About 46 million, 20%, of India’s youth, are unemployed. Of this, 32% of all graduate youth are unemployed. 300 million youth will enter the labour force by 2025, while jobs remain sparse. Protest movements in 2011/2012, from Tahrir Square to Ram Lila Maidan and Occupy Wall Street, focused youthful discontent at the lack of opportunities and distrust of the political and economic elite. 2015 could see something more radical.

Of Caring Rhetoric, Limited Intervention

Youth have been a limited policy concern since Independence in India. The Planning Commission of India recognised youth as the most vital section of the community (Visaria, 1998), referencing unemployment as their most challenging problem. The first National Youth Policy was formulated in 1988, again recognising the removal of unemployment as critical. The National Youth Policy 2003 sought to galvanize young people to rise up to new challenges. India’s latest National Youth Policy (NYP) was released in February 2014, with the government outlining its objectives across various priority areas to achieve better results on its annual spend of 90,000 Cr on youth across various targeted and non-targeted schemes.

Implementation of such well-meaning objectives has been historically patchy. A Plan of Action (PoA) was to be formulated across various Ministries and Departments within six months, followed by constitution of a Youth Council, consisting of exceptional youth from across the country to oversee its implementation and formulation of a set of key short-term and long-term success indicators. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) is still in the process of formulating the PoA, Youth councils have not been appointed while the creation of state level youth policies lags significantly.

Self-employment and casual wage employment comprise a large majority of youth employment. Women in rural areas focus increasingly on agriculture, although rural males are turning towards the non-farm sector. However, non-farm jobs in rural areas tend to be demand-induced, with rural youth increasingly unable to access sustainable livelihoods. In urban areas, youth tend towards the services sector, with social conditions and norms playing an important role in determining their status.

A National Youth Policy

A National Youth Policy would articulate the nation’s aspirations for its youth to grow up safe, healthy, happy and resilient, while working towards a socially productive life. The policy ought to provide a framework for empowering young people to build their own lives, enabling them to take responsibility for their actions and building resilience to navigate life’s uncertainties. The problem of unemployment can have serious social repercussions which, in turn, may affect governance and growth adversely. More opportunities need to be created in the formal economy, allowing for a smooth transition from school to work for India’s youth.

It should have five key priorities for supporting their success. Unemployment needs to be tackled through a boost in jobs growth and entrepreneurship. Young Indians need to be equipped to shape their own futures through education, while being provided with skills and personal networks to gain and be successful in employment. Early intervention to assist with social and psychological problems should be set up, helping misguided youth get back on track. A public healthcare system that can improve the health and wellbeing.

Of Actionable Solutions

Unemployment remains the primary challenge. We need to create Job Centres, privately or publicly run – it doesn’t matter, aggregating recruitment operations and connecting young people with employment, community and useful personal networks. Combining this with social security benefit delivery, akin to JobCentrePlus in the UK, would help streamline the welfare system as well. To improve participation and job quality for the youth of India, policy interventions should focus on better quality education, on-the-job training, skill formation on the one hand and productive job creation on the other. Experiences around the world have shown that comprehensive holistic policies tend to work the best.

The National Skills Development Policy (2009) set a target of training 500 million skilled individuals by 2022, by expanding public institutions in rural areas; involving panchayats and local government in skill delivery; improving access to apprenticeships and raising female participation in training (Ministry of Labour and Employment, using innovative delivery models; using skill development centres in rural areas to provide training information, guidance and delivery. NSDC should be financially assisted with launching a Youth Development Support Program to develop skills, combined with apprenticeship programs at a district level. The Jovenes (‘youth’ in Spanish) programmes of Latin America are a well-known example. Starting in Chile in 1992, Jovenes programmes have since been established in Argentina, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela (World Bank 2006). These schemes target unemployed and disadvantaged youth, who face considerable difficulties integrating into the formal labour market.

Entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged socially as well. Removal of barriers to opening a SME business remains key. It still takes up to 7 years to close a business in India while the average time to register property in India can be vary up to 106 days. A lack of access to finance (Bikchandani, 2010) while lending remains disproportionately oriented toward large economic and political interests stifles growth. India’s banking sector needs to be pushed towards investing heavily in the SME sector. Instruments like a 2 year placement holiday along with interest waiver on education loans in tertiary institutions like the IITs and IIMs should be utilised to boost risk taking. JobCentres could also provide incubation to local entrepreneurs, providing fundraising help and business plan reviews. The 10,000 Cr Start-Up Fund announced in the Budget needs to be materialised with linkages established to youth start-up ventures.

Spending on education and skill building needs to increase significantly. Funding for greater provision of school buildings and digital education and a Vocational Education Broadband Network needs to be provided. A Smarter Schools National Partnership, focused on improving teacher quality and learning outcomes, along with Trade Training Centres and Teach For India in secondary schools, would improve skillsets from a young age. Tuition loan schemes need to be vastly expanded to provide more help to young people from low to middle income families for attending universities.
Drug and alcohol abuse prevention remains critical. Access to youth friendly health services needs to be increased, while government disbursements to schemes for prevention of alcoholism and substance abuse, particularly in North India and the North East, need to be increased. Promotion of positive psychology, sport and good nutrition from a young age, along with positive body image messages (imposed through voluntary advertising code of conduct) will assist in this.

We need a National Conversation, with roundtable meetings for government officials, MPs and MLAs to directly hear the needs of youth, along with more detailed thoughts on the development and implementation of this strategy. We need to face the challenge of job creation and upskilling of youth for the labour market to ensure that India’s demographic dividend does not become a demographic disaster. Mere rhetoric will no longer be enough.