Punit Mukherjee, 18, Kolkata
Kolkata: Punit Mukherjee was in the middle of his higher secondary school examinations in March when the autorickshaw in which he was travelling collided with a bus.
Punit sustained multiple injuries, the worst of which was nothing more than a broken arm, but the accident means loss of an academic year for the 18-year-old student of class XII. For the family, it means paying his school fees for one more year.
Punit Mukherjee. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
It’s only the latest misfortune to befall the Mukherjee household.
Punit’s father Gautam Mukherjee, 48, lost his job when the plywood company that employed him as an executive went bust five years ago. He has been fighting a court battle since to recover the Rs20 lakh he claims the company owes him, and a restaurant he opened hasn’t been doing well, partly because he has no money to expand it.
The economic slowdown that is costing jobs has had Punit worried for his 21-year-old sister Priyanka Mukherjee, who dropped out of a postgraduate programme in international relations to work at a call centre so she can help run the household.
So Punit has got plenty to be upset, anxious and angry about, and couldn’t care less about politics—or about voting in the general election.
He hadn’t gotten himself a voter identity card until before the accident, and was more interested in applying for a driving licence, although his family doesn’t have a car. After the accident, he was too distraught to be interviewed again.
“Just look at them,” he said with contempt about politicians. “Barring a few, all politicians make a mockery of democracy in our Parliament, and the whole world watches it on TV,” he said, sitting in a bedroom strewn with textbooks and study material for engineering entrance tests.
Punit, who had been looking forward to leaving school, would have loved to study aeronautical engineering after school, but wasn’t certain his family could afford to pay for the course that costs upwards of Rs2.4 lakh.
LIVING WITHIN HIS MEANS
Family hardship taught Punit to live within his limited means. He would cycle to school and wouldn’t ever be seen at a discotheque, although his friends are regulars. Besides his bicycle, his one treasured possession is an iPod shuffle gifted by friends. Punit is a music enthusiast, and plays the bass guitar—bought when the family was better off—in a band of aspiring musicians.
An occasional pastime is watching a movie at a multiplex.
The downturn in economic growth has him worried. “I guess we need to be a little more careful with spending now,” he said.
Shaken by the slowdown, Priyanka is looking for another job, but she has had no luck yet.
“I would have loved to study further, but when I graduated from college, it was necessary that I started working. It was important for me to start earning because it was the only way Punit could concentrate on studies (and) focus on getting into a good college,” she said.
Priyanka was a student of Jadavpur University, where she read political science.
Punit’s education costs Rs2,000 a month, a substantial sum for his family in its present situation, but he had not had to cut back on that yet. What troubles him most is the state of affairs in West Bengal. His confidence in the state and its political parties was shaken by the unrest among farmers over land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram. “They (the politicians) claimed to be fighting for the villagers, but actually they were all trying to gain political mileage out of a very sensitive issue… They are all the same,” he said.
‘COMPLACENT AND ARROGANT’
Though he has no sympathies for the Trinamool Congress, West Bengal’s main opposition party, he squarely blames the ruling Communists in the state for the “mess around”. “Having been in power for 30 years, they are complacent and arrogant,” he said.
His impression of the administration in the state isn’t any better. “You need to be someone to be heard in this city…you should see how autorickshaw drivers, bus drivers and conductors behave with the common man. You can’t raise a finger even against rash driving because they all enjoy the patronage of Citu (Centre of Indian Trade Unions),” said Punit, disgusted with Kolkata’s traffic. Citu is the union affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM.
And this he said before the accident.
Speak about elections and the first thing that comes to his mind are the loudspeakers blaring party propaganda that disturb his studies and sleep. “If it’s the CPM in the morning, it’s the Trinamool Congress in the evening—it’s a menace.”
Impressions have hardened into firm opinions after the November terror attack in Mumbai. “Politicians were slinging mud at each other within days of the terror attack, whereas they should have united in condemning the attack,” said Punit, who has no favourites among political parties and politicians.
Punit has a quarrel with the establishment as a whole, including the courts, blaming them for doing nothing to help his father secure what he believes are legitimate claims.
Born months before the country’s economy was opened up to the outside world, Punit said liberalization was a great thing to have happened. “It created a lot more job opportunities…it’s a different matter that not every city and state has benefited equally from it.”
The political climate in West Bengal, he said, has prevented people from realizing the benefits of liberalization. He believes the militant trade unionism that the Left has supported for decades and, more recently, the anti-industry stance taken by opposition parties have forced a large number of young people to move out of Kolkata in search of jobs, while the young in cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore have not had to leave their homes and yet are doing well.
That explains his reluctance to exercise his right to vote.
Punit’s father is stoical about his son’s attitude. “When we were young, opportunities were limited,” he said. “Things have changed post-liberalization, but if you talk of political leadership in this state, choices are still limited. Though I believe one should vote, Punit is a freethinking individual and if he chooses not to, I am not going to pressure him to vote.”