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Geeta Verghese: India's youth can be change agents

SBI Youth for India fellowship provides a framework to enable educated youth to work on rural development projects of partner NGOs

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Each year, the observes 12 August as . In December 2009 the passed a resolution proclaiming the year commencing from 12 August, 2010 as International Youth Year. This was to focus attention on ways in which the energy, imagination and initiative of the world’s youth could be harnessed to overcome the challenges facing humankind, from enhancing peace to boosting .

With 55 per cent of the Indian population below the age of 25, India can boast of the largest youth population in the world — a trend that is likely to continue for at least the next two decades. Such a demographic distribution gives us an indication of the energy, enthusiasm and idealism that is available for harnessing, provided there are suitable avenues that can attract young Indians. During the independence movement charismatic leaders were able to inspire the people with their vision and convert the struggle into a mass movement.

Today, widespread cynicism and contempt for the political leadership has alienated the youth from participating in nation building activities. As a result, young people passing out of universities look for the earliest opportunity to start climbing the corporate ladder or to go abroad. While their value system has made them westernised and materialistic in outlook, they also feel frustrated about their inability to act as change agents in society and find a higher purpose for their lives.

and the subsequent growth in have apparently not touched 70 per cent of the Indian population. Agriculture, which engages about 50 per cent of the nation’s youth, is showing signs of an acute crisis that is sweeping across the country and has led to a large number of suicides by farmers. Declining agricultural productivity, falling employment opportunities in agricultural and non-farm sectors, poor health care services and the inability to access quality education has enhanced poverty and distress among one-third of the rural population.

While economic opportunities have increased for people with education, skills and economic resources in the post-liberalisation era, a large number of illiterate and poorly educated people, particularly in rural areas, have fallen behind and are not in a position to benefit in the new milieu. This inequitable development has unleashed social tensions, particularly in under-developed and tribal areas, which has manifested in movements such as .

One of the ways of bridging the widening urban-rural divide is to organise and galvanise the youth, particularly urban educated youth, so that they voluntarily get involved in developmental projects in rural areas, which people perceive as being largely the responsibility of the government. In some countries, like the US, there are well-structured programmes (such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps) which enable volunteers to spend a brief period doing development work with the underprivileged sections of society, before taking up their chosen profession.

To translate our ‘demographic dividend’ into a true ‘development dividend’, we also need such initiatives, which will provide avenues for the more privileged sections to become aware of ground realities and contribute through their personal efforts towards building strong cohesive communities — a pre-requisite for a stable socio-political environment. The absence of a well-conceived programme, which provides interesting and meaningful work, has resulted in the nation loosing out on the services of a huge pool of energetic young people — a wasted resource.

It is in this context that the State Bank of India has launched the Youth for India fellowship. The programme provides a framework to enable educated youth to work on rural development projects of partner NGOs for a period of one year. The programme’s partner NGOs are MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, , and Seva Mandir. The objectives of this fellowship are: To provide educated Indian youth with an opportunity to touch lives and create positive change at the grass root level in rural India; to provide NGOs working on development projects in rural India with educated manpower whose skill sets can be used to catalyse rural development; and to promote a forum for programme alumni to share ideas and contribute to rural development throughout their professional lives.

The first batch comprises 28 Fellows, including five women. While Tata Group, Mindtree and Capgemini have given their employees a sabbatical, many of the others had to resign from their jobs to take up the fellowship. After undergoing suitable training, the Fellows work on projects under the mentorship of senior staff of the NGO.

The SBI Youth for India Fellows are currently working on a variety of projects across eight states of the country. Ankit from Delhi is working at Thiruvaiyaru Village Resource Centre in Tamil Nadu to provide an IVR solution for farmers and fishermen of the area. Anusha from Chennai is working in Jhadol block of Udaipur district on empowering children through education. She states that for the children of this area, schools are a safe haven which protects them from contractors who would otherwise kidnap them to work as agricultural labour in neighbouring states. Vineeth is working on food security for tribals in Jeypore, Orissa.

Due to their urban upbringing, the SBI YFI Fellows are able to observe things from a broader perspective and appreciate the wider implications. Living with rural communities, they can empathise with the hardships of women forced to carry water and firewood over long distances, the future of children deprived of a basic education in this competitive age and think deeply about the development model that the country needs to adopt. As a result, the experience of the fellowship has been transformational for these youth.

The author is Coordinator, SBI Youth for India (www.youthforindia.org)

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