The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.
A country with the world’s highest youth population cannot imagine its future without taking into account the dreams and aspirations of young people. This International Youth Day, August 12, Youth Ki Awaaz teamed up with UNICEF India and YuWaah to talk about the role India’s youth can play in transforming the future. Seven young changemakers from across the country shared their compelling stories of the steps they are taking towards making our society equal and just in their own unique ways.
We organised a panel discussion to hear these young voices out, and the resultant dialogue surely looks like a roadmap for a better India. The panel hosted by Youth Ki Awaaz’s Prashant Jha included Beauty Kumari, a Mentor to Youth Activists on Social Inclusion, Bihar Ambedkar Students Forum (BASF); Sahil Kumar, a Counsellor in Umang Kishor Helpline, Bhopal; Manu Kajla, Youth Advocate, Haridwar; Arti Zodpe, Secretary of Mahila Jagruti Sevabhavi Sanstha in Parbani, Maharasthra; Pratishtha Deveshwar, a student and disability rights activist; Sukrat Oraon, a young farmer from Mahuwari village of Lohardaga district, Jharkhand, and Ganesh Santosh Thorat, a mechanical engineer and an entrepreneur interested in the field of Drones, UAV and mechatronics.
Smt Usha Sharma, Secretary, Ministry of Youth Affairs And Sports, Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India, and S Ramanan, Mission Director, Atal Innovation Mission, also joined the panel.
The talk kick-started with Smt Usha Sharma’s encouraging words,
“About 67% of our population is under the age of 35, as a young nation, it is a great opportunity for us to involve the youth in the process of nation-building. The government has come up with a multi-pronged approach to use and enhance the power of our youth. Amid this pandemic, we have witnessed young volunteers across India come out and work on the frontline. This gives us further confidence in the potential of our youth, who are an integral part of the nation-building process.”
Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UN Resident Coordinator, India also talked about 75 years of UN and its UN 75 #UnitedForHope campaign. The campaign aims to engage with millions of young people in a conversation to get ideas on how to transform our future for the better. Addressing the young changemakers in the panel along with the ones tuned in Dr Haque said,
“Despite the challenges we are facing, it’s a proud moment for India as we see young people coming together to fight the pandemic with such commitment. I’m very thrilled to be here today to initiate the very first #UnitedForHope dialogue. We are not here to talk but listen to these young changemakers today. We would love to hear the ideas of our young generation and build a roadmap based on their aspirations. It’s critical that young people take charge and we must follow. They are raising their voices for climate change, racial justice, gender equality; they are campaigning for peace in regions witnessing humanitarian crisis; they are the first to volunteer and help during any disaster. We rely on their creativity, their innovative solutions at such times. We need them to envision a better future post-COVID-19.”
Mr R Ramanathan, Mission Director of the Atal Innovation Mission, also addressed the panel and shared his message for Youth Day 2020,
“Honourable Prime Minister Mr Modi talked about Atma Nirbhar Bharat, that is self-reliant India, in May. His vision can only be achieved by bridging the digital divide in the country. The Prime Minister also spoke about the five pillars on which the country is going to stand, of which, the youth is a significant part. We have 115 million students about to enter the workplace soon—this is substantial for the growth of our nation. The youth will play a significant role in shaping our society and tackling inequalities by building awareness around issues by coming up with innovative ideas.”
The seven young panelists now began the dialogue by sharing their powerful stories and reimagining a better future together. They spoke about the stigma and discrimination they have faced, the challenges they have overcome and the ones that remain.
Coming from a Dalit community, I can assure you that caste still holds back children from dreaming big. I am the first girl from my community to pursue Physics Hons. Despite that, I feel a sense of uncertainty when I think about how my life would take shape in the coming years.
When youth from our community think about a better future, there’s a similar uncertainty they feel. While we encourage these young kids to dream, they often feel demotivated and lack encouragement from elders. The young people from marginalized communities, especially, ones belonging to lower caste often face discrimination from an early age. It starts with discrimination in classrooms when children from upper-caste household refuse to sit next to them. The teachers too mistreat them, which results in the kids dropping out.
Therefore, to imagine a better future, discrimination and stigma need to stop.
As a mental health professional, I feel that our mental health delivery system isn’t capable enough to cater to the needs of our youth. When a young person faces discrimination, it’s affect is not momentary but lifelong. According to a study, one out of five youth in India suffers from life-long psychological issues. The stigma around mental health only escalates these issues.
I was ten when my father was transferred from Punjab to Andaman and Nicobar. I shifted from a small school in Punjab to a Navy school in there. The move felt like being uprooted from a sense of familiarity, and cultural connection that I felt in Punjab. I failed in my first year of schooling there and was bombarded with harsh comments and pressure from my teachers and parents alike. No one thought about the issues I might be facing; no one asked me how I was coping or if needed any help. No one thought about the mental pressure I might be facing.
This is the kind of pressure a lot of young people face every day. For every one lakh of our population, we have only .3 psychiatrists and .7 social workers. The deeper I dive into the issue, the more I realize how desensitized our society is to the cause and effect of this issue. Even our families feel ashamed of a person seeking help from a mental health professional; they would much rather sweep the issue under the rug. They are afraid that someone will tag their child ‘crazy’. We have created a massive stigma around a problem that needs to be addressed urgently.
There’s a lack of awareness too. Even those who are aware are afraid of seeking help fearing judgement. I feel mental health is also a demand issue. When there’s more awareness, perhaps more people will seek help.
When we talk mental health do we look also at inclusivity? Does our discourse account the needs of people with disabilities? The media likes to paint us helpless and dependent on others’ mercy. They have created a certain image in the minds of people. I have learnt not to try and fit into their perceptions of beauty, and I am doing just fine.
I was 13 when I met with an accident. I was told that I would never be able to walk for the rest of my life. My entire life seemed to turn upside down at that moment. I was worried about the infrastructural barriers that would stop me. However, no one really told me that now I was a part of the world largest minority community, and people would look at me through a lens of societal stereotypes.
It seemed that my wheelchair had overshadowed all my achievements. No one noticed my beautiful smile, my educational qualifications or the talents I possessed. A wheelchair creates its own list of stereotypes in people’s minds.
We are considered a burden on our families. And being associated with the word ‘burden’ did take me to a rather low point in my life, but I decided to concentrate on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t. I decided to focus on what I could achieve; I decided to be independent—something no one believed I could do.
I left my hometown in Punjab to study at Delhi University. I lived alone for three years, and now I have finished my degree. I will be studying at Oxford University starting this September. What helped was ignoring all the negative comments that came my way.
I always knew I would have a story worth telling. I have been perfecting this story since the age of 14, and I was sure there was light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. The key is, never to give up hope.
Amid this pandemic, I am yet to come across media’s coverage on issues relating to people with disabilities post lockdown. The people enlisted in the list of those who could avail movement passes did not mention caregivers. They were not considered essential workers. How could the government forget 26.8 million people? It made me realise that this section of society remains hugely underrepresented not just in media but in our policies too. It seems that society doesn’t want to support our independence and rights. I feel the government needs to play a more active role in bringing this parity.
My message to everyone hearing me out today is, always remember that ‘Inclusion starts with I’. All of our stories matter, no matter how small or inconsequential they might seem!
The workforce in this country needs to come together to fight for their rights. Every worker, whether it’s a sex worker, a daily wage laborer or a domestic worker, deserves equality.
The children of sex workers face a lot of difficulties in attaining education. Kids living in brothels do not even receive polio drops. The stigma and discrimination society practices are understood to an extent, but what can we say about the government discriminating against these children? We must look at every single one of these aspects to improve the situation of sex workers and their children.
For a better future, the government must take steps to legalise sex work and ensure that their rights are not denied. The government must give them a chance to work on issues that matter to the community. At last, I want to see a world where sex work is not stigmatised, and more networks are made for sex workers.
So, what can we do for kids begging on the street, and how can we help them enter the education system? These kids are pushed into begging by parents too. One way we help them is by finding them jobs which keep their children off the streets. The kids, however, face discrimination when they enter schools. The other kids are not welcoming of them and look down on them.
I feel that parents need to teach their kids to not differentiate among them like this. We don’t look at a person’s caste when we need labour; we don’t bother about the caste in case of a medical emergency such as the need for blood. Why can’t we get rid of these discriminations altogether then? We must make an effort to rid ourselves of the biases.
The best way to help these children would provide their parents and caretakers with jobs that can sustain them. Another critical step the government needs to take is to sensitise the community about alcohol abuse which is a source of many problems among them.
The girls in the community are also vulnerable to early marriage and abuse. I have been working to sensitise them about their rights and even defend themselves. We need to invest in the potential of youth in these communities and take them into account when we talk about development. Only then can we progress as a nation. I work with street children and help them enter the education system because I believe that education is the only way to eradicate the differences in our society.
Almost 95% of the people in my village are engaged in farming. They are mostly involved in poultry and dairy farming. These farmers work hard in the fields but are unable to reap the benefits of what they sow. I believe that people here need awareness around advanced technologies in agriculture for better yield off of their labour.
I request the government to initiate more programs to train and sensitise our people on modern technologies for better output and cost-effectiveness in agriculture. This is the only way we can hope for a better future.
“The drone industry acts as a bridge to the challenges faced by other industry—each application of the drone has the potential for a startup”
Many people in India are not aware of drone technology, but I want to bring it into our rural regions, which I believe will also help create more jobs. The developed countries are far ahead in the research and development around drones. We need to do this in our country too. A drone is one of the most multi-dimensional technologies in the world.
We must educate the youth regarding the potential of this emerging technology. There’s a huge need for us to push this technology in India. Recently, during locusts attacks, a lot of farmers suffered. But some didn’t. In some cases, the drones came in handy as farmers sprayed pesticides using them, which saved their crops. This proves the need to push this technology in rural agriculture even more.
Introducing this technology in villages will also help in creating jobs. But we need to impart the required skills among our youth. My startup faced many barriers, including funding at the initial stage. My team faced many challenges, many failures, but we did not give up. The pandemic too brought its unique challenges, but we managed to find the way.