“If I had to use one word (to describe the government), I would say ‘zimmedari (responsibility)’. The government has been chosen by the people, and so, they are answerable to the people. The government is not here to only enjoy powers, they should focus on working for the people and with the people. To me, the government stands for responsibility towards the citizens who selected it.” – 22, Female

Written by: Anushka Shah & Namrata Sharma

India is home to the largest population of youth in the world. Here, ‘youth’ is defined as people in the age range of 15-29 years (National Youth Policy, 2014). By the year 2020, it is expected that they will constitute 34.33% of the country’s population. The World Bank identifies a young person’s exercise of active citizenship as key to a country’s growth and future. Broadly, active citizenship means people taking part in the activities of their local communities and getting involved with democracy at the local, state and national level.

But how does active citizenship get fostered amongst young people? Amidst education and employment struggles, what role does civics play in a young person’s life in India? And how do we begin to address the attitude of apathy and fear that surrounds the idea of government and public institutions?
At Civic Studios, a media house which leverages the power of storytelling to create civic participation, we’re developing a comedy-focused, Hindi digital content channel aimed at discussing civics and public institutions with the youth. To ensure the content connects correctly with the target audience, we conducted a preliminary, qualitative study to understand the attitude, expectations and behaviour of youth with regards to civics and governance in India. A select set of key findings from the study are discussed below.
Government as a “father figure”

“I would give the analogy of my home where the decision-making power rests with my father. Just like the head of the family ensures that all the needs of family members are met, the government also fulfils the same role but for the whole country.” – 23, Male

The respondents in the study equated a government to a father figure or head of the family who is the key decision maker, fulfils all needs and ensures overall welfare and well-being of the family.

Largely, the groups’ sentiment was that without governance, a vast country like India would become completely lawless as explained by a 22 year old female participant from Chandigarh, “A government is mainly needed to maintain law and order otherwise people would kill each other and there would be riots over basics like a job, a house, food.” They felt strongly about the need for upholding democracy as essential to ensure that no section of society (a certain gender, caste, religion) is treated unequally, for which a government which is representative of the people is instrumental.

The practical role of a government was considered to constitute three key components. The first was to maintain peace, balance in the country and not discriminate against any individual on grounds of caste or religion. The next was to ensure provision of basic facilities (food, drinking water, electricity, education) and gainful employment to all citizens. Lastly, it was that the government must stay updated on the needs and problems of people, and work towards implementing appropriate solutions to ensure overall happiness of citizens. A suggested area of improvement was better two-way communication. The respondents believed the government doesn’t engage in constructive dialogue with citizens and doesn’t properly update people on their work leading to dwindling faith amongst citizens.

Importance of voting, fear of government offices, and ways to participate in governance
“I really want to vote but I am unable to. I’m currently doing my higher studies from a different state and my hometown is in a different state. It will cost me a few thousand rupees to go back home and vote but I don’t have that kind of money as a student to incur that expense. The government needs to create ways in which students and working youth can cast their vote from a different state also.” – 21, Male

The study sample balanced people who had voted in a state or national election vs those who had not. Both groups unanimously believed all citizens of voting age must exercise their fundamental right and cast their vote, even selecting NOTA (None of the above) was seen as expressing an opinion. Electronic media was viewed as a source of motivation to go vote, and it was also a firm belief that only after voting does one get to hold the government accountable and criticise its decisions. Reasons for not voting ranged from the cost associated with traveling back to one’s home town in case one is studying/working outside their city to a lack of awareness on who to vote for and how to vote.

Majority of the research participants felt scared and nervous to visit a government office alone. They expressed that it was not easy to get work done at a government office because on the one hand corruption is rampant, and on the other officials often behave rudely. Lack of proper structures and processes only lead to further frustration. Participants felt the two things that simplify the process of getting work done was knowing someone in a position of influence at the office or knowing one’s rights and the practical processes once there.

Despite these reservations, the research participants believed there were many active ways to participate in the country’s running. One suggestion encouraged young people to be a more active part of TV debates and leverage social media to make themselves heard and demand accountability. Another suggestion recommended youth form small citizen groups in their locality to solve local problems and reduce the burden of the government. The one consistent suggestion was that all citizens need to first be aware of their fundamental rights and duties in order to constructively engage in matters of the nation.

Civic issues young people were affected by versus issues they cared to solve
“If we look back to two decades ago, people in the government were educated. Nowadays, MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly), MPs (Members of Parliament) aren’t even literate. In certain states, they are not even able to repeat the oath during swearing in ceremonies properly. This needs to change because if these ministers are the people who are going to pass laws and govern us then they need to have some expertise and educational qualifications.” – 21, Male

The study revealed a difference between the problems the respondents reported they experienced vis-a-vis the problems they felt personally passionate about solving. In case of the former, maximum problems reported were linked to infrastructural issues such as extended electricity cuts, water logging during monsoons, open sewers and poor drainage system, lack of clean drinking water, non-maintained community toilets and garbage dumping in the locality. In comparison, issues they felt passionate about solving included increasing employment opportunities, improving the education system, reducing crimes against women, and putting an end to caste and other forms of social discrimination. In addition, the participants shared how knowledge of the constitution would help them feel more empowered. Other suggestions included awareness of laws linked to education, dowry, caste discrimination, LBTQ rights and labour laws. There was also a keenness to know how one could get work done without paying a bribe at government offices, when to show Aadhar card vs not, and how to connect with and provide feedback to government departments.

The participants in the study expressed scope for government reform in India. Amongst the recommendations was the need to create space for younger leaders and politicians, and a certain eligibility criteria around basic education qualifications and expertise for all ministers. On a more immediate basis, maximum emphasis was laid on the fact that the government needs to provide employment for the youth. They expressed that an ideal government was one which allows for co-participation, is flexible, transparent, efficient, responsive and non-corrupt.

Change will come when both citizens and government together make the effort
“In these times, you can’t criticize the sarkaar (government) because it’s seen as the wrong thing to do but this is incorrect. We should all be open to criticism, including the government because maintaining freedom of speech is important. Citizens also need to come together on their part and voice their opinions to the government.” – 21, Female

While the young people who participated in the study had certain expectations from the government, they also desired more active engagement from citizens. From the government, they desired more accountability towards citizens, improved focus from ministers on developing their constituencies and for corruption to be made a punishable crime. Simultaneously, they wanted citizens to be made aware of their rights and duties, and encouraged to be more involved in the functioning of the country. Increased attention towards improving participation rates of youth is the need of the hour in order to ensure the youth fulfils their role as agents of change, development and good governance.

The article above shares select findings from a longer report written by Civic Studios. For access to the full report, please write to us at namratas@civicstudios.com