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India's Political Disconnect: Prioritizing Youth-Centric Agendas for a Brighter Future

Photo by Chelsea Aaron on Unsplash

Elections are currently underway in India, the world's largest democracy. However, the political discourse appears to be disconnected from the pressing issues faced by its populace, particularly the youth. Instead of addressing the genuine concerns of the electorate, candidates from both the ruling and opposition parties seem preoccupied with religious polarization on one side or empty dole-out promises on the other. India boasts the world's largest young population, yet even the political rhetoric, leave alone the political action, fails to resonate ideas for the young and productive generation. Rather than offering relevant agendas, the electorate is inundated with divisive narratives and superficial pledges.

For a young population, the most critical area that urgently requires attention is education. India's education system poses the most significant challenge for a country with the largest base of young population.  India's public schooling system is in dire straits, School education is either horribly expensive or poorly distributed or substandard in quality. With issues ranging from exorbitant costs in private education to poor quality and low availability in public schools, there is an urgent need for massive investment in school infrastructure. Without a strong educational foundation, promises of jobs, whether in the public or private sector, remain hollow. Below are few steps that can be taken to strengthen school education in India:

  1. Quadrupling the budget for establishing new government-run or government-supported schools nationwide, spanning both rural and urban areas. This can be done by doubling the investment by Union government and allocating an equal amount to State governments to create their schools, on the condition that the State government invests equal amount (the fourth portion) - making Union grant conditional to spend by the State government spend.
  2. Increasing the salaries and incentives for school teachers - this itself means multiple things:
    • Increase direct pay given to teachers to be at least above the lowest rank of government or municipal salaries. A teacher must earn more than a government clerk, only then will the dignity of being a teacher be restored and talented individuals get attracted towards teaching.
    • Provide other incentives and privileges: Irrespective of employment status - permanent or contract, full-time or part-time, government or private school - teachers must be entitled for healthcare, social security, insurance and childcare benefits. A targeted program to enroll all teachers into a state-run (co-funded or co-pay) benefits program can go a long way to make teaching a sought after profession.
    • Increase the stature of educational institutions - in today's India private educational institutions are either framed as money-making machines, or as dilapidated public schools lacking infrastructure and quality of education. A change of perception needs a public awareness campaign on the lines of Pulse-Polio or Swachh Bharat.   

Then comes higher education - for a country which wants to be the startup capital of the world, it makes no sense to create a 'Startup program' which offers 'freemium grants from partner SaaS companies', which are subpar to even a mediocre American / European accelerators! Government does not need to foster startups. Instead, the government needs to create a fundamental shift in its investment focus to create a fertile ground for startups to flourish

The need is to create investment in teaching and research grants which can spawn knowledge and research oriented startups. Educational institutions need to be encouraged to become part of research and innovation, rather than give away degrees and run placement cells for employment. A research grant program modeled after the successes of Silicon Valley in the 1960s could catalyze the creation of future industries. There are three specific interventions which can be done by the government to achieve this:

  1. Direct government grants into research projects of national importance - these could be related to defense, space and nuclear research, infrastructure, clean-energy and public utilities. Further, state and local governments need to be given incentives to involve their local educational institutions in consulting for projects.
  2. India has developed competent agencies in some specialties like defense (DRDO), space (ISRO) and nuclear power (BARC). Then there is a host of government run or supported corporates which power infrastructure needs of the country State-PSUs, BHEL, NICMAR, BEL, ESSL etc. All these agencies and corporations need to be given incentives to sponsor chairs and departments related to their specialties in universities in India and start leveraging student led innovation from these universities.
  3. Policy incentives for Industry to involve educational institutions in research - tax breaks and other tools can be used to push the private sector to involve educational institutions in their research.  Many companies in India (including well funded startups), invest heavily in research and innovation. On the other hand, research (even if minimal) in educational institutions is largely disconnected from the needs of industry.  If industry is incentivized, not only will more budget get comingled with higher education institutes' talent, but it will improve the quality and efficacy of research in these institutions.         

Beyond academia, the development of Sports facilities is the next frontier which needs focus. This is especially paramount in across small and Tier 3 towns where we have easier availability of land, but more importantly where talent from rural India emigrates in search of opportunities. Sports infrastructure not only fosters talent but also promotes a healthy lifestyle among citizens in general. Sports facilities can be linked to higher-education institutions, and also run at municipal level and by community driven organizations. Government can foster the creation of such sports facilities by giving grants to local governments, on the lines of two Urban renewal missions (JNNURM and AMRUT) run in the last two decades to improve urban infrastructure.

Not to forget, there are already so many specialized sports coaching centers, stadiums and club run by passionate citizens. Private gyms are a rage in almost every tier 3 town in India. At the same time government or municipal run institutions lie in dilapidated state. Many erstwhile PSU-townships used to have sports clubs in each sector, which now lie idle because of dwindling jobs in these corporations. Governments which own these facilities just need to relax their rigid policies and allow, rather incentivize, passionate citizen groups and social organizations to take ownership of these dilapidated spaces and use them in conjunction with private coaching to improve the overall sporting temper in Indian cities. 

And finally we come to Arts - when I originally started writing this piece, I was going to have a common section for Sports and Arts; many points are similar or parallel. However, when it comes to India, Art deserves a separate mention of its own given the variety of art forms - from tradition to modern, from international to folk, from urbane to tribal - art is the lifeline of India's cultural microcosms.

Arts is a field with a typical 99:1 success curve, where 1% of artists are 99% more successful than 99% of artists. Nevertheless, the 99% of regular artists have varying levels of local or regional fame and success to make a decent living. Indians love art in their homes, in their community, in public spaces across cities and towns. Whether its visual art, drama, music or sculpting, Indians across strata are connoisseurs in their own way. However, mere individual or community support doesn't cut the ice for pursuing arts because it takes much longer to stabilize oneself financially while pursuing arts, unlike for those with professional education. One of the reasons why Art flourished in India in the middle ages was because there were several small kingdoms and each prince patronized artists in their kingdom.

Thus for arts to flourish, apart from giving it adequate weightage in education, allowing arts credits to be counted for academic success, we need state patronage in form of scholarships at national, regional, state, and district levels as well as grants for budding artists who may have graduated recently from colleges. Notably, early post-independence India had many such schemes such as NFDC, FTII and even Doordarshan giving grants for film making, or institutions like Bharat Bhavan, Kalidas Academy or Sahitya Akademi giving patronage in form of living quarters and stipend to young artists. Research emphasizes the positive impact of scholarships on talent development and social mobility, underscoring their importance in empowering the youth. And such grants, scholarships and stipends can be linked to export of Arts from India. Investing in culture can stimulate economic growth while showcasing India's rich heritage to the world and help in spreading India's soft power across the globe. 

In conclusion, India's political narrative must pivot towards addressing the genuine concerns of its young and productive population. The political discourse needs to move away from communal-secular, freebie-job-creation, and Sabre rattling debates around religious and caste agenda, towards issues which look at how its young and productive can prosper. By prioritizing investments in education, research, sports, and arts, India can unleash the potential of its youth and pave the way for a brighter future.



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