Delving into the lens through which we typically categorize the youth of today, the author invites the youth of his community to bring to their awareness certain fundamental questions that lie just beneath their everyday pre-occupations
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: ...So long as I get somewhere.
Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
H ow do people make sense of where they want to go and what they want to become? This question is at its acute best when we are young and still flirting with the infinite potential of what could be—of us and of the world that we inhabit. Different people have different degrees of privilege with this question; I, personally, had a very longish period to ponder upon this. When I went to Chakai (Bihar), where the events unfolded, I was pretty unperturbed by where things would lead. In this article, I reflect on my experience of engaging with young people from the rural milieu of Chakai, Bihar. The context of my engagement with the youth in Chakai is my MPhil research and a couple of developmental projects I undertook as part of PRADAN.
Young people, usually, are always at the centre of various ‘pulls’ from different institutions and social expectations, which consume their time and attention constantly. The primary and most legitimate social pull is from educational institutions, which in places like Chakai, is rather weak due to the dysfunctional status of the senior-level school and college education in the region. Most young people of the area belong to a community that is part of the subsistence economy. Therefore, another strong pull is towards domestic work. For some other young people, a strong pull is the cash-based, labour-intensive work in cities. Almost everyone, who has chosen education and is enrolled in the local college, is pulled towards grade-D government jobs. Chakai is a Naxal-affected zone; one of the marginal and declining attractions is to join the movement as well. A recent growing inclination is that which the popular media exercises on young people, manifested in indulging in fashion or following latest trends. There are more gender-specific and socio-cultural pulls too. Many young girls drop out of school by the time they complete Class 10 and wait to get married whereas many young boys have leisure time for exploration, including football, alcohol and going to nearby towns. The government too tries to encourage young people into taking some skill-based courses, with the intention of integrating them in the job market. Amidst all this is the NGO I represent, which tries to engage young people for community development projects and sometimes specifically for youth development.
Every young person, who dropped out from our project, has helped me realize the significance of shifting our perspective as and when needed. Young people need some space as much as they need some intimate mentorship; they seek self-serving pleasures as much as they love socially meaningful roles; they would love some stable source of money as much as they would like to unsettle some social norms.
The following is a framework that lays out five strategies of approaching the youth, the skeleton of which I have borrowed from Pravah (an organization with substantial experience in working with youth). These categories highlight some of the attractions of and deterrents to youth work. In practice, these are not mutually exclusive, and my own work has often taken all of these perspectives at different moments.
This invocation is often done with reference to an economist or resource-based view, in which India is often quoted as a young nation with an implication of higher productivity. Young people in Chakai are forced to take up the view of soon becoming economic contributors to their families.
This approach considers youth to be at risk. This is a deficit conception, which paves the way for developmental interventions, to help youth overcome certain gaps. Many young people I met in Chakai articulated the feeling of being lost, not knowing what to do or were limited by socio-cultural conventions.
This lens perceives youth has instrumental for solving social problems. For example, our main approach has been to engage young people in addressing the educational and nutritional problems of the community. Individual skill building becomes a consequence of this.
This lens focuses on the holistic self-development and transformation of young people. Individual aspirations and issues are the crux of this approach. This approach takes social development as instrumental for individual aspirations. This may take the form of youth collectives.
This is the pop culture categorization of young people, which paints them as subjects of pleasure, rebellion and transgression. This is when young people think that to be wild and free it is legitimate phase.
Let us look at examples to improve our understanding of each of these categories in the context of Chakai and the youth that we are working with.
I. Youth as an age category: Twenty-year-old Munna started a community learning centre in his own village, Kumbadi. He began taking classes for children. Four months later, he started staying away from group meetings and even became irregular with his classes. On probing, it emerged that he wanted to earn more money than with which the project could remunerate him. So, he migrated to take a job that gave him around Rs 12,000 per month. Even though he could feel a connection with the social role he had taken, the pressure to contribute financially to his family weighed heavy on him.
II. Youth as needing protection: When 16-year-old Sunita from Naiadih village started with us, she was a school drop-out. She had studied till Class 9. The reasons for this were that her parents had started to think about her marriage. She herself was not very clear about what more education will enable her to do. Over a period of time, however, with our project, she and her parents started appreciating the significance of educational skills. She re-enrolled in school and completed Class 10 last year. However, during the lockdown, her father took away her phone because she was talking to a boy. After we started operating remotely, she left the work and has not returned since.
III. Youth as a problem-solver: Seventeen-year-old Kavita from Govindpur is an exemplar of how young people can take up social challenges and end up developing many individual skills. Despite her young age, she holds public meetings with a lot of panache and villagers hold her in great respect for her active role in village affairs. Kavita plays a crucial role in several of our developmental projects and her energy is an inspiration for anyone around her.
IV. Youth for youth’s sake: Twenty-year-old Ashish from Bamdah just could not connect with the aims and values of our project. He joined us, initially, for the film-making training and showed great potential. Whereas the project required films on the local food, he was more interested in making vlogs on his bike adventures with his friends. Social change just did not make sense to him. I would say that we failed to retain him because we did not have the time to engage him on his own terms and he was less attuned to the culture of compliance.
V. Youth as a hedonistic rebel: Many people prioritize ‘leisure’ over anything else. Many young men would join us for very small periods and were subsequently drawn to the more popular attractions. NGO work can undoubtedly sound and feel very boring, moral and phony for people. At 18, I personally would have chosen to spend my time romanticizing about life rather than think about malnutrition.
When I started working on an educational project in 2018, my go-to option was the third lens. This is because, as an NGO, we often look forward to individuals taking up key roles in the implementation of developmental projects. We try to get them to start taking ownership of something that may not have quite originated in them. However, what worked best for us was that we took an aesthetic approach to the politics of community development. This placed culture and creative expression at the centre of how we engaged with young people. Within this, we tried to weave skills and platforms such as film-making, writing, theatre, social media, community radio and digital literacy, local festivals, cultural ethos, agriculture practices, knowledge of forests, food systems and community learning centres. In terms of social impact, the youth club managed to create multilingual learning material, libraries, school food garden, films on local food, and audio material for local interactive voice response system (IVRS) among several other things.
Over a period of time, my inclination for the first, second and fourth lens came as a pushback and a key learning from my failures. Every young person, who dropped out from our project, has helped me realize the significance of shifting our perspective as and when needed. Young people need some space as much as they need some intimate mentorship; they seek self-serving pleasures as much as they love socially meaningful roles; they would love some stable source of money as much as they would like to unsettle some social norms. Having a young, dynamic team in PRADAN helped us integrate these approaches with the local youth. My colleague, Shuvajit Chakarborty, insists on the value of generating local livelihoods and developing an entrepreneurial attitude. As an example of this, 21-year-old Motilal started his own seed nursery and 24-year-old Kusum ended up earning more money, making films in Chakai, than her brother, who had migrated to Bangalore. She recently bought a scooter for herself. In a life-map exercise, a typical lens 4 activity, Simon expressed his desire to learn advance computer skills. He is now all set to take up web design with one of our partners in the United States over zoom.
In 2015, when I went to Chakai for the first time, the SHG was the dominant infrastructure for engaging with the community. I somehow could not work directly with the SHG women, and many of the adult, male members had either migrated or were too busy. Thus, for my research, I ended up working with children and young people because they were the ones with some free time. Working with the youth started as nothing more than a happy accident. I was conducting a small writing workshop in Chakai with some of the local youth, which now operates under the name of Lahanti Club. On the last day of the workshop, I asked them, “So, what does it all mean? Where is this headed?” This gave way to some fundamental questions that often remain dormant due to their regular project activities. My question invoked questions such as, “Will being part of the club bring any kind of secure financial grounding for me? What is the vision of this club? What is my vision for my own life? Is there an overlap between the two? Why are cultural assertion and community development so important? What happens after this project ends?
Modular vision building exercises for the club or simple life maps for individuals do not convey the complexity and uncertainty of these questions. Thus, these questions are never really fully answered. As we work with young people, they are constantly animated by these questions at a tectonic level. The lack of clarity around where things are headed is not just limited to rural youth; it is something that often characterizes development projects themselves. No one is sure about the afterlife of developmental projects, and the instability of this ecosystem affects the professionals and the consultants working in the organization itself too. The facilitator and the facilitated are often in the same boat that may just go anywhere. This for me is the most challenging, ethical concern of working with young people in such contexts, reflected not only in our ability to walk together long enough but also in developing some clarity around our often-divergent destinations and their possible interconnections.