Mukta Naik

In the Indian city of Indore, located 570 kms from Mumbai, Mohan spends his day attending classes at an engineering college and his evenings with his friends. His father owns a small business and he is the first in his family to go to college. His family expects him to get a well-paid job when he graduates. Mohan, aware of how tough the job market is, resents his family’s unreasonable expectations and is desperately seeking a sense of direction.

Shobha, who is learning computer skills at a local training centre, is expected to cook breakfast and lunch before she leaves home every morning and rushes back to cook a hot dinner for her family every evening. Her mother is ill and her father is a clerk in a government department. She is afraid her parents will arrange a marriage for her as soon as she obtains her certification and is unable to find a way to explain to them that she intends to work and become financially independent.

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In pursuit of a space sans judgement

Millions of young people like Mohan and Shobha who live in India’s secondary cities are struggling to break free of traditional societal norms and seek an identity independent of their family (as well as caste, clan and other trappings). “Beyond the spaces that society approves of—home and family, work or study, friends and leisure”, Pravah co-founder Meenu Venkateswaran says that “young people seek safe and non-judgemental spaces where they can learn about themselves and about the world.” Delhi-based NGO Pravah has, in its over 20 years of working with young people in India, concentrated its efforts on creating what it calls the 5th space for them. Embedded in the idea of the 5th space is the concept of active citizenship for young people, of helping young people develop life skills that help them “succeed” by positively impacting themselves as well as society at large.

This is a potent idea for India, where about 55% of citizens are below 25 years old, but where the youth has increasingly been left out of decision-making. Sample this: While 23 million young citizens voted for the first time in India’s recently concluded 2014 general elections, the average age of the newly elected Indian Parliament is 54! Young people have increasingly been seen in the light of being ‘productive’ economic assets and traditionally are expected to remain obedient and subservient to the interests of older people. However, the idea of active citizenship for youth turns traditional thinking on its head, seeking to empower young people from within, building their confidence and engaging them in roles where they take decisions, sample leadership and gleans variety of experiences.

Supporting youth in secondary cities

In Indore, Anhad Pravah is trying this out among young people who have limited opportunities for making independent decisions. Having worked at Pravah in Delhi, Shilpa Jhawar moved back to her hometown of Indore with the idea of helping the large number of young people in Indore who came in to study at the city’s numerous private educational institutions. “Young people come here from villages, with dreams and aspirations, with the hope they will get a good job, become someone. They come here because they don’t think they have any other options and they experience a lot of disillusionment once they graduate and don’t find jobs that pay enough. Coming in from small towns and villages, these young people are dazzled by the city. Peer pressure, material aspirations and intense competition can derail them completely,” Shilpa says describing the problems young people in Indore face.

Anhad Pravah’s focus has been to organise sessions that comprise activities to help young people understand themselves in a fun way. “Through film screenings and interactions, as well as newly started 2-month leadership journey, we help participants through a process of self-reflection that then helps them make better choices,” Shilpa elaborates. Another focus is on creating a youth resource centre at the Anhad Pravah office. Set up as a youth hub, the space has become a draw for youngsters who are curious to explore and eager to interact with others their own age outside the bounds of college and home. “Interestingly, in the last six months, a core group of 6-10 volunteers have started to come regularly. They are now starting to take ownership of what they want to do here, what kind of library to build, what sessions to organise,” Shilpa shares. While Anhad Pravah continues to find ways to engage stakeholders like teachers and parents to support their philosophy, a significant focus is on finding projects and initiatives that offer the youth of Indore hands-on experience of engaging with real world issues.

The vital link between self and society

Paradoxically, Gaurav Shorey, an architect and founder of NGO called 5waraj, points out that “as per the Indian traditions practiced in ancient times, society mainstreamed the participation of younger people, those who contribute actively to work in society, while it relegated elders to advisory roles. ” Because they see urban issues emanating from the lost connection between the self and local culture, 5waraj focuses on equipping young people to appreciate culture as expressed by building traditions, language, food, clothing and music. Through this, they hope to create a rational basis for understanding the world around and indirectly encourage youth to take on responsibility towards society.

Through the experiences of various youth-focused organisations, it is clear young people in Indian cities are struggling to place themselves in the context of a globalising and urbanising world. Both Gaurav as well as Shilpa feel that offering young people a chance to engage with relevant issues increases their confidence and could also provide innovative answers to the challenges that urban India faces.

Meenu for one has no doubts that young people are highly motivated and can be game changers. But she doesn’t believe that you can ask young people to change the world! “Whatever a young person might do—street plays, volunteering, awareness campaigns—is fine, but the real change is happening inside because through these actions, she understands something about the world that she did not know before. She builds leadership skills, the ability to work in a team, the ability to resolve conflicts. The call, therefore, has to be to ‘come change yourself’! And you change yourself by engaging with the world.”

And therein lies that vital link between self and society that has the power to improve the world around us. By empowering young citizens to appreciate and experience this link, not just in metros but also in smaller cities, it is possible to imagine urban initiatives initiated and sustained through youth activism and volunteerism.

Banner photo by Bernard Gagnon

Photo 1 by Ahinsajain

Photo 2 by Jorge Rayan

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Categories: Citizenship, Governance, Identity, Youth