In a nation facing fierce debates on issues of corruption and good governance, India’s population of under-35s, more than 808 million according to figures from the International Labour Organization (ILO), can play a key role in shaping its future. The country has a curious mix of young and old—while 54% of the population is below the age of 25, according to the 2011 Census of India report, 45% of its elected representatives in Parliament are above the age of 55, according to figures compiled by PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based think tank. The Ocean in a Drop: Inside-out Youth Leadership, a book on youth leadership authored by Arjun Shekhar, Ashraf Patel, Meenu Venkateswaran and Kamini Prakash, explores the crucial role the youth played in India’s freedom struggle and suggests ways in which they can take centre stage again. While Patel, Venkateswaran and Shekhar have been the founding members of Pravah, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization that works towards building youth leadership, Prakash is director of the research function at this NGO. Patel and Venkateswaran are no longer with Pravah. Edited excerpts from an email interview with Shekhar:

The book stresses on a youth-friendly space led by young people that nurtures youth leadership. How can this space be created beyond the social networks?

Problematic: Shekhar says the education system focuses on conformism.

Youth participation in nation-building has come down from the days of the freedom struggle. Why do you think this has happened?

From 26% and 32% in the first two Lok Sabhas, the percentage of youth representation in the current Lok Sabha has dwindled to 6.3%. What happened? The clue lies in the fact that though there was a healthy representation in the first Lok Sabha, the young were not considered worthy of
governance roles. The first Cabinet had no youth in it, with the average age being 52 years. Gandhiji had asked the youth to “return to their studies and careers" after independence was gained.

So when adults set the rules and they govern while using the young only to win elections, then isn’t it natural that they lose interest in politics? It is this instrumentalization of youth energy that has to stop. Young people have to be given roles that are substantive and not just ornamental.

Your book offers the possibility of evolving a youth-centric strategy that allows identity formation and action to build youth leadership. What strategy can that be?

We need to stop looking at how the youth can contribute to the nation but instead, look at what we can contribute to their needs, aspirations, confusions, fears and feelings. Essentially, we need to recognize that the basic uniqueness of youth-hood lies in the fact that it is a phase in which youth are building their identities. So, if we can ensure that social responsibility and their connection to society gets wired into them through their identity search by providing them with the “appropriate" experiences and experimenting, then we are in a mutually win-win scenario.

Do we need changes in our education system so that youth are nurtured as free thinkers and innovators?

The Ocean in a Drop—Inside-out Youth Leadership: By Ashraf Patel, Meenu Venkateswaran, Kamini Prakash and Arjun Skekhar, Sage Publications, 184 pages, Rs375.
The Ocean in a Drop—Inside-out Youth Leadership: By Ashraf Patel, Meenu Venkateswaran, Kamini Prakash and Arjun Skekhar, Sage Publications, 184 pages, Rs375.

How can nation-building and personal goals be balanced?

The idea of personal sacrifice is hyped too much in nation-building. We should remember that we are joined at the hip with society and personal success means societal success too. And more importantly, vice-versa.

Revolutions across the world, right from the Arab Spring to the Anna Hazare-led movement against corruption in India, have been driven by young people. How can youth be mobilized towards constructive revolution that has the potential to influence real change?

In the fifth space we ask three critical questions of the young activist—1) Why?—Why is it necessary for you to go to the protest? Why are you feeling passionate about this cause? Why is it stirring up an emotion in you? Why is it connected to your self? 2) What?—What about the issue is of interest to you? What do you want to get as an outcome? What are the other elements of the system? What are the interconnections between them? What are the stories beyond what you can see? What is true and what is not? 3) How?—How will you organize yourself? How will you look at dissent within the group? How will you deal with conflict? How does democracy play out in a group? How does a common voice get developed? How is consensus brought out?

We believe that young activists should sort these issues out within and among the peer group before they hit the streets.

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