By Bikash Sarmah
It is now common knowledge that India is the youngest country in the world with the youth forming a huge chunk of the country’s population and poised to be the prime mover of its growth engine. In fact they already are in key areas like IT. Blend this fact with another fact – that India is also the fastest growing economy in the world. What this tells us is that a young, fresh, dymic and hopeful tion is in its frenzied stride towards rapid growth and development. But there is a rider here that we are going to discuss. First, something to cheer about, something to hope for – with reason.
Let us then hear what ndan Nilekani, co-founder of the exemplary Infosys and one of the country’s most illustrious new-age entrepreneurs (he is an IIT Bombay graduate in electrical engineering who preferred entrepreneurship to a white-collar job in the US), has to say in the chapter “India, by its People” in his classic voluminous book Imagining India: “The trend of an ageing, shrinking population now visible across much of the developed world, is coinciding with India’s experience of a demographic dividend that will last until 2050. This opens up interesting new opportunities for the country, as the challenge of maintaining wealth in ageing societies means that developed markets will have to increasingly outsource their labour requirements. In 2020 India is projected to have an additiol forty-seven million workers, almost equal to the total world shortfall. The average Indian will be only twenty-nine years old, compared with the average age of thirty-seven in Chi and the United States, forty-five in Western Europe and forty-eight in Japan… India already has the second largest reservoir of skilled labour in the world… A talented pool of workers, along with abundant capital and investment, presents us with immense opportunities for creativity and innovation, which can in turn lead to rapid gains in productivity growth and GDP. This had once ebled Europe to emerge as a centre of manufacturing innovation in the nineteenth century… Such an opportunity – to emerge as the new creative power and a centre for new knowledge and innovation – now lies with India… It is these multiple forces that are expected to drive a growth rate of 5 per cent for India until 2050 – a trend, if it happens, that will be unique and unprecedented in economic history…”
Nilekani is an optimist, given his resounding success as a world-class Indian IT entrepreneur. His whole book is one of untiring optimism for a new and young India, an India that is set to surprise the world, especially the developed West, with development miracles. Nonetheless, his classic falls short of looking at this ‘India on the rise’ through the Northeast (NE) India prism. The crucial question then is how there can be such an India of astounding development feats, taking the whole world by surprise in the near future, without NE being a part and parcel of this would-be, almost incredible wonder story?
Having seen the NE situation first-hand – its bewildering and shoddy politics, its unceasing militancy stemming largely from unrest among the youth due to growing unemployment, its dismal infrastructure, the huge and expanding architecture of the loot of the public exchequer, the total absence of work culture, and a pathetic health-education regime with no politician to address the rot head-on, and many other issues resisting any change in status quo – this writer, as a jourlist over the last 12 years, has had occasion to come across a gamut of discerning observers of the NE growth engine who have only exuded despair, not any hope and optimism, when it comes to encountering any tag like ‘a rising NE’, ‘NE aspirations set to be met’, ‘Irreversible NE growth engine’, ‘NE has come of age’, etc.
The question is not about the ibility to entertain any hope of the Nilekani kind in the pan-Indian context when it comes to the still development-starved NE, despite its ‘boom generation’, to quote Nilekani again – a new-age young generation that has its own aspirations to join the apparently Indian development bullet train. The question is not also about some bizarre reluctance to entertain such hope and hang on to it. The question, indeed, and very unfortutely, is about the lack of any valid reason to entertain such hope, despite the youth factor here.
True, many of our youth have been able to make a beeline at the doors of surging companies in the rest of the country armed with quality engineering and magement degrees, of course obtained outside NE, and have succeeded as well in securing well-paid jobs. In the eyes of the rest who are left out here to grope for employment opportunities only to get none and thus stagte, their employed counterparts outside are role models – perhaps even a subject of envy to some. This residual youth, stagting in a region woefully bereft of job avenues due chiefly to lack of industry, is a huge burden and drain on the economy. Worse, a durable sense of frustration engenders the right ground for unrest, eventually morphing into violence in the form of militancy and other brands of crime. Such youth, even if they are not ‘fortute’ enough to join militancy and other varieties of crime to make their two ends meet, have nothing much to do except to register at employment exchanges in the hope – against hope – of getting some job, however petty. Or, they simply while away their time chatting around paan shops or playing carom. Some would simply loiter around and resort to eve-teasing! This being the case, especially in rural areas, there is hardly any firm reason to believe that this young population going waste and haywire would contribute to the “multiple forces that are expected to drive a growth rate of 5 per cent for India until 2050 – a trend, if it happens, that will be unique and unprecedented in economic history” as Nilekani talks of euphorically. Clearly, in the given scerio, these youth would be left outside the arc of the growth and development theatre that the rest of India would be staging confidently, thus effecting a crippling divide between NE and the rest of the country.
Worst, such youth turn extremely frustrated and angry when they see some of their counterparts from their own villages, who have merely a higher secondary certificate to showcase, coming back home during festivals such as Bihu, Durga Puja and Christmas after having earned handsome amounts even as they are mere private security men guarding hospitals, residential complexes, factories, corporate houses, and restaurants and hotels in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore. As one such youth tells this writer during this Durga Puja holiday in the countryside in upper Assam, “See sir, this chap out there is a mere security man in a posh apartment in Bangalore. But he is given free food and accommodation there, in that very apartment. So his salary is a net saving. He is here after a year. He is just a matriculate, otherwise. He has brought a lot of bucks. New dresses for his family. And see his own dress! Do you believe this? And here we are, just languishing in despair, with nothing really to hope for. What kind of ‘new India’ are people talking of?”
This hapless and helpless youth, typical of the huge class of the frustrated younger lot in the whole of NE, cannot be faulted. He has reasons to be angry. And he is a graduate who could not afford to go out due to family problems as also paralysing fincial constraints and who therefore has no option but to simply remain idle – an idle mind is a devil’s workshop – and weigh non-state options such as militancy or any other crime.
It goes without saying that for a young NE to emerge and soar, four fundamentals are a must: a) quality and affordable schools in large numbers in rural areas, b) more English-medium schools in rural areas that are affordable due to the IT and BPO factors (but where is the education entrepreneur to set up such schools?), c) infrastructure build-up and flourish of industry (for which law and order of the right kind is a must), and d) employment boost-up by setting up more Industrial Training Institutes (ITI) for vocatiol education (which will definitely boost both employment and employability). These are only a few pertinent points; there are many others that can worked on so that a new, vibrant, young, dymic and innovative NE workforce emerges, rises, succeeds, and shows the way to glory. Only small tea growers as are visible in upper Assam will not and never do.
Not really impossible. And this again is optimism at the end of the day, which ought to be.
(Bikash Sarmah, a freelancer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)