The reporting of recent poll day violence in Kashmir draws a familiar picture: Dissatisfied youth turning to radical means, disrupting democratic processes and destroying their chance for a normal life. We only take notice when the situation gets violent. What could have been a cry for help is only seen as a call to radicalise. We pay no heed to the silent voices that have for a long time demanded a more responsive and inclusive ‘system’; we ignore the hands that may choose a pen over a stone if only they had a chance. Our recent work in the Valley has thrown up a different canvas of Kashmiri youth with insights that astute policy makers should pay close heed to.
“I have earned four degrees since I passed from senior secondary school, but have had no use for them except in my dreams. I don’t want to lose hope, but I can’t remain a dreamer forever.” Zohra Khan (name changed), 27, Srinagar.
Zohra’s words resonate with scores of youth from Jammu and Kashmir who have spent their best years being distant observers of India’s post-liberalisation economic boom, waiting for their turn to participate. Long periods of conflict and violence in J&K have led to persistently low levels of private investment and inadequate public infrastructure in the state.
Frequent episodes of violence disrupt schedules of education institutions, and heighten perceived risks of investors and tourists towards the region. Apart from the small-scale, family-owned agricultural and handicraft enterprises that dominate the landscape, private sector employment relies on a handful of big corporates in retail banking and hospitality, who are highly vulnerable to these social and political risks. The public sector offers substitute opportunities in education, health and infrastructure services, but these can be ridden with corruption, and grossly underutilise the potential of youth. Both sectors are unable to meet the immense demand for jobs from graduates. The “paradise on earth” remains, for much of it, a land parched of aspirational opportunities.
While the economic costs of conflict are well documented, the insidious long-term effects on youth merit greater attention. It is a natural human desire to use our creative and entrepreneurial capacities to the maximum possible extent. In Kashmir, the consistent underutilisation of their skills has arrested the self-confidence and sense of empowerment of many youth. It is no surprise then that small sparks of rebellion can often snowball into unpredictably large movements. These rebellions have led to the formation of persistent myths about the Valley’s youth in the popular narrative – that they have a defeatist mindset, are uninterested in taking jobs that require hard work, and even that they see stone-pelting to be an occupation in and of itself. Such persistent myths contribute to the bearish outlook of investments in the state for private investors.
Our recent work in the Valley, based on bottom up in-depth interviews with a cross-section of rural and urban youth, teachers, community influencers, local government officials and NGOs, has convinced us that this is far from the truth. We saw, in the eyes of the Valley’s youth, disillusionment with the ‘system’, but we also a spark for a better future, and the desire to work hard to achieve it. We found a shared aspiration to complete higher education and develop expertise in subject areas seen to be of market-value, or aligning with an inherent passion in them. We saw a yearning to prove to themselves, to their families, and to their communities, that the youth of Kashmir shine bright. Youth demanded opportunities of excellence – quality jobs and skilling, and exposure to the best of the world, often captured by the promise of a job with a reputed private sector company.
Our hypothesis challenged the simplistic ‘cookie-cutter’ characterisation of the youth, and we saw that reality is far more nuanced. We found at least four distinct youth ‘personas’ – classifications based on shared behavioural characteristics - each with unique aspirations, behaviours and attitudes, and therefore requiring a distinct set of interventions.
The first persona was of the relentless opportunist; youth who actively pursue opportunities for career enhancement, and demonstrate a hunger for personal success in or out of the state. The second was of the grounded leader, who displayed strong leadership traits, and a passion to contribute to the community directly or by being role models for others. The third was the focused careerist, diligent youth who belong to progressive, well-educated families with a strong desire for stable and reputed careers, but who are generally risk-averse. Lastly, we met the disillusioned status-quoist, youth that bear the psychological brunt of conflict, prone to radicalisation, and easily swept by negative sentiments during times of strife.
Our study indicates that the positive decisively outweighs the negative, which seems to be part of the larger change that is taking place in Kashmir, and has direct implications for the skills and employability programmes that the state government is keen on getting right. There is a large cadre of youth ready and primed to put in the hard miles and climb their way up. Harnessing this positive energy, however, would require a more holistic “beyond skilling” approach that responds to the socio-cultural realities of the valley.
Here are our five key learnings, that should also interest policy makers and decision makers.
1.To engage youth, engage the community: Build a cadre of youth volunteers in each district, down to the block level, who regularly engage local communities as partners. Such a ground force is critical to bridge the trust deficit, dispel entrenched fears and myths about the ‘outside world’, and disperse reliable information on ongoing and upcoming skilling programmes.
2. Leverage the pride of people and their culture: Integrate local role models into programme activities, invest in reviving local arts, crafts and trades through skilling initiatives, and build ‘cultural cushions’ (e.g., organise team sporting events) to ensure smooth transition for youth who are keen to move out of the state.
3.Embed mentorship, counselling and coaching: Move beyond on-the-job training for technical skills, and provide psychosocial support and mentorship to build confidence and resilience.
4.Provide a ‘human touch’: Monitor programme experience and implement immediate dispute resolution mechanisms to help youth feel cared for, and provide support in an anxious period of their lives.
5.Build agency; empowerment will follow: Build their capacity to feel confident and respected, which enhances their ability to make informed choices. Alongside, build in flexible options and transparency within training / job placement contracts to provide youth a sense of ownership and control over investments in their professional development.
There is a unique window of opportunity to leverage the positive energy of the youth to pull the state out of its seemingly intractable problems. That window is the Kashmiri youth, and they require our collective emotional, professional and financial investment. It’s an investment like no other, for it can lend wings to a world of audacious hopes and dreams bringing down a world of stilted logic and cynical realities. The youth here understand proverbial truths better than most, recognising that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second-best time is now.
Umang Prabhakar & Varad Pande are with Dalberg, a strategy and policy advisory firm focused on global development
The views expressed are personal
TEXT TEXT TEXT