as a historical chance for the country to convert the huge human resources into an asset, the higher growth prospects and prosperity could have political and social consequences for India and the world. The "youth bulge" will see millions join India's labour market annually, with labour force peaking to over 650 million in 2031, according to official data. This dividend has the potential helping India to lift the country from poverty and take the leap to become a developed country from a developing one.
But there can be a different scenario too: If the country fails to provide education, skills training and job opportunities to the burgeoning youth population, a demographic disaster looms. A million people join the workforce each month and the country's annual training capacity is less than half of that. Only 20 per cent currently labour force have requisite education or job skills. "By 2030, we will have the largest working population of the world living in India, this huge youth force, who can bring a new era, must be educated, must be empowered," President Pranab Mukherjee said. The National Council on Skill Development aims to skill 500 million people by 2022 and says it is a task with no precedent in the world.
"Youth dividend could turn into a nightmare"
It is for this reason that jobs and a better life is the biggest issue for the youth. Indian leaders have talked about the urgency of harnessing the power of the youth, but let alone prepare for the future explosion, the country seems ill-prepared. Kingshuk Datta, 24, from a middle class family in Kolkata is working in a financial consultancy firm. Nandu, a newspaper boy, is a few years younger than Datta and migrated from Bihar in search of work when he was barely 14. For every Datta of India's 250-million middle class with global aspirations, college degrees and 30,000 rupees (360 Euros) starting salaries there are thousands of Nandus eking out a living with average earnings of 3,500 rupees (42 Euros) a month, if they are lucky.
Behind the image of tech-savvy IT specialists and business graduates joining the corporate sector, lies a bitter tale of multitudes of educated but unemployed young men. India has poor development indicators – ranked 136 on the UN human development index which measures life expectancy, educational attainment and real income. Disparities in opportunities as well as access to education in backward areas may mean that everyone may not be able to benefit.
Danielle Rajendram, researcher at Australia's Lowy Institute says despite the government's attempts to address these issues through schemes such as the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act from 2009, uneven implementation has limited the effectiveness of these measures. "India still has a long way to go in capitalizing upon the opportunities this demographic shift presents, particularly on child and maternal health, job creation, and education. Failure to do so will create an increasingly disenfranchised and restless youth underclass, with the potential for serious implications for domestic security and social stability. This disillusionment is something that young India, can ill-afford".
According to the International Labour Organisation, in developing countries like India, the situation is exacerbated by poverty and the competitive pressures that result from a rapidly-growing labour force. If not tapped, the youth dividend could turn into a nightmare with India becoming home to tens of millions of angry and frustrated jobless young men, experts say.
"We are struggling, but we're getting there"
Would India improve upon its human capital and shine in Asian century? Young Indians from oppressed lower-caste or Dalit communities and tribal sections show promise. Haribabu Satyala, a Dalit from a small town in southern Andhra Pradesh who recently completed his engineering studies, helps his mother run a tea-stall. He has forsaken lucrative positions at companies as he prepares to write examinations for the prestigious Indian Administrative Services. "I want to contribute to nation-building and help in creating conditions for downtrodden communities to uplift themselves. We are struggling, but we're getting there".
Winds of change are gradually but inevitably sweeping India. Young Indians with high aspirations are more free and focused on chasing their personal dreams today, than at any other point in the country's history. Displaying abiding faith in democracy and its institutions, progressive Indian youth are increasingly challenging social norms and battling the odds for a better future. India's growing youth population provides enormous opportunities and a significant competitive advantage for the country, Danielle Rajendram says. But the government needs to equip them with skills required to meet the demands of a growing economy and treat youth as a priority agenda. However, the energy and determination of millions of young Indians remains a great hope.