India is at a critical juncture, with 30 percent of its young population getting ready to make a transition into adulthood. Jayalakshmi Sengupta looks into some of the remarkable initiatives of civil society institutions to harness this volatile resource pool.
Madri is one of the remote villages of Jhadol Tehsil in Rajasthan's Udaipur district, comprising mostly tribals. It has few basic amenities and even fewer services from the administration reaching it. Sumitra, one of the many girls of Madri, could have been short-changed into living an average, ordinary existence -- marrying early, raising kids and fighting poverty, sometimes all alone, while men migrate in search of jobs. In short, a life without any dream of personal achievement or hopes of fulfillment. But all that changed when Seva Mandir, a non-governmental organisation, intervened with its unique youth programme.
Sumitra got a concrete direction at a crucial juncture of her life. She received valuable training in computers and sewing and suddenly her life's puzzle seemed to be falling into place. She not only had the courage thereafter to stop her engagement, but also the will to pursue higher education.
Seva Mandir is one of the oldest organisations in the country, working in the field of rural development and empowerment of the tribal community; it has been operating in Rajasthan for the last 38 years. Its work is spread over 626 villages and 70,000 households with various interventions -- the latest being a decision to run Youth Resource Centres.
"Youth are an under-represented group," says a representative of Seva Mandir, adding, "Illiterate rural youth are a further vulnerable community, which needs to be proactively engaged and integrated into the development process."
There are 315 million young people aged between 10-24 years in India today, representing 30 percent of the country's population. They are healthier, more urbanised, and better educated than earlier generations, with nearly 70 pecent of them being literate today -- and a large chunk of them are from rural areas. The number of rural literate youth is growing at the rate of 2.11 percent. Here is a transitional generation that is fast growing out of the traditional rural set-up.
"They are facing a significant number of challenges in dealing with the rapidly changing and diverging worlds of home life, village life and life outside villages -- the urban life," finds Seva Mandir.
These rural youth resource centres are designed to take care of their transitional needs, providing them a platform for interaction and dialogue and a scope to hone their communicational, vocational and life skills. This equips them to take the plunge they must as responsible adults and helps them become "more aware of their rights, less likely to be exploited and more confident of themselves," says Hasmi Zuber, the 20-year-old youth resource centre coordinator in Kaagmandara, Bargaon block. He travels 30 kilometres every day to go to college in Udaipur and spends the rest of the time helping the young people of this village devise new ways and ideas, along with Seva Mandir, to enhance their productive and interpersonal skills.
Closer to home in New Delhi, Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), another civil society organisation, has also launched a youth leadership programme recently for the marginalised communities and social groups to help them nurture their leadership capabilities.
PRIA is an international centre for learning and promotion of participation in democracy and governance and has been in the field for the last 28 years. It has to its credit several trail-blazing initiatives focusing on participatory research and citizen-centric development. Youth development is gradually becoming a dominant concern for PRIA.
"In order for them to take initiative on their own and become effective and responsible leaders of tomorrow, it is essential to provide them with opportunities to develop relevant skills," says a spokesperson of PRIA. Their Prem Chadha Memorial Youth Leadership Programme aims to do just that -- develop leadership qualities and skills among the youth to enable them to meet personal challenges and contribute actively to the development of their communities. The training PRIA provides is designed to build trust, facilitate good communication and promote good health, teamwork and leadership skills.
India is sitting on a perceived gold mine of young people, considered an enviable asset by the fast-ageing population of the West. "Their hopes and aspirations are likely to turn around the fortunes of India. However, if they are not adequately groomed to take the responsibility that rests on their fragile shoulders, the country will have a different story to tell in a couple of decades," warns Siladitya Ray, behavioural therapist and consultant psychiatrist.
Increasingly, researchers are showing concern about this fact and so are civil society institutions. Hence their efforts to integrate the youth into the national growth process.
Pravah is yet another New Delhi-based organisation that has been working only with young people for the last 17 years, both in urban and rural India. Their agenda has been to impact issues of social justice through youth citizenship action.
According to Pravah, the importance of youth in the process of nation-building can hardly be ignored. Unless the needs and aspirations of youth are incorporated into the vision of modern India, and optimally engaged in the process of nation-building, the country will be decrepit and divided.
"Through our active citizenship programme and youth development interventions, we build and nurture a requisite attitude of ownership for common spaces," says Pravah.
What becomes increasingly clear is that India's growth trajectory may be directly linked to this large pool of young people, who can turn around existing pockets of poverty into prosperity. On the flip side, the vibrancy of the youth as an asset will take no time to turn into a liability, if their unharnessed energy is not monitored and carefully channelised.
"Their cumulative unproductive behaviour can become a juggernaut of immense destruction, pulverising all developmental effort and consequently affecting economic growth," reminds Ray.
An immense opportunity does not come without its challenges. This moment is to be used wisely and efficiently, a fact understood by researchers, academicians and civil society institutions that are proactively planning and trying to create a broad framework, which will enable adolescents to become responsible future citizens.