My First Vote: ‘We need better policies to fix poor education, unemployment’ | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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My First Vote: ‘We need better policies to fix poor education, unemployment’

Apr 17, 2024 09:26 AM IST

18 million people will vote for the first time in 2024. In a series, HT looks at their issues, hopes, grouses

“Teacher kaun banega (who’ll become a teacher)!”

My First Vote: ‘We need better policies to fix poor education, unemployment’
My First Vote: ‘We need better policies to fix poor education, unemployment’

Since his childhood, this question has been ricocheting around in Saurabh Raj’s mind, watching his father toiling away at a government primary school in Bihar’s impoverished Kaimur region. Every day for the past 23 years, Saurabh’s father – one of only four teachers in the school for around 250 students across eight classes – struggle to make the best out of broken furniture and airless classrooms, often failing to keep the largely poor pupils from dropping out and joining their parents in the fields or in construction sites to add a few more rupees to the family income.

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In this region, where per capita incomes are almost a ninth of the national average, mid-day meals are the most attractive reason for children to stay back in school. Yet, during the harvest season, even that isn’t enough; and as drop-out rates soar in a district with little infrastructure or industry, Saurabh found his father shouldering the blame.

“My father put in all the effort to reach out to the parents and create awareness about their children’s education. But who listened to him?” the 18-year-old asked. “He would be asked to do a raft of administrative work without any pay, and if made any errors, he would be insulted by the officers,” he said.

Saurabh is part of a 18.5 million-strong cohort of young people between the ages of 18 and 19 who’ll vote for the first time in Lok Sabha elections this summer, and their blossoming into full citizens of the republic will have implications not just for India’s polity but also its society, economic choices and long-term future. They are as diverse as the country they inhabit, and their electoral choices and priorities will shape the course of the nation over the next few decades.

Not just job security

In the Bhojpuri-speaking part in southwestern Bihar, where decades of Maoist activity hamstrung economic activity and hundreds of acres of paddy fields remain the only source of sustenance for tens of thousands of people, government jobs are hard to come by, and cherished. But Saurabh was clear that job security was not the only thing he was looking for. Respect and economic prosperity ranked far higher.

“My father is a school teacher. But neither he wanted me to be a teacher, nor did I. Nobody respects a teacher in my town. A doctor has both honour and money,” said the teenager.

For hundreds of thousands of young men (and sometimes women) in the heartland, there is only one destination for those who want to escape the crumbling education infrastructure in their hinterland districts, and qualify for a national competitive examination. Saurabh took that route after he turned 15, abandoning his home in Bihar for a reputed institute in Rajasthan’s Kota to prepare for the national eligibility entrance test (NEET).

He now spends a majority of his day between his tiny hostel room where a window looks out into a wall and his air-conditioned coaching classroom. His hostel building has 35 students across three floors, around 12 cubbyholes squeezed into each floor. Sitting on a four-foot bed next to a mountain of NCERT books in Kota’s Kunhadi area, Saurabh only has one companion from his more carefree days in Bihar – his favourite pair of aviators.

“I came to Kota considering its suitable study environment. The competition and the stress are sometimes good to perform better. But I don’t find it exciting anymore. I miss my school life, friends, and family in Bihar. I want to go back, but can’t,” he said.

It’s a sacrifice that is necessary, he is aware, but painful. “If I had better education and job opportunities in Bihar, I would have never come to Kota. Ye ‘chaar-diwar’ me kaun rahna chahte hai! Who wants to live in the confines of these four walls?”

Student stress

The dusty Rajasthan town of one million people that has come to represent both the hope and the despair inherent in the India story. Since the mid-1980s, the town has become the focal point for thousands of families from the hinterland who have poured into its narrow lanes and cramped buildings, looking for a ladder that could help their children pull their families out of a morass of poverty and moribund economic opportunity. The cramped room that cram hundreds of students from sunrise to sunset, and sometimes even beyond, preparing them for India’s highly competitive exams for engineering and medical colleges, are seen as the only viable shot at prosperity and mobility, making parents and families pile on even more pressure on young children to succeed at competitive exams.

But the last few years have made it clear that many students are cracking under the pressure. In 2023, 27 students died by suicide, the highest in eight years. Many of these young people came from underprivileged families in the countryside, where a seat at a prestigious engineering or medical college is a golden ticket out of impoverishment. This year, the number is already at six. The government has responded with a list of guidelines – ceiling fans in hostels and paying guest accommodations be covered with an “anti-suicide device”, a mandatory screening test, alphabetical sorting of students into sections instead of a ranking-based one, limiting admissions to students in Class IX or higher, mandatory gatekeeping training for teachers, institute managers, and hostel wardens among them – but many experts have called them perfunctory and inadequate.

Over the past year, Saurabh hasn’t seen the guidelines make much headway. “I see neither coaching centres nor hostel managements follow them. The government also seems inactive. We don’t even expect them to do anything in this case… We need better policies and schemes addressing the root cause of poor education, unemployment and fragile economy,” said Saurabh.

Quelling this string of suicides is the biggest issue for Saurabh – one that will guide his first vote in Lok Sabha elections later this summer. “The problem is it is yet viewed as a mere social issue instead of a political one that can be part of a party’s poll agenda. The root cause of suicide, our daily stress, and the growing obsession with JEE and NEET cannot be managed with a guidelines that nobody follows,” said the young aspirant.

He wants to vote for a government that will create more industries in Bihar to generate more jobs for young people. “I want the government to immediately fill up the vacant posts in several sectors, recruit more teachers and also develop infrastructure in government schools… Better economic policies instead of building a temple will also ensure lower drop-out in schools and the migration of the youth.”

The reason for this is simple – Saurabh is aware that the lure of Kota is also the lure of aspiration, which cannot be addressed by piecemeal intervention. “It’s so funny how the government keeps blaming the parents of the suicide-victims in Kota for forcing them to pursue JEE and NEET,” he fumed. “Did they leave any choice open for people like my father?”

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