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Heat Of Life In A Handful Of Dust

Disaffected youngsters are responding to hopelessness in ways politicos can’t fathom


Who knows what 22-year-old Kiran Kumar was thinking on the night of January 24 as he hammered his way into a jewellery showroom in Hyderabad? All we can piece together from newspaper reports is that the young mason took off with loot worth Rs 23 crore—and then, inexplicably, turned himself in. It’s not unusual for pessimism and a loss of psychological tether to push broke youngsters into crime, but there’s more to Kiran’s story. He told police he didn’t really want the gold, but stole to “expose inequality in society”.

Kiran had work, and skill, yet he remained poor. He had migrated from Gun­tur to Hyderabad not to just get by—his ambition was to be a pilot. Dr Harish Shetty, a psychologist in Mumbai who has been exploring the links between economic crises and spurts in crime, says such incidents are easily dismissed in India despite the implications. “Some­times, the poor just want to warn the rich,” says Shetty. “That’s what Kiran seems to be doing. He used his skill to tell the wealthy: we’re poor, but we’re watching you. We can loot you if we want.”

India has a mass of distressed youth who are, collectively, supposedly part of a demographic advantage—but at the individual level, it’s invariably a tale of thwarted aspirations. An official survey of December 2013—the first to explore Indian youth—found one of three Indian graduates is unemployed. This statistic doesn’t include disgruntled working youths like Kiran, who is a school dropout. Nor does it account for angst-ridden educated professionals such as Jeevan Sarkar, 25, a call centre professional in Delhi. Jeevan committed suicide last month, leaving a note which said he was killing himself because he was “short and bald”. “How can someone with physical attributes like these lead a happy life?” he said in the note, and mentioned a woman to whom he hadn’t expressed his love.

While political parties are framing Elections 2014 against the backdrop of the aspirations of youth—every rally and speech woos them—they seem unaware that this repository is thickly veined with disgruntlement. What fate awaits the parties’ pleas is unclear, for it’s a mystery how young India votes. In previous elections, youth leant a little towards the Congress, while recent trends indicate the BJP is breaching this dam. News of 22 crore new voters registering for the first time, and the near-victory in Delhi for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)—an outfit born from a movement dominated by youngsters—has no doubt got political outfits jostling for youth votes.

There’s but a sliver of evidence to support their enthusiasm. Lokniti, a wing of the Centre for Studies in Developing Societies (CSDS), found in a survey that roughly 40 per cent of AAP’s voters were aged 18-25 years. “Except that election, no trend of youth votes going significantly to one party has been seen,” says Dr Sanjay Kumar, who led the study. What we know from previous elections says the young are as divided as the old—they’re not a votebank, at least not yet. “But,” says Dr Kumar, “for the first time, indications are that India’s youth will no longer remain as divided along class or caste lines as they were. They are breaking from their parents’ choices.”

The break from the past is visible most often in the political and social activism they have engaged in of late—as part of the AAP, but also in the protests that followed the Delhi gangrape. In any case, political activism is impossible without youthful energy. But there are as many recent examples that show politics is also supplying the young with readymade targets of aggression. Take Dadar boy Prasad Nikam, 24, an engineering student. The soft-spoken, middle-class Marathi boy participated in mns chief Raj Thack­eray’s violent anti-toll agitations in January. Despite a brief police detention, Nikam is prepared to give up his career to pursue politics “to the end”.

“Whenever I see something wrong or unfair, I just cannot watch and do nothing. I like working for mns because they give me that support,” Nikam says. mns’s anti-toll agitation targeted toll companies’ allegedly unfair practices and rapidly took on a pro-people air. It’s ironic that Nikam doesn’t realise that his sense of community with Thackeray, and determined support for the mns, implies fewer jobs in the state for people like him: graduates of Nikam’s own engineering specialisation (electronics and telecom) are leaving Mumbai to find jobs in states like Gujarat. Nor does he acknowledge the internal contradiction of the agitation—it’s simply a refusal to pay the costs associated with the model of development the party endorses.

Joblessness is not some far-off thing for people like Nikam. Every year, India adds 16 lakh restless footsoldiers to its army of unemployed graduates, while prospective employers reject 85 per cent of resumes landing on their desks—even of engineers. The signals are clear: Indian graduates are not good enough. Yet, no party confronts the issue head-on. Narendra Modi, prime minister-aspirant of the BJP, encourages youth to get involved in “nation-building”—which sounds like a pseudonym for service without benefit. And Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president, speaks of youth as agents of change, without noting that they’ve already changed, and are facing a crisis not unrelated to their sky-rocketing aspiration.

Twenty years ago, India’s youth first broke in a big way from their parents’ choices as the freshly liberalised economy allowed global brands and services to rush in and out, fuelling a servi­ces-led GDP boom. Between 1999 and 2010, health, banking, education, e-commerce, bpos and non-manufacturing sectors absorbed 50 million people. “Services sector employees are so young that these companies have a starkly different profile from businesses in the past,” says Sunil Goel, founder of Global Hunt, an executive search firm. In fact, the average age in a service company is often 29 to 35 years.

The service sector is so new that the first tranche of employees is yet to retire. And yet this sector has a massive impact on expectations of the youth, steering them towards the consumer boom, setting their workplace agenda. “Almost everyone aspires to a white-collar, English-speaking, desk-bound job at an MNC in a big city,” says Goel. Services have appeal, for they lack manufacturing’s traditional hierarchies and beat its slow career path. “Levels matter less than expertise—everyone’s on first-name basis, salaries are high,” he says.

This image exists though only a few thousand of every million reach the top echelons of corporate bureaucracy in servi­ces. It persists despite the slowdown, in which both MNCs like Dell India and Indian giants like Infy laid off thousands. The sector picked up nearly 19 million employees in 1999-2005, but only 3.5 million in 2005-10. At the same time, agriculture and manufacturing have decli­ned horribly, employing 14 million fewer in 2010 than in 1999, as the Twelfth Five Year Plan report lays bare. The young, no doubt, aspire to the service sector, mirroring the broad political consensus on moving them from farms to non-manufacturing work.

In the early 2000s, Ranchi resident Majid Alvi, 26, quit his ancestral farm and started a mobile phone repair store, in line with the ongoing telecom revolution. Today, he and thousands like him are cluelessly facing their first bust. “There are so many low-cost mobiles nobody wants to repair old ones. It isn’t worth the effort, we’re winding up,” he says. Alvi leans on family—they’re still farmers—to get by. His BEd degree didn’t help. Results for a government job he applied for were never declared.

Ranchi, the youngest state capital, was ranked the highest employment-generating Tier-III city in 2010 by Assocham. The city’s “sub-regional” employment exchange bears testimony, with nearly a hundred applicants lined up expectantly. “Companies still recruit from Ranchi but mostly they want helpers, peons, assistants, janitors, receptionists and non-management trainees, not graduates,” says Dr P.K. Jha, director at the exchange. “Those less educated have better chances to find work,” he says. Firdaus Idris, 29, an applicant, is armed with an MA and BEd—more than anyone in his family dreamed—but hasn’t found work he’d like in years. “I’m considering civil services while seeking government positions,” he says.

Two years ago India’s headcount of those with jobs fell so badly, it created a stir. The explanation offered was that educated youth (especially women) were studying so much, they joined the workforce late. Yet, thousands of youngsters are neither working nor studying. These “in-betweeners” are finding that the more they study, the worse their chances of finding work. It’s not that the young don’t see these changes, or that pre-election spee­ches are geared to consolidate them as a vote. They also neatly interpret the charges and countercharges of corruption levelled within the political sphere. As Idris says, “The problem isn’t that politicians are rich. The problem is how they make that money.”

This is why corruption is such a big issue this election—political graft is seen as coming in the way of youthful aspirations, and is one reason why AAP got so many votes in Delhi. The youth cannot miss that India’s unemployment crisis also lies neatly concealed behind its prosperity. Ranchi, for instance, is now an aspirational city with over a dozen glittering shopping malls putting its youth on notice. “People were unhappy with the way things were, and they wanted to turn India into a kind of Singapore. If people are still unhappy, it’s because they’re seeing the other side of the change they wanted,” says social theorist Ashis Nandy.

The other side includes a construction boom that added 27 million of the most insecure, low wage, high-risk jobs over 1999-2010—five million more work here than in the service sector. This boom made malls a currency and symbol of development, representing the qualities the new Indian youth aspires to. “There are only three choices today: build a shopping mall and stay in it, visit a mall and shop all day, or stay in the mall anyway, even if you don’t have money to buy what’s inside,” says Nandy. Doing none of these makes you nobody.

This is the shopping and construction boom that brought Kiran to Hyderabad, where he tore through the very jewellery showroom he once built. Political parties and the establishment, however, seem heedless of the fact that youth is turning to violence. National Crime Records Bureau data allay concerns over the very young turning to crime. Besides, as Nandy points out, over 2.5 lakh Indian farmers committed suicide since 1998, which barely finds mention, and didn’t alter the political or social consensus on the economy either.

What goes unnoticed too is another NCRB statistic—that the self-employed are more likely to commit suicide than even the unemployed. In 2012, the number of self-employed who committed suicide was as high as 38 per cent. What the statistics lay bare is also that violence among the youth doesn’t necessarily turn against others—it can be directed against themself. And suicide rates peak in the  30-44 year age group, an indication of intense competition at the workplace.

Often enough the murmurs of discontent show up in surprising ways, as happened in Ranchi at the dawn of 2014. In January, the ‘Nari Shakti Sena’, led by Rani Devi, a middle-aged activist, raided a public park and beat up “lovers”—women accompanied by unrelated males. “We did what the government didn’t do for women’s safety,” says Rani, who claims around 500 supporters, most of them college-going women like Mamta, 22. Mamta is convinced that “girls of bad character lie to parents and secretly go to malls with boys”. Neha, 21, believes women lose their dignity and Ranchi its reputation if couples date. They’re not ashamed the gang roughed up unsuspecting couples, believing it’s a blow in favour of women. Their conservatism isn’t the whole story. Their conflicting attitude towards development and modernity is something for political India to watch for, as is their resentment—wanting a piece of the action, retaliating to justify their conformity.

Prof Jyotirmaya Sharma, who teaches political science at Hyderabad Univ­ersity, says ‘students’ are not a vote block, divided as they are along class and also socially. “Middle-class students want it easy, whereas those from rural areas or deprived sections leave no stone unturned to make it through various glass ceilings,” he says. What worries him is the size of his classes, the creaking infrastructure of education and the resu­ltant cynicism. Just one PG class Sharma teaches has 70 students. He knows most will never get jobs in their field. “What’ll they do? I can understand a basic degree in political science, but for most, an advanced degree is completely meaningless,” he says.

As Kumar points out, Indian youth isn’t “turning to violence” as much as turning away from old caste distinctions, perhaps getting more class-conscious. In the Lokniti survey, there was only one thing youth said they found attractive about the Congress vice-president—that he is young. “This was true of 65 per cent of those we quizzed,” says Kumar. On the other hand the youth felt that his rival, Modi, stood for development, honesty as well as strong leadership. The rallying cry of the Congress around the youth is expected—it did extremely well when mobilising Rahul’s youthful image in 2004 and 2009. Rivals could well consolidate youth votes away but it would still leave the question of their aspirations unanswered. In that case, failure could push them and the Indian political system to the brink.

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