COLUMN SERIES| A Consequential Roadmap for Enabling Kashmir Youth

Greater Kashmir

The much-touted problem of youth in Kashmir is not actually theirs. The system makes you believe that violence weighs heavily on an average Kashmir youth’s mind. It doesn’t. It is, in fact, last on his mind; occupying just an obscure spot on his thought. Irrespective of how media portrays him, the youth of today’s Kashmir is better than his previous generations, has the clarity of thought, is not hypocritical, and does what he says or believes in.

What, however, weighs heavily on his mind is why the system fails to either identify him or address his problems. In the ascending order, as is clear from a study published in the Asian Journal of Peace Building, a Seoul-based peer-reviewed journal, the problems are gender inequality, illiteracy, crime and smuggling, poverty, police harassment, drug addiction, societal insecurity, lack of adequate educational facilities, bribery and corruption, denial of justice and unemployment.

Clearly, for young people in Kashmir, corruption, denial of justice and unemployment emerge as the top three contenders that add to their anxiety and deepen their distrust with the system; significantly frustrating their stand on socioeconomic and political scenario of the UT. The stray angst reported every now and then – but magnified manifold by the media – is one of many negative manifestations. The problem of unemployment, and also other problems, needs to be understood with a different perspective.

Kashmir Valley is home to 7 million people, out of which 40 percent are youth between 10 to 35 years of age. This population group of 2.8 million people includes students, educated, and even uneducated. The educated ones are highly educated and uneducated ones are dismally uneducated – both, however, can be seen converging at the shop front. Talking, chatting, going home … and repeating the cycle. Why is not the youth from other places in the country seen lazing around as such? Why should the youth of Kashmir be continually victimized for something that was not, and is not, in his control? The government needs to ask itself this question. And devise solutions.

At the same time, a rational question needs to be asked too. Is it possible for the government to employ them all? Will it make sense if the government expenditure far exceeds the inflow of revenue? A government that does not undertake a prudent cost analysis is very likely to fail. There is a limit to government expenditure. And there is also a limit to people’s expectations from the government. But there is also a limit to a youth’s threshold on patience. Someday it will snap.

Let’s explain it this way. In a country of 135 crore people, there are only 2.15 crore government employees, which includes both state and central government employees, but excluding the defense personnel. India spends around 8 percent of its GDP on central and state government employees, which means around a whopping Rs 11 trillion on their emoluments – asking them to pay back would not be asking for too much.  In the JK UT, out of 70 lakh people, there are already around 5 lakh government employees.

A little more than a lakh employees up to the level of Deputy Secretary occupy 41 UT departments, commissions, and other government institutions. When it comes to providing new jobs, any reasonable government anywhere will first assess the accountability of these one lakh plus employees before thinking of investing in more.

So what is the solution? Kashmir holds immense potential to succeed in different sectors; rather than pinning hopes on only government jobs, Kashmir youth must come forward to create entrepreneurship opportunities themselves. And the government must devise an easy system to encourage them. There is an opportunity everywhere; even, proverbially, in waste, disposal of which has become a terrible environmental hazard in the Valley, endangering its pristine glory.

To begin with, why can’t the government form core youth groups throughout the Valley to help it effectively handle waste and participate in different stages of its treatment on initial monthly sustenance?

Youth can be involved in all stages of waste management – prevention, preparation for reuse, recycling, energy recovery, and landfilling. Innovative, as Kashmir youth are, will find a startup opportunity in each, only if the government comes forward and takes a proactive stand on their involvement. At present the Valley’s waste management system is in a mess; what do they do to municipal waste if not only dumping around; clogging small rivers and streams and blotting the landscape.

The government is to realize that in Kashmir every social problem can be an employment opportunity for youth. The youth have also to realize that being capable, but being docile at the same time does not help; you have to push around, own the problems around you, in your society, be innovative and come up with solutions.

While government job creation is a good idea it can only be created across a limited breadth. The rest of the lot is to explore. And there is no dearth of areas where they can  – handicrafts, tourism, and horticulture and information technology. In Kashmir, each village, each town, and each city can be self-sustainable if projects are initiated on private public partnership (PPP) model. They can also be mooted on a Built-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model that promises to reduce the financial burden on governments to a considerable extent.

There are countless BOT projects that can be devised across tourism, transportation, infrastructure, and other areas. Imagine such projects being devised on forgotten water bodies, high altitude lakes, big and small treks, and getaways tourists have never been heard of. Why can’t J&K tourism think of village tourism; why should only Gulmarg, Pahalgam, and Sonmarg be part of tourist itineraries. Kashmir is beyond these, where 73 percent of Kashmir’s youth live. Any plan of economic upliftment should be formulated around them.

Community leaders can serve as the epicenter of this change. It is a role that cannot be partaken by anyone else, or any other format. Community leaders can come together to form self-help groups and associations that can reach out to governments with contextual schemes.

The government, in turn, can come forward to devise mechanisms where the community leaders are nurtured and trained to lead the youth in their communities and inspire them to meaningful action. They have to understand that ‘giving is living’ and that is only how societies have thrived. Sikhs are an example.

The government also has a responsibility to work towards developing mutual trust in the Valley. Kashmiris must also not shy away from generating this. Both have to reach out, but the government is to develop a mechanism for letting youth reach out to it. This trust-generation activity should begin with empathy – by examining things from a rational perspective. This means that we must abstain from peddling age-old wishy-washy narratives that have been the mainstay all these years. It is time to allow reason to take over our senses.

At the same time the onus, largely, lies on the government to think of how to integrate youth than the other way round. Integration could also mean on the political front in an open-to-choose manner. Why push a particular party and risk the lives of youth when there is widespread contempt towards it? The government is to seriously examine whether it wants to push its agenda or wants the newly formed UT to thrive. The former widens the distrust further.

It is time that the government spearheads a well-structured program to connect to the community leaders across the Valley. These leaders can be empowered to serve as a bridge between the Valley’s youth and the government. Must we add, sarpanchs must not be mistaken as community leaders; if a sarpanch has been airdropped on the scene, without even a single vote having been cast, he has no mandate, even as he may be boasting of donning clout.

Community leaders can help the government to mobilize the youth to make use of government schemes for setting up small-scale businesses or capacity building. These leaders can also help mobilize young women to form Self Help Groups (SHGs) that can collaborate with the government and setup small livelihood generation entities. Youth and the government need to take equal strides towards one another.

Dilly-dallying and hoping one to act while the other stay put with a bloated ego will not serve the purpose. The Kashmiri youth are a latent powerhouse and we must know how to get them along.

When New Delhi sensitizes itself to their positive participation, it will only be fulfilling its commitment towards its National Youth Policy (NYP) adopted in 2014 that envisions “to empower the youth of the country to achieve their full potential, and through them enable India to find its rightful place in the community of nations”.

The 5 key objectives of this policy encapsulate a broad framework that spans around the creation of a productive workforce, ensure their strength and health, instil social value and promote community service, enable participation and engagement in governance, and create equal opportunity for all disadvantaged and marginalized youth. All this is precisely what Kashmiri youth look forward to. The success of the NYP, like all other government schemes, will rest on its implementation.

The role of youth is crucial in the context of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The report, which explains the agenda, suggests that instead of being mere beneficiaries of the 2030 Agenda, young people are active architects in its development and continue to be involved in processes that support its implementation and review. This can be best implemented in Kashmir.

Finally, developing a robust roadmap for the youth of Kashmir would also entail the engagement of strategists who have a good grasp on the grassroots. If the planners are not acquainted with the ground realities, the actual roll-out of policies and schemes may not be able to deliver on its goals.

Given the experiences in the past, a viable option would perhaps be to have a broad-based collaboration at the execution level with strategic experts such as economists, bureaucrats, community leaders, sociologists, and management leaders. Building a new Kashmir will require a renewed strategy, one that delivers. For, if there is a will there surely will be a way.

Dr Sanjay Parva is a Kashmir-born writer and thinker and Dr Asim Chowdhury an academic and independent researcher.