Catching ’ em young

It is perhaps not without reason that India was ‘chosen’ as the venue for the arrival of the 7 billionth baby. We are the undisputed reproduction champs clocking a population growth that makes every fifth homosapiens an Indian. Traditional economic and social wisdom is that such a baby boom spells doom but of late the positive side of this rise has also drawn a lot of attention, even admiration: India is turning out to be the most youthful country in the world with 65% under age 35 and raring to reap a huge demographic dividend in terms of economic prosperity and social change.

But there is a deadly dampener here. While infant mortality has come down substantially, a great number of the babies that bloom into the teens do not cross the threshold of youth. Indeed, India is becoming a trend-setter of sorts in rising youth mortality. Obviously, unlike infants and elders, youth deaths cannot be wholly attributed to natural causes. Latest crime statistics indicate that suicides top the charts as the primary killer followed by accidents, drug or alcohol abuse and random murders. The clear upward shift in the last few years is predicted to escalate, reason enough for parents and policy-makers, the guardians at home and the nation, to take note.

Chennai, nay TN, is fast earning the dubious distinction of being the most favoured destination for devouring youth, particularly students. Student suicides are the highest here when compared to other Indian metros while accident records reign high too. Incidents in the last couple of months are proof enough. A number of students have taken their own lives at home or educational premises, many have succumbed to campus violence, road accidents continue to take their toll and just last week a few first time employees, fresh out of college, perished in the familiar seas. Not a day passes without morbid news of young boys or girls displaying a marked eagerness to meet their Maker, through fate or free will.

But soulless statistics run the risk of belittling what is essentially a human issue. So what explains the ominous cloud that appears to be slowly, steadily and stealthily enveloping the youth of the country? Vintage Tamil poet Avvaiyar described poverty as a harsh evil and then went on to describe ‘poverty during youth’ as the harshest of them all. Her words ring with more relevance today what with modern material lures, missed opportunities and the resultant sense of deprivation raging high amidst the poor youth. Logically, an inequitable economic and social milieu should wreak havoc in those sections. But the reality is that the bigger contributors to youth death toll are the rising middle classes and surprisingly, even the affluent. More than poverty, illiteracy and social repression, prosperity, educational opportunities and social liberation are leading to deaths through all modes. Probably, the poor for whom life itself is daily death do not contemplate courting the ultimate death.

Of course, that is no case for shunning progress on the economic, social and educational fronts. The problem has to do with individual youth — mindset, breeding, problem-handling capacity et al. Take for instance student suicides. Gone are the days of fatal one-way love affairs, romanticised by ageless but college-going filmi heroes in beard and all, longing for a fellow lady love and then eventually hanging or otherwise dying of a familiar heart attack in that familiar train. Today, it is easier for them to read girls’ minds than comprehending an exam sheet. On the contrary, there is a significant rise in girl students committing suicide. A strait-jacket system that expects uniform performance, unmindful of individual aptitudes, leaves a deep sense of inadequacy, a sure recipe for hara kiri. While the ones who cannot cope are obvious targets for the grim reaper, even those well equipped perish in a weak moment. Clearly, parents and students must stop thinking of higher education as a socio-economic compulsion, even if it is easily available and affordable, and start looking at it as a choice to be made after knowing the ward’s mental capabilities. ‘Counselling’ should be less about ‘what college’ and instead stress on ‘what after college’. In any case, the ‘professional’ degrees offered by many institutions are not worth dying for!

Better economic status too is converting the garden of youth into a veritable graveyard. Death by the dozen on the fast lanes, owing to revelry or just road-rage, are a direct offshoot of prosperity. Rising teen alcoholism and drug abuse are disturbing pointers. Today huge money is at the disposal of youth, thanks to own earnings or parental indulgence. Liquid cash is slippery stuff and one must tread carefully. As pleasures rise, so do risks. Some turn fatal. Also cash-laden, carefree youth are the target of all, from petty criminals, peddlers of vice stuff and political parties to sundry marketers, consumer products, tech gizmos, film companies, sports events etc. Mind numbing gadgets, explosion of social media, round the clock entertainment options and a delusional fancy for feel-good are making mental vegetables of many youth; their tech savvy-ness render them difficult to access or monitor even by parents, that is assuming parents themselves are not fidgeting with their own fads. As the pendulum of youth swings wildly between the pulls of material pleasures and the push for material performance, it often cuts loose and crashes!

Ironically, therefore, the temptations offered by this magical, magnetic material milieu not only makes it the best time to be young but also the worst. And it is an infectious era too, that makes a toddler lose its innocence before ten even while stretching the ‘youth’ of an adult beyond the permissible age limit! The familiar alibi for such itch and indulgence on the part of the oldies is that youth is a state of mind. The truly young, however, are unlikely to relish, rather laugh, at this encroachment of their terrain. On the political front too, with eminent elders and wizened old whiskers at the helm landing the nation at a nadir, the young not only feel short-changed but also legitimately claim a sense of superiority. With the bridges of respect and reverence having thus been burned by the earlier gen itself, the onus of judgement has clearly shifted to the next-gen, whatever its credentials.

Thanks to an imminent, rather ongoing, demographic evolution, all facets of national life will be in the hands of the youth or the just-past-youth. As many of them remain safe, sane and survive their own suicidal impulses the better it is for ‘their’ nation.

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Jawahar T R