The stars are calling...

The stars are calling...

By 2020, the average Indian will be just 29 years old, making India the world's youngest country. Over 64% of India's population will be in the working age group, while the population of western countries, Japan and China grows older and less active. This would unleash a workforce with immense potential and give India's economy a massive boost.

On the other hand, this could become a demographic disaster if enough jobs are not generated and infrastructure does not gear up to adequately support the growth potential. Will our youth get a chance to test their wings and build a better India and world? Will our current leaders and policymakers be able to provide them quality education and training to prepare them to face tomorrow's challenges? Or, will India's youth be bogged down by lack of healthcare and social security, and cut-throat competition, to get and retain jobs?

India is already set to overtake China as the world's most populous country. In the coming years, New Delhi is likely to become the world's largest city, beating Tokyo. And India could, in a matter of decades, overtake USA and China to become the world's largest economy. India, as we know it, will be dramatically changing in the near future. What areas do our leaders and policymakers need to work on to make India the best she can be?

Are they prepared?

How do today's young Indians foresee this brave new future and their role in it? Let's talk to some bright youngsters from namma Bengaluru and find out. Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Shashikanth V S, software engineer Anusha Sridharan, children's author and PhD scholar Shalini Srinivasan, software engineer Swateek Jena, Jindal Global Law School student Paushi Sridhar, and software engineer Mohan Sriram Nayaka are insightful and cautiously optimistic. They offer their views tempered with humanitarian concerns, enlivened with dashes of humour.

The youth of the future cannot give their best to the world unless they are adequately educated and versed in skills needed to become productive contributors to society. There are expected to be 600 million Indians below 25 years by 2030. Are India's countless and opening-every-minute institutions for higher education prepared for the challenges ahead? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just announced an assistance of a whopping Rs 10,000 crore to 10 private universities and an equal number of government ones for a period of five years.

While such steps make a few elite institutions of learning accessible to a minuscule number of students, the vast majority make do with universities which are below par or mediocre at best. India boasts of over 750 universities and 36,000 colleges and other institutions of higher education. Questions arise about the quality of education and the academic culture they provide. In 1931, C V Raman won the Nobel Prize for his research done in an Indian university. Since then, not a single Indian working in an Indian university has earned this honour. Dr Amartya Sen, Dr Har Gobind Khorana and other Indian Nobel laureates migrated to foreign universities mainly because Indian academic institutions could not provide them with an atmosphere adequately geared towards high-level research.

What about building foundations for primary and secondary education? If the roots are weak, can the tree grow strong from the top? We frequently come across news reports of dysfunctional government schools in various parts of India, which lack basic facilities such as proper buildings and trained teachers.
"There could be a back-to-the-roots movement, based on how the present generation educates their children," Anusha Sridharan says. "I foresee many young parents sending their kids to gurukul-type of institutions." She feels that they would want to be the ideal parents who do not want their kids to suffer the mindless rote learning and academic pressures they suffered.

Lack of suitable employment and sustainable income for India's youth is another burning concern. A vast majority of Indians live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Their income is tenuous, and farmers' suicides are daily news. This uncertainty forces large numbers of rural Indian youth to migrate to urban areas. With poor quality education and vocational skills, they end up in urban slums where they live in inhuman conditions and eke out a precarious subsistence. Recent agitations demanding reservations in jobs by certain communities, and related violent incidents, are symptoms of a greater problem. In the Global Hunger Index 2017, India ranks 100 among 119 nations. This indicates the yawning gap between India's haves and have-nots.

Meanwhile, the privileged urban youth often amass higher qualifications to delay entry into the workforce. When an engineering degree no longer guarantees a job, they get MBAs or go abroad to study further. With many engineering and management seats going vacant in recent years, and not even all the many IIMs securing 100% campus placements, it would seem that more academic qualifications do not necessarily translate into suitable employment.

The hire-and-fire culture appears to be here to stay. Job security is likely to become increasingly rare as more young people join the workforce. Employers are likely to cut costs by offering fewer benefits and retrenching senior workers only to replace them with younger and less-experienced but cheaper workers. With the supply of labour even more rapidly outstripping employment opportunities, the prevailing insecurity is likely to increase.

"Our parents in private jobs are working harder, for longer hours, and with more competition and less job security than our grandparents who held government jobs," Paushi Sridhar observes. "India is likely to become more privatised in future. Jobs will not be guaranteed without the effort. The competition will be stiffer and more challenging than it is now."

"I think that the direction the youth take us in depends on how fearful they are about their future," says Mohan Nayaka. "I see a direct correlation between economic and cultural/social insecurity and an inclination towards authoritarianism. I've seen people in their 20s frantically seeking safe government jobs. Isn't that the age to go out on adventures? There's insecurity because of the hire and fire culture. One looks for safety when the risk seems too high. If one is confident about oneself and the environment, fear will reduce and productivity will increase greatly."

Dr Shashikanth goes a step further. "Youth can show their talent only when given an opportunity to serve the country. Highly talented and dedicated people should be in Indian Government and not in the US or some MNC. This itself will help improve the system when the right people occupy appropriate positions. A person who has got a suitable job in the right way will do full justice to the job. When you go to work in a government office, it is often the people who irritate you more than the system itself. "Things can change only if the job selection process is further streamlined. We often see less-deserving and less-motivated people in top positions where they don't fit in. Though we, young people, want to sacrifice high-paying jobs to help people, bribes, influence and reservations frustrate you to the core and prevent you from applying for the job.

"Good architects can plan better cities, good police can ensure safety, and good doctors can improve the health system. A relatively simple step like entrance exams after the Std 12th level to IITs, AIIMS and other leading educational institutions has given equal opportunity to all. Similarly, more scientific entrances to all jobs at state and local as well as central level would ensure higher quality and transparency.

"We need better planning for future, especially infrastructure. Every day new road construction happens. Freshly laid roads are dug up within months to lay water and sewage pipes. These mistakes are happening in every department of the government. You may pass as many bills as you wish, but skilled and motivated personnel are a must for effective implementation. There should be stricter quality checks and immediate action should be taken if standards are not maintained," Dr Shashikanth concludes.

Lack of access to affordable and quality healthcare continues to be another major concern for Indians. The Centre recently cleared the long-awaited National Health Policy 2017, which promises to increase public health spending to 2.5% of GDP in a time-bound manner and guarantees health care services to all Indian citizens, particularly the underprivileged. Will 2.5% of GDP be adequate for something as vital as healthcare? Opening more medical colleges and producing more doctors alone will not solve the problem. Sending doctors to rural areas without building adequate infrastructure will be a waste of talent. Can a highly qualified specialist, for example, who has spent over a decade to acquire skills, benefit needy patients in a run-down health centre with little or no equipment, trained support staff, or even basic medicines?

Today's youngsters foresee great changes in society. "The future definitely lies with us and our thinking," says Anusha Sridharan. "But it will take time for change to take effect. The political verse should get out of the hereditary lane. Family and relationships will become more superficial as more young people join the rat race for money and career. You wouldn't know whom to trust any longer. Arranged dating will gradually replace arranged marriages. The concept of marriage may get a new edge.

"Religion and spirituality will still be there, but secularism would cast itself better. Young people will not reject our spiritual heritage without trying to understand its intricacies. But they will take a more scientific approach, and superstitions will be less binding. Mythological fiction will create more interest where authors put creative twists while reinforcing ancient principles. Some of us will stick to our good old principles and beliefs after exploring the world of ideas," Anusha concludes.

"Hopefully, gender disparity will reduce," notes Paushi Sridhar. "We may see better-empowered women in the corporate world. We also need more women in public life and policymaking."

"Lack of sustainable development scares us all. This growth may continue at the cost of the environment. In a broad sense, our standard of living should be on a par with developed countries. Younger people would probably have more general awareness because of better education and exposure.

"As a student of law, I hope laws such as Section 377 can be decriminalised. As we move forward, Big Data is crucial and handling anything with respect to this is easier for youth raised with technology around them.

"Artificial intelligence seems to be the future. There will be more advances in technology, but how it impacts society remains to be seen. This will require more hardware, which will further exhaust natural resources over time. Already India is producing unmanageable amounts of garbage. Most of my fears for the future are environment related. We have only one chance with nature. India seems to be going the way of the Western world, and it may be a long time before people realise the consequences of exhausting nature," Paushi Sridhar adds.

"We're in for interesting times," quips Mohan Nayaka in a lighter vein. "Let robots do all the work. We will drink coconut water served by robot butlers on the beach and live happily ever after. Why not dream of self-sustaining energy, safe nuclear power, or renewable power sources? Don't worry. Elon Musk is on it, and he's far more brilliant and enterprising than any of us."

Swateek Jena sees the need for a change in our collective attitudes. "Patience, something uncommon these days, can change many things. Getting pizza within half an hour and noodles in two minutes has subconsciously changed our expectations. We don't think of or wait for the long-term effects of any solution; we need quick changes. We need to go back to the books, form an opinion over incidents and issues before providing judgements based on someone else's opinions. We need to learn and grow, help others grow; build the nation by starting with ourselves and then moving to change one person at a time.

"We understand that we are a young country, that we have more power to change things than ever before. But power is known to corrupt. We squabble among ourselves, go out of our way to prove a point, label people for their political ideology. Such pointless pursuits move our focus away from our goal of building a nation that will be better than ever before. If only we could get our focus and priorities right."

Shalini Srinivasan's optimism is uplifting and infectious. "I meet India's future youth every time I write a new book and go to schools for readings. Invariably, these turn into energetic conversations. Children are hopeful and open, animated by empathy, curiosity, compassion. Imagination and a deep concern with fairness thrive in them. And every time I hope they keep these things close, so we can look forward to a kinder, and possibly stranger, future."

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