What should India’s young expect—for themselves and for the nation—from the years that are yet to come? More importantly, how does their present reconcile with the million hopes they harbour of the future? These questions should have been less difficult to answer today than, say, some 69-70 years ago when India ‘awoke to freedom’. But they aren’t—though not because of the same reasons as at that time.
Independent India had inherited not just the contradictions of its immediate colonial past. There remain, to this date, incongruences that emerged at different times, much further back in the past. The Constitution talks of equality ‘of status and opportunity’ for all. And yet, inequity started in the womb for the millions of girls missing from the population, each aborted as a foetus. Is this not because, throughout the civilisational history of the sub-continent, the social organisation has had a largely patrilineal and patriarchal character? Caste atrocities still happen, though perhaps not as commonly as, say, before the enactment of a Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 1989.
At the same time, Indians are living much longer and there is considerably lesser maternal, neonatal and child mortality. Many have been lifted out of crushing poverty. Indians are entering higher education in record numbers, though the absolute figure is a speck compared with what the number, by age, should have been. All of it is because India, the republic, has undergone many churns. Some have been obvious, others less so. But each has left its indelible imprint on the nation. The Nehruvian socialism of the 1950s and 1960s, the Green and White Revolutions, the Emergency, the Mandal agitations, the 1991 liberalisation reforms, the IT and ITeS boom—these have all helped shape the national psyche as much as the spread of mobile telephony, the pulse-polio campaign, the nuclear tests and even the massive protests against the 2011 Delhi rape. But perhaps, the churn that is happening because of India’s so-called demographic dividend is what will define the nation for a long time to come.
Against this backdrop, Somini Sengupta—former New Delhi bureau chief for The New York Times—in her book The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young, introduces an observation that is both fascinating and portentous: today, the overwhelmingly young population is breaking free of the past. The youth are no longer content with the reasoning that their material condition is an immutable legacy of the material and social conditions of their preceding generations. This is a period in the nation’s history that is pregnant with both incredible promise and colossal risks.
Sengupta loosely likens this aspiration-fed breaking with the past by the youth with a break in the chain of karma and phala, concepts in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, denoting the preponderance of fate—as determined by past-life actions—in the life of a person. The Gen Y and the millennials represent a new nation, one that is pressing for the promises made at ‘the stroke of the midnight hour’ to be redeemed. Only, Sengupta thinks that India is a democracy that makes promises that it has no intention of keeping. She writes, “In the coming years, India can thrive because of its young. Or it can implode. Or both.”
In 2012, the median age in India was 27 years compared to the US’ near-38 and China’s 37. China rode its demographic dividend through the 1980s and 1990s to phenomenal economic growth in the 21st century. But it is not a given that India will be able to reap the same benefits as its Asian competitor. For one, even though between 2011 and 2030, a million Indians will join the workforce every month, the country is clearly not generating enough jobs. Second, while China took advantage of a global surge in manufacturing demand and generated employment for its workforce by keeping labour costs competitive, India has lesser chances of benefitting likewise, given the pace of automation in manufacturing. Third, many of its young—as successive Annual Status of Education Reports and other publications on school education show—are likely to be poorly equipped to take on the high-value jobs that do get created in the global economy even as automation becomes the order of the day. And, as the promises of a better life fade, expect more Patidar- and Jat-like agitations.
Sengupta, whose parents immigrated to Canada and then to the US in the mid-1970s when she was just a child, writes of how, when she returned to India in the mid-Noughties, the hard-nosed aspiration of the youth to rise above their present was palpable. She profiles seven young Indians who couldn’t seem more different from each other. Two offer the starkest juxtaposition—Rakhi, a former Maoist commander, and Anupam, an IIT-IIM graduate who works with Sebi. Rakhi, born in a village in West Bengal, picked up arms to fight the social and economic injustices before getting ‘disillusioned’ with the Maoist movement. Anupam, on the other hand, grew up as the son of an auto-rickshaw driver in Patna and used his circumstances to fan his desire to escape them through the only route he knew—an education from top-rung institutes. Are Anupam and Rakhi very different? Anupam is determined to be a “member of his country’s elite”. Rakhi tells the author, “I want to have a decent life, like you have”.
Like the two, there are millions in India wishing, agitating or planning for a better life. If the state is unable to give them the support they need—affordable and top-quality education, proper healthcare and jobs—there are likely to be more Rakhis, with the off-chance of an Anupam coming by.