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Youth as game changers in Lok Sabha polls? Young voter registration 'is so very low'

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

Young voters will be the game changers in 2024. Do they realise this? Does it matter to them? If it does, what they should/must vote for?
India’s population of nearly 1.3 billion has about one-fifth 19.1% as youth. With 66% of its population (808 million) below the age of 35, India has the world's largest youth population. Among them, less than 40% of those who turned 18 or 19 have registered themselves for 2024 election. According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), just above 1.8 crore new voters (18-and 19-year-olds) are on the electoral rolls/registration out of the total projected 4.9 crore new voters in this age group.
This is certainly worrisome! Well, if the ECI and the Government of India (GoI) thinks that voter awareness programmes for a year before the election can do wonders, then there is a serious misunderstanding of the electoral process just like the democracy. Anyway, ECI has issued a number of press releases to engage young voters especially first timers.
It is no surprise that the voter registration of young voters is so low. Somehow, it feels that the ECI and the GoI too are disinterested to have more voters as that indulges more work on the machinery. Somehow, it also feels that parenting and schooling are keeping the young ones at bay from every day happenings of the society in pretention to protect them which directly make the youth less confidence about the political-social matter thus far from engagement.

Young voters' apathy

The studies ironically shows that most young voters are indifferent about election in the country and the election/democracy pundits have listed aplenty of reasons for the decline in the interest of the young voters to vote. I need not go there except my experience of discussing this with as many youths as I get in touch with. One ‘X’ said that it is pity that youth are not engaging and they do not have substantial space to discuss what/how to engage. One ‘Y’ said that what is the point of voting if all politicians are corrupt, if the EVMs do not take my vote as it is.
One ‘Z’ said that her family member is fighting election on ‘a party’ ticket out of no choice as that party is the only option otherwise the member will not get ticket and will be choked with all enquiries. While most youth want to stay away from the politics, a big concern many youths express is the lack of representation of the youth leadership and in the same breath express the concern of gerontocracy (average age of ministers is above 57 years with some even beyond 70-75 years of age) of the electoral and parliamentary system.
Most of the times, the adult acquaintances shun away the askance for their siblings saying that the latter is busy with exams or something more important in life than engaging in election alias voting as nothing better can happen to this country. Now these are submissive and may go towards an endless sad response.
For youth to be interested, they need to be engaged in every day social-ecological, civic and political matters all through the years. They need to be taught about election, voting in detail, about the policies that influence their everyday life and profession. Every high-school and college must be mandated with voting awareness by the ECI. Why not a voting registration drive in the high schools and colleges?
Not much can be done by people like us except making the known youth aware of the election, voting, and politics at large. The risk here is imposing one’s perception and preference over party and politics. But let be it, atleast that may encourage a handful of young voters. With this intent, there is a voting (discussion) party organised at my place. Not to my surprise that not many people have registered to participate in the voting party. Yet, I made a preparation for the discussion and it is this essay.
Voting is about future and if the future generation is disinterested then there is a serious concern. As it is the youth who should be most concerned and engaged in the electoral process. We are ironically suppressing university politics and discourses which is adding to the disinterest and lack of nurturing leadership skills. Youth has to take a call on the kind of future they dream and seek in the country. They must learn to discuss, debate and dissent.

What to vote for in 2024?

Often when asked about election and democracy most youth give a lost smile. Then, when a youth talks about politics, politicians, and policies even for five minutes, it enthuses me thinking that atleast s/he is engaging in some responsible talk, no matter how much s/he knows. So, there is an inquisitiveness about what is going in the minds of the young voters who have chosen to vote.
Out of excitement, here is my checklist or the government’s report card to share with my young acquaintances to decide what to vote for. Of course, assuming that they have registered for voting and will make time for voting on the allocated day. Also, ofcourse the young minds are more capable to think and decide as compared to us in that age, yet list is to flag if something needs more stress or is missed out. The checklist to vote for (are listed spontaneous and not in a preferred order) are broadly put together as overall and specific: 
Employment:
 Unemployment should be a leading criterion. You may like to read between the lines from the stats from International Labour Organization’s India Employment Report 2024, based on data from India’s Periodic Labour Force Survey. The issue of livelihood that raises concern is that almost 82% of the workforce is engaged in the informal sector, and nearly 90% are informally employed in the formal sector which ironically includes government organisations. In particular, issue of employment of youth and women is a serious concern and caution as per the India Employment Report 2024 released by the Institute for Human Development and International Labour Organisation.
Human Development Index: India is ranked at the 134th on the global Human Development Index (HDI), according to United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) latest report on human development and what that means particularly with respect to the growth of every individual. This can be simply looked through the education and employment besides, health and wellbeing.
Happiness Index: According to the World Happiness Index for 2023, India is ranked at the 126th among 146 countries, marking it as one of the least joyful nations globally. This decline in happiness levels has been attributed to the growing mental health crisis. Try to understand what and how mental wellbeing is linked to physical, social, economic wellbeing. More I meet people including youth, the anxiety level is rising with people really performing poor in patience and perseverance.
Health Index: According to global healthcare security index 2021, India ranked 66 out of 195 countries with an overall Index score of 42.8 and along with a change of -0.8 from 2019. According to the Health and health systems ranking of countries worldwide in 2021, by health index score India was ranked 111 out of 167 countries. This may sound ok, but the nightmares of healthcare services during COVID is unforgettable. To add to the apathy, the misreporting of the death is unfortunate and unacceptable. Poor health service is attributed to low number of institutions, inadequate human resources, and underfunded.
Global Goals: In aligning with the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), India is ranked 112th among 166 countries for its performance in 2023 even poorer than some of its neighbouring countries like Bhutan (61st), the Maldives (68th), Sri Lanka (83rd), Nepal (99th) and Bangladesh (101st).
Census: It is for the first time in the history of Census in India that 2021 Census was not carried out which has direct impact on the welfare schemes. The lack of census data also affects other crucial studies - such as the National Sample Survey (a series of surveys that collect information on all aspects of the economic life of citizens) and National Family Health Survey (a comprehensive household survey of health and social indicators). It also created vulnerability with the idea of population survey to update the National Population Register (NPR) creeping out of controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 clubbed with the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) to target Muslim population in India.
CAA-NRC: The exclusionary and discriminatory provisions, structure and intent of the CAA-NRC 2019 is a weaponisation of CAA against minority Muslim population of India and thus it saw a lot of resistance from across the country, a leading among them being Shaheen Bagh protest by the women. The unconstitutional values and international humanitarian standards are challenged and still continue to find place in the current election.
Media Sabotage: India is ranked at the 161st out of 180 countries in 2023 as per the World Press Freedom Index. The media takeovers by oligarchs close to the current government have jeopardised pluralism. Most channels are openly flouting journalistic values as the pillar of democracy, NDTV being the last to submit to it. Closing some independent channels have become a new normal and now even YouTube Channels are getting blocked like BoltaHindustan, NationalDastak, Article19. Journalists are facing threat to life. In the last few years, India has the highest number of journalists killed (Avinash Jha of BBC, Sulabh Srivastava of ABP News) and jailed (Aasif Sultan of Kashmir Narrator, in jail since 2018; Sajad Gul of The Kashmir Walla, jailed since January 2022; independent journalist Rupesh Kumar Singh, jailed since July 2022; independent journalist Gautam Navlakha, since 2020) using the UAPA Act while they were at work.
Internet shutdown: India is noted as the Internet Shutdown Capital of the world for the past five years, continuously accounting for 58% of the world’s shutdowns. Jammu and Kashmir shutdown went on endlessly during Article 370 abrogation, then during the CAA-NRC, and reached extreme with the Manipur and now in Ladakh.
Hyper Nationalism: This is among the most serious concern in my list as it is costing us the social integrity and peace of the country. Religiously inspired nationalism is affecting not only the electoral platform, but the state of governance, education and employment. Importantly, the constant state of anxiety among people pertaining to their identity is over exploited by the politics. The national identity is overrated than humanity leading to marginalisation of the minority religions. The Hindu nationalism is denting upon the rich pluralistic secular civilisation which also laid the foundation of the constitution. Tagore had defined nationalism through humanistic values rather than political strategy.
Niraadhar Aadhaar: Although the Aadhaar card came with a promise that it would eliminate the need for submitting multiple documents, there are several issues with the implementation of the scheme when every citizen was holding several forms of identity cards. Besides, the inaccuracy in biometric authentication and the breach of protection of personal info and data, the mismatch of Aadhaar text and photo with other cards especially Pan card is annoying. Imagine a large section of citizen paid for Aadhaar card and Pan card 50-1000 rupees to the government.
Education: The state of education in the country may look improving, but the improvement is too slow especially for the vulnerable community and in the higher education. Universities around the world are ranked based on the quality of education they provide and with their aggregate, India stands at 33rd rank according to the 2020 survey. The education system suffers from the promotion of private universities, the employability of the educated, and the unemployment and brain drain that eventually take place due to lack of substantial employment opportunities.
International Relations: India is slowly entering into souring relations with neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, continued with Pakistan, continued with China, Maldives and latest with Sri Lanka; as well as with the developed countries like continued with Canada, USA, UK and EU. Most of the reasons for unpleasant relations are directly and indirectly stemming from poor and petty politics. The push for nationalism in some way is hurting the international relations.
Democracy Index: The V-Dem report terms India as ‘one of the worst autocratisers lately’, and in the ‘top ten autocratisers’ in the world. It dropped to an ‘electoral autocracy’ in 2018 and has stayed there in 2023, with worse scores. Handling of dissent and digital repression in the country is loud and clear. Furthered by brutal acts like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in 2019.
Name Changing: From stations, airports, streets to changing names of the cities and when there was no resistance, the government is daring to change even the name of the country. Well, what the common citizens take pride is in the hollow nationalism of sounding things Hindi-Hindu in name changing. They do not realise the cost it incurs to change names. For example, Allahabad was renamed as Prayagraj at a cost of over Rs 300 crore and the 156-year-old Mughalsarai junction was renamed as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya junction. In 2021, Faizabad was renamed as Ayodhya district. Will changing names ensure food on every plate, education and healthcare to everyone? According to estimates, a name change from India to Bharat might cost a whopping Rs 14,000 crore to the country—the amount spent by the Centre on its food security scheme every month. Whose money is this? Loan from international banks and our hard-earned money?
Electoral Bond:
 All time biggest scam of the country, the electoral bonds is a clear-cut loot by the political parties through the businesses. A whopping 11,450.13 crores Indian rupees are siphoned from the country’s mainstream economy as electoral bonds for political and business gains. The top five political parties raising whopping funds from the electoral bonds include, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Rs 6,060.5 crores), All India Trinamool Congress (TMC, Rs 1,609.5 crores), the Congress (INC, Rs 1,421.8 crores), the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS, Rs 1,214.7 crores), and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD, Rs 775.5 crores). Worst is that b-company businesses are enlisted in the donor lists allowing the big businesses to escape their names and shaming. The question we need to raise is, whose money is these?
Water Crises: India is among the worst hit Water Crises countries in the world. The water crises can be realised through drought and flood across the country, but the worst form of crisis is the asymmetric access to water leaving the poor vulnerable communities to face the crisis badly and at the same time pay manifolds for the meagre water they get. Severe lack of regulation, over privatization, general neglect and rampant government corruption have led to multiple generations thirsting for more than just a few drops of hazard free water. There is a constant pretention of water crisis due to rapid urbanisation and industrialisation leading to increased pollution of water bodies, making them unfit for consumption. Additionally, inefficient agricultural practices and excessive groundwater extraction have depleted crucial water sources, but governments have failed to address all these planning and policy issues. In addition, the transboundary water conflicts between districts, states, and internationally are increasing due to rising water crisis augmented with poor water governance.
Deforestation: Adding to the water crises is the Green Crises. India is continuously losing its forest cover to the politically and capitalists induced development aspirations. For example, a report by the Utility Bidder, India recorded second highest rise in deforestation in the last 30 years, with a stark surge recorded between 2015 and 2020 of losing 668,400 hectares (ha) of forest land in deforestation. Worst is that the large infrastructure and development projects are done haphazardly without proper environmental assessment which often leads to deforestation and land reclamation, for example, the Hasdeo Arand deforestation for coal mining, Buxwaha forest cutting for diamond mining, Ken-Betwa Interlinking of Rivers project, Char Dham National Highway Project, etc. Even worst is that the economic benefits of deforestation are limited to a few capitalists and that the local indigenous peoples’ voices go unheard and even are remarked as antinational.
Climate Crisis: Further adding to the water crises is the Green Crises is the climate crisis. In the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), India is ranked 7th in CCPI in 2023. Whether the performance impact is evident in the local decisions and actions on air, water, land, vegetation management and eventually on the local environment. I see poor implementation of water, soil and vegetation projects almost on a regular basis. In its first, the Supreme Court, through its judgment dated March 21, 2024, has recognized a right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change. But the policies and projects of the government is likely to ignore this landmark judgement.
EVM and Fair Election: There are serious concerns on holding a fair election. The rigging of election through the EVMs in the last election went to the cold chambers of the ECI and the courts, despite a lot of hue n cry by the opposition leaders and several states. Most people do not trust the EVM and the black glass VVPAT and are seeking Balot Paper voting however, the ECI and the SC are just not convinced about it despite several incidences of misrepresentation (votes going to BJP) and mishandling (theft of ballot boxes and EVMs). World over the EVM voting is not banned, and There are around 120 countries in the world which prefer to use ballot papers in the election and most developed countries have banned EVM voting, however, India is still adamant to continue which signals malintent from the ECI and the government.
Using Government Institutions Against the Opposition: Opposition political party leaders have been summoned by central agencies like CBI and ED. The opposition political parties had moved the Supreme Court against the indiscriminate use of central agencies by the government. The central agencies have repeatedly exploited and weaponized various financial and terrorism laws to systematically crackdown on the opposition leaders. The lack of independence of the key institutions including police, courts, and others is a big issue behind the decline in India's opposition. This has gone too far with the arrest of even chief ministers Hemant Soren (Jharkhand Chief Minister), and recently Arvind Kejriwal (Delhi Chief Minister). A deep impact in the minds of common citizens is now imprinted with an environment of FEAR created all over especially with police empowered to arrest anyone anytime for any reason. This is compounded with seizing of bank accounts and poor reciprocity of the governors in the opposition ruled states.
Neta Trading: Last but not the least is the concern that one’s vote to a party is rightly used by the candidate or breached post-election. While rigging of voting and counting is a serious concern, a bigger concern is the horse trading, the change of party by a politician after winning the election with other party ticket. The case of Karnataka, MP, Maharashtra, are fresh in our memories. So, voting on integrity of the candidate is seriously challenged.
Women Representation: Women must be adequately represented in politics in a true representative democracy. However, India continues to struggle with its patriarchy resulting in most (old) men just not letting more women foray into the politics to acquire seats in the assembly and the parliament. Though increased in the recent times, there is only 14% women representation in the Parliament since the seats are not reserved for men and women. Present Lok Sabha has a total of 542 Members out of which 78 are women. Present Rajya Sabha has a total of 224 Members out of which 24 are women. With hollow promise of 33% reservation for women, the present election does not show any sigh and sign of moving towards that.
Youth Representation: Youth have even poorer representation than women in the Parliament. To reach a stage of having clear share of youths in politics looks a distant dream from where we stand today with their serious disinterest in everyday politics and further even in mere one day voting. Of the 65% below 35 years of age and with 19.1% new young voters, only 6% leaders and ministers are below the age of 35 years and can be called as ‘young leaders’. For this situation to improve, first we have to make youth interested in voting and for that they have to be made interested in political conversations, they have to be taught to ask questions, and most importantly they have to be taught about the democratic values. They have to be made to appreciate democracy and should not take it as a granted status in the given circumstances.
No Room for Dissent.
To me, among the most serious concerns is the shrinking space for dissent in the public realm. The V-Dem Institute declared India an 'electoral autocracy', pointing to a sharp decline in democratic freedoms. The space for dissent, opposition, freedom of speech and other Constitutional rights are shrinking fast in India. Add to it, is the persecution of the minorities, shaming human rights defenders by calling them anti-national, urban naxals, etc. Further adding to it, are the caste-based discrimination, right to health, right to privacy, religious violence, arbitrary deprivation of nationality, indigenous peoples’ rights and women’s rights.

Discussion

The overall points listed here may be contested as old school however, these are also futuristic values for a democracy to sustain and succeed. All the above issues are important to me, yet among them the most concerning are the latter three as they in/directly let the other issues take place. From the house to the politics, the spaces for the women, the youth and the dissent is long pending. It is not going to come on its own given in the old-men led patriarchy and politics.
I hope reading the surmounting issues further do not demotivate the youths. My young friends may argue that most of these issues do not impact their lives. Well, it neither impacts my life directly and that is exactly the point that even if I am not impacted directly, there is a reason to worry for others and for the country.
From a selfish point of view, it may not be my turn right now to be impacted, but my turn is not far, for sure (remember the fire in the neighbour’s house). We are continuously misled in parenting and schooling that if things do not affect stay away and act only when directly affected. We may have a further (one-to-one) discussion on how these macro-political issues affect each of our micro-mini personal spaces.
Every youth must read the poem Apolitical Intellectuals by Otto Rene Castillo, especially the last para, “Apolitical intellectuals, of my sweet country, you will not be able to answer. A vulture of silence, will eat your gut. Your own misery will pick at your soul. And you will be mute in your shame.”
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*Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava is an entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker, mentor. From Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation (www.mansee.in, www.edc.org.in, www.wforw.in)

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