A dusty-haired boy, a bag over his shoulders, walks a few kilometres from his village to a bus stop. He boards a bus that will take him to the nearest train station. There he boards a train to a faraway city, a city he knows so far only through hearsay and television. He approaches it with dreams in his head and responsibilities on his shoulders, for the family he leaves behind.
That man or woman leaving the village has many names, many faces. The story repeats itself across our country every day. Mumbai and Delhi alone account for approximately 2,000 people arriving daily to these cities, to seek their fortunes. Their dreams are modest — a steady job, decent pay. Eventually, perhaps, a family.
You don’t have to look far for them. Step outside your house, walk down the road and follow the smaller lanes; chances are, you won’t have to go too far. You will come across them soon enough, perhaps the guards outside your apartment complex, or the young maid on her way to work, or the man with a mobile cart of pineapples piled high.
These are the faces of our youth, the majority of our young people. We rarely hear about them, and we notice them only in passing. But each of them is part of a movement that is rolling forward, into the future, taking the rest of us inexorably with it.
To talk about India today is to talk about the young. In this decade, we will become the youngest country in the world. This heady truth is reflected in the faces I see when I walk down the street: men and women with unlined faces, full heads of hair, people who have arrived in the cities looking for work, and who radiate a sense of impatience on the footpaths and in the traffic, in the waiting queues everywhere.
There is an inevitability to the movement they represent. Countries that have seen this explosion of youth populations before — the US in the 1950s, Japan in the 1970s, China in the 1980s, Ireland in the 1990s — all experienced tremendous political and economic upheaval.
The key word here is upheaval. There’s an old Kannada saying — the higher the mountain, the greater the descent. A young population and its ambitions can either build cities or bring them down, depending on how their energy is channelled.
In the mornings, I see young children heading towards schools, weaving their way through traffic. If you look, you can see the differences among them, despite their uniforms. Some carry bags more tattered than the others’, and some are barefoot, their uniforms faded. Even the poorest families are trying to get their children educated so that they might have a chance at a better life. When these children come of age, they expect to have jobs and opportunity waiting for them.
The greatest tragedy, to me, would be for us to lose out on the possibilities and the energy that this influx of young people presents. And there is a chance of that happening, because of the immense demands the young place on a country.
We can already hear the infrastructure around us struggling with these demands. In particular, young people without middle-class advantages like good schooling and a strong family network now embark on lives and careers with enormous risk, because they lack critical safety nets.
We have seen people applying for Aadhaar numbers turn up with elderly parents and infants in tow, and talk about the health costs that are bankrupting them. At one enrollment centre, a young woman came in with an elderly father whose fingers trembled so much with Parkinson’s that two enrolment workers had to help press his fingers down for the biometric prints. The woman wanted to know if this number would help reimburse his health costs. Nearly her entire salary went towards his care.
People like her walk a tightrope. The work they find in cities is often temporary and unreliable. They lack affordable housing, which means they have to live in shanties in unpleasant localities, usually without piped water or electricity. In Bangalore, such a neighbourhood, with anywhere from five to twelve people sharing a small room, is a 20-minute walk from my home. Good education is expensive for them, and unpredictable health costs can threaten livelihoods.
These problems implicate all of us. The responsibility of a democratic, pluralistic society is to advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for everybody — policies that strengthen people across classes, and give everyone a fair shot in life.
So far, however, we have been ambivalent about getting this done. We Indians can talk a good mile. Every one of us has a diagnosis for the problems our country faces. It makes for great conversation over coffee.
We mourn the fragmentation of our voters and the disconnect of the middle classes.
But once the coffee is done, then what? We see broader civic engagement as too unpleasant to directly participate in. But whether we like it or not, we are part of an electorate. Our reactions to the policies of the day are counted, even when that reaction consists of us turning away.
We all have individual goals; we worry about our future, our careers, our children. But if we don’t think more about the greater social good, about the people outside our homes and on our streets, we are displaying a great poverty, in our vision and our goals.
We can do more for the future of our children by trying to make an impact on the country they will inherit. Our responsibilities as citizens do not end with an inked finger. We ask out loud where our changemakers and emerging leaders are. The question answers itself. We have to champion the policies that we need, and build the nation that we hope for.
When that young man or woman from the village arrives in a city, he or she shouldn’t be alone. She should have health insurance. She should be able to sign up for vocational training. Once she finds employment, she should immediately be enrolled in a pension programme, even if she is a contract worker. She should have access to loan programmes and infrastructure if she wants to build her own business.
The problems we face are not easy ones. But we must resist the temptation to use them as excuses, and as reasons for inaction.
It is especially urgent now, because a young population has immense implications for us. Across the Middle East, young people have started revolutions, many armed with nothing but their placards and their voices. As Egypt churned, a young Egyptian woman stood in Tahrir Square and talked about all the things that made her angry: bad colleges, unemployment, governments that ignored the concerns of people like her. Hopes and dreams are a powerful force, even when they are frustrated.
India’s youngsters are straining at the doors closed to them, and one way or another, the wood will give way. We are going to help decide how they gain entry and opportunity.
Our country has a remarkable legacy of civic activism, from Bengal’s early social reformers to Kerala’s anti-caste movements. In Karnataka, there was a great and early push for social reform, with the poet and reformer Basavanna writing that while the rich can build temples, the poor and the ‘low-caste’ are themselves temples, the body becoming the shrine. The struggle for equality is deep-rooted in our people, and men and women in the past overcame great odds to give us the country and the opportunities we have now. They acted for the causes they believed in. We need to take up where they left off, and we need to do it now, together.
We must recall, in this, the 66th year of Independence, what it takes to build a country, and to sustain it. Being Indian is not an inheritance that is owed to us. It is one that we shape ourselves, every day.
Nandan Nilekani is chairman of the UIDAI, the agency that issues Aadhaar numbers to residents across the country. He is a philanthropist, and author of Imagining India.