Students want better education and employment opportunities

Students from universities across India took to the streets in the capital New Delhi on 7 February to demand better education and employment opportunities in one of the largest youth demonstrations since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.

The Young India Adhikar March (a march for rights by young Indians) included a large number of students, social activists, educationists and political party leaders, sharing a common platform to demand the creation of more government jobs and the filling of all government vacancies that are currently open, as well as improvements in higher education.

Thousands of students and young people from 50 organisations and universities, including Delhi University, Allahabad University and Ambedkar University Delhi, including the student and youth wings of various political parties, took part in what was also seen a show of force by opposition groups.

Many lamented that millions of qualified young people were ‘on the streets’ without jobs while hundreds of thousands of government posts were lying vacant and the government was doing nothing to fill them.

The protesters also criticised corruption in recruitment, called for an end to gender discrimination in institutions, and said the government should ensure academic freedom and freedom of expression on campuses.

With a general election due in April/May this year, students and young people are critical of Modi’s record. During his 2014 election campaign, Modi promised to create 10 million jobs a year in the country, but youth unemployment continues to be high.

Young people’s frustrations were echoed by political leaders and activists. Gujarat’s Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani said at the rally: “Nearly 2.4 million government posts are lying vacant. The new government that will come to power after the elections must employ people in the sanctioned government jobs within 100 days.”

Dharmendra Yadav, a lawmaker from the Samajwadi Party, a regional political party in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said students have the potential to dislodge the Modi government – which currently holds a huge majority in parliament.

Graduate unemployment misery

Anger against the government was palpable at the huge gathering at the end of the march in New Delhi.

Ashish Sinha, who with a graduate-level qualification in journalism lives in Lucknow district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said: “Rising unemployment is an area of concern and is likely to play a significant role in the forthcoming elections.” He said young people “are being pushed towards untold misery and poverty due to joblessness. They are rising up against the government.”

Rajan Saxena, an engineering graduate from Rajasthan who participated in the rally, said: “After graduation I failed to get a job according to my qualification and capability. Many of my friends, who are either engineers or have done apprentice training in various trades from industrial training institutes, are either unemployed or under-employed. Our lives are no joke.

“We spend so much of our time and resources to clear the exams and complete the degrees but get no jobs.”

Mamta Khare, a school teacher in Delhi who was at the march, said educated youth were angry because of massive job cuts. “Anger is rising over unemployment. In the government sector, jobs have been cut drastically. The same is true for the private sector."

The protesters said the government’s “anti-youth and inefficient policies” had led to a further increase in the unemployment rate all over the country, which in turn led to a rise in the movements by students applying for jobs in the public sector.

Last year it was reported, for example, that hundreds of graduates were among the 200,000 people who applied for jobs as police constables in Mumbai, which normally requires only secondary school completion. The graduate applicants included 423 with engineering degrees, and 167 with MBAs. Such reports have become commonplace in recent years.

“Data suppressed by the government shows that the country’s unemployment rate is the highest in the past 45 years. The government should tell the youth what they have done in the past five years,” said Yadav of the Samajwadi Party.

A recent report by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University, State of Working India 2018, noted that unemployment among the well-educated, at 16%, is three times the national average.

Of roughly 55 million people who hold at least a graduate degree, about 9 million are estimated to be unemployed, the report said, adding that the unemployed are disproportionately young – more than 60% of them are aged 15-25.

Modi hits back

Modi has hit back at critics, saying some 4.1 million formal jobs had been created between April 2018 and September 2018, according to Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation figures.

“We also know that the informal sector constitutes around 80% of all jobs. Job creation in the formal sector can have a spin-off effect on job creation in the informal sector too.”

However, he admitted that “more than a lack of jobs, the issue is a lack of data on jobs. Our opponents will naturally exploit this opportunity to paint a picture of their choice and blame us.”

‘Reversal of cuts’ to higher education

The protesters also called for an end to higher education cuts, including a reversal of the government’s policy of closing colleges and cutting seats and calling for education spending to amount to 10% of the country's budget.

For 2018-19 the Human Resource Development Ministry, which is responsible for education, was allocated just 3.5% of the country’s budget, the lowest since 2014 when it was 6.15% of the total budget.

Sucheta De, All India Students Association (AISA) national president, said: “Students from all the universities who have been labelled as ‘anti-national’ have come here to place their demands”, a reference to government criticism of student protests against key government policy.

Former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, now a leader of the All India Students Federation (AISF), a left-wing student organisation, said young people “have stood up for their rights and the government’s anti-people policies would not be allowed to continue”.

Kumar was arrested and accused of sedition in February 2016 by the Delhi police for his role during a students’ rally on the JNU campus where anti-India slogans were allegedly raised.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this report.