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The Teens Arrive

January 1, 2013

Irreverent, empowered youth willing and concerned enough to take to the streets is cause for hope

Welcome the teens! The first teen year of the century begins today: a significant landmark, particularly for a young country like India, with half of its population below 25. For some, 13 may be an inauspicious number; yet, doubtless, the year promises to be an exciting and fulfilling one for the country.

The year gone by saw many ups and downs; more of the latter and too little of the former. Of course, the very fact that the whole year has gone by is itself significant: the world was to end on December 21, according to one interpretation of the Mayan calendar! Another important date — one which saw overflowing maternity wards, thanks to over-zealous parents — was 12-12-12, a number alliteration which will not recur this century. It has been a year in which other numbers too took on big roles, being short-hand representations of larger issues. For example, 66. Standing for Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, it has achieved notoriety for its blatant misuse by a pliant police force at the behest of the politicians. A professor in Kolkata and two young ladies in Mumbai were amongst the many victimised under this law, for innocuous posts on the Net. The wording of this Section permits interpretations that make it undemocratic and draconian: a law that deserves to be quickly repealed or, at least, drastically re-worded. A smaller number — 2, or, more precisely 2% — has seen a divide in the corporate world. This refers to the requirement in the new Companies Bill for certain categories of companies to spend 2% of their profits on CSR. The oxymoron of compulsory philanthropy, with a ‘comply or explain’ framework, has been welcomed by some and criticised by others. Behind the number are deep philosophical issues about the responsibility of companies, the desirability of mandating such spending, the rights of shareholders, the virtues of voluntarism as opposed to a tax, etc. There are also practical concerns: would this mean another inspector and more corruption; could it lead to clever juggling of accounts to boost expenditures shown as CSR?

Meanwhile, thanks to the CAG, the country is learning some really big numbers. The most popular is 1,76,000 crore. A Rorschach-like test will have most Indians instantly respond to this number with ‘telecom scam’. Even bigger numbers were bandied about in the context of ‘Coalgate’, but they have not embedded themselves in the popular mind so firmly.

The number of zeroes in this seem to have so spooked the government that instead of condemning wrongdoers and defending a policy that made India the global showpiece of a successful telecom revolution, it chose to condemn the policy and defend the alleged wrongdoers! The aam aadmi, who benefitted phenomenally with the lowest tariffs and cheap phones, was left confused and may soon turn sullen if rates begin to go up, as is expected. The new philosophy, driven by blinkered accountants and simplistic judicial pronouncements, seems to be: maximise government revenues and don’t worry about public welfare. 1,76,000 means all this, and much more.

On the other hand, the end of the year had the Prime Minister expressing that 8 was too much. He was referring to the projected 8% growth rate — scaled down from 9 to 8.2 and now 8% — for the 12th Plan. Amidst the reams of paper used in discussing this growth percentage, there was little mention of much bigger figures like the number of illiterates, the number of malnourished children, the extent of female foeticide or the number of persons below the poverty line. Lacking too was the focus on gini coefficient — indicating income inequality — or the growing number of billionaires in a poor country. Targets for reduction of any of these hardly featured in the debate. A figure related to this was, earlier, the subject of much controversy: whether . 32 a day was sufficient for livelihood. The Planning Commission and its Deputy Chairman got much stick on this figure of 32.

Beyond numbers, there was laudable individual triumphs — some high-profile, as in the Olympics, others unsung and hidden in the humdrum of daily life — and many unfortunate tragedies. Amongst the latter, the one that caught the attention of the whole nation was the criminal and barbaric assault on a young women in Delhi. The spontaneous countrywide galvanisation—particularly amongst youth—has rarely been seen. The political class, across the spectrum, was caught unawares. While the government came across as inept and insensitive, especially in the early days, other parties — including many who sought to ride on this wave — were only marginally better. What is clear is the lack of commitment towards gender equality and the inability to empathise with the aspirations of a new generation.

Time’s march into the teens, combined with the new communication technologies, has given birth to a generation of young and connected people. Aspirations have fused with empowerment and a willingness to take to the streets: an amalgam that is potent. Add to this, youthful idealism and irreverence towards authority, and one sees why the establishment needs to worry. It is this commitment to a cause, the readiness to agitate for it and the fearless confrontation against entrenched interests that gives one hope for the country. The teens certainly mark a new beginning and provide cause for optimism and cheer.

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