THE POWER OF

500 MILLION

500 million. 500 million Indian citizens are expected to be under the age of 25 by 2020. According to reports, currently 9 of every 10 people between the ages of 10 to 24 are in developing nations. Of those, India continues to have one of the youngest populations in the world with an all time high of 356 million youth.

Youth is perhaps one of the most powerful resources that a country can have. If 500 million youth, around 64% of our population will be added to our workforce, the country's socio-economic development will witness an unprecedented rise. Economists believe such favourable demographic dividend could add a significant 2% to the GDP growth rate.

However, if we do not tread carefully, this advantage might take a turn for the worse. In the past year, India has been hit by major social and political upheavals, from Kashmir and Haryana to Tamil Nadu and Telangana that

have been led by a surging number of restless, disgruntled and unemployed youth. A study by the Harvard Kennedy School finds that globally, it is nearly all young men who fight in wars or commit violent crimes and that a “youth bulge” makes them more strife-prone. When 15-24-year-olds make up more than 35% of the adult population, the risk of conflict is 150% higher, especially in developing countries.

Never before have there been so many young people.

Never again is there likely to be such potential for economic and social progress. But, how we meet the needs and aspirations of the young people will decide whether the largest youth population in the world would turn out to be a blessing or a demographic disaster for India.

Let us take a look at the ground reality. In a recent survey of about 6,000 young people aged between 15 and 34, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that 48 per cent of respondents cited unemployment as India's biggest problem. India happens to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and yet this financial growth has not trickled down to benefit the sheer volume of people who are out of jobs. Currently the unemployment rate in the country is hitting the rooftop, and some estimated 77% households have no regular wage/salaried person. The majority of Indian workers - nine out of ten - are in the informal sector, where employment is unsteady, pay is poor and social security is lacking.

What is even more unfortunate is that it is not so much the dearth of jobs, as the lack of skilled manpower that is the reason behind such large numbers of unemployed youth. It is not unemployment, but un-employability that leaves

the Indian youth frustrated, dejected and disillusioned. There is a yawning gap between the market requirements and the knowledge and skills of the youth, such that they fail to get jobs as per their potential and are forced to join the majority of the country's working populace in the unorganized sector, or worse.

Unequal access to opportunity remains a persistent problem while lack of formal vocational education, high school dropout rates, inadequate skill training capacity, negative perception towards skilling, and lack of industry ready skills even in professional courses are the major causes of poor skill levels of India's workforce. India has 47 million youth of secondary and higher secondary school-going age dropping out of school, according to a report by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Global Education Monitoring. Even in case of those who have had access to higher education, currently 75% of graduates are not considered employable. Just 2% of India's youth and only about 7% of the whole working age population have received vocational training, says the National Sample Survey Organisation.

So in effect, while one of the biggest assets that our nation has is its large youth population and workforce, we have

Never before have there been so many young people. Never again is there likely to be such potential for socio-economic progress. But how we meet its needs will decide whether the largest youth population in the world would actually turn out to be an asset for India.

failed to equip them with the necessary training and skills to utilize their potential. And as the numbers soar in the coming years, this asset might just turn into a liability given the widespread discontent among this highly volatile majority of the Indian population.

Cognizant of the fact, over the years, successive Indian governments have launched schemes to both increase the number of new jobs being created and young people's ability to do them. The most recent of these is the Skill India Mission, which aims to provide training to 400m people by 2022 through various government initiatives. In the coming years it will become even more imperative for the government to invest heavily in young people's education, health and empowerment. Access to higher education must be prioritized. The country must also generate large scale employment, taking care to ensure more women join the work force.

Along with these necessary measures by the government, the issue also calls for a resolute push and greater support from every quarter – the job-seeking youth and their families, higher education institutions and training bodies, the job-creating industries, local and national civic bodies, and the masses.

With this very vision and in a concerted effort to equip, enable and empower the youth, Smile Foundation had initiated its national livelihood programme, the Smile Twin e-Learning Programme, or as we call it, STeP – the first step towards a dignified life.

Urban underprivileged youth, including high school drop-outs and under-trained graduates are identified and enrolled under the programme and trained in market-oriented skills such as English communication, computer proficiency, basic management, personality development and soft skills.

In addition to knowledge and skill enhancement, STeP also focuses on providing practical exposure to its young trainees to help them get job-ready, by creating an ecosystem wherein the students can meet their potential employers. This is facilitated through regular employer engagement sessions and industry exposure visits which help the youth get hand-on training and develop an

All Smile - Nafees (centre) at his workplace,with his team

understanding of concepts such as workplace culture, customer satisfaction, work ethics and also familiarize them with every day challenges. Career counseling sessions and volunteer knowledge exchange programmes are conducted where well-trained, employed youth share their experience with the STeP trainees.

From the enrolment stage to the final placement, a youth is completely transformed be it in terms of knowledge, personality or skills. Let’s take the case of Nafees, the youngest of three brothers in a family of six. Nafees grew up watching his father work day and night to make just enough to feed the family two times. But since his father had no permanent job, there were days when they had to sleep hungry.

wages like his father. It was while coming back from work that he stopped to watch a street play that had been organized by the STeP community mobilisation team. Nafees learnt all about the programme and lost no time in enrolling himself.

Today, Nafees has a permanent job and earns more in a month than his father does in a whole year, thus adding substantially to the family income. From his first salary, Nafees bought new clothes for his whole family, something that had not happened for years. He has already started paying off his father’s debts and has also joined a graduation course through correspondence. Nafees has become the first generation white collar worker in his family, and the threshold from where subsequent generations

As soon as Nafees had finished school, he started looking for a job. “Even though I am the youngest, I knew I had to share my father’s responsibilities. My eldest brother is deaf since birth and has had almost no education. The second one lost his leg in a road accident. Abbu borrowed large amounts of money for his treatment, but he is still unable to walk”, he shares.

Nafees soon found out that just schooling was not enough to get a good job – he knew no English, could hardly use a computer and got extremely nervous while talking to strangers. After being turned down at every door, he finally resolved to do labour work on daily

Young women trainess at one of Smile foundation's STeP centres

would be enabled and empowered.

Over the last ten years, STeP has successfully trained more than 25,000 youth like Nafees and placed over 15,000 in 150 reputed brands across the country. At present, 91 STeP centres are operational pan-India, with young women making up 55% of the total trainees.

This, however, is just a small step towards addressing the much larger need of enabling and empowering the huge youth population of the country, and tapping the demographic dividend. A lot many of such steps must be taken together, to let India unleash the real power of 500 million.

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