A new generation of young activists is at the forefront of creating change in the Himalayas in uncertain times
Rajesh Singh switched his mobile phone to speaker mode and began talking to the district official in the full hearing of villagers gathered around him. ‘I’m telling you the concrete bridge was not properly constructed. You need to find that contractor and force him to redo the work. He can use the money he embezzled from construction.’
At the end of the conversation, Rajesh told me he had already sent the government officer a photo of the broken bridge by SMS, and that this was one of many public complaints that he had made recently on the village’s behalf. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I have to do what I can for the village. If we don’t speak up, nothing happens. But I won’t do secret deals … no corruption, no bribes. I need the rest of the village to know what I’m doing.’
We were in the village of Bemni, in the state of Uttarakhand, high in the Indian Himalayas. Rajesh was one of a new generation of young people in Bemni who are channelling their energy and time into serving as community activists. Many of these youth, especially educated, underemployed young people, are involved in assisting the village with infrastructural projects, petitioning government officials for resources, resolving village disputes, and helping individuals obtain healthcare, education and other social goods.
What’s particularly striking about this ‘new generation’ of young activists is their emergence over the last decade in the wake of staggeringly fast social, economic and political change in a remote and previously marginalised region. These young people are both at the forefront of creating change, and instrumental in shepherding their community through uncertain times.
For over 13 years, I’ve been conducting research in Bemni. In 2003, I began by working with children aged 11–17, examining their everyday work practices. For 15 months, I lived and worked alongside these children. We lugged backloads of leaf litter down the mountainsides, and blistered our hands weeding fields of potatoes. Children as young as 10 spent hours each day washing dishes, fetching water, herding cattle or collecting wood, often in forests far from home.
In 2003, the village remained excluded from wider circuits of communication. There was an unreliable postal service, but no telephones. There was no electricity, and only one household had a drop-toilet. The journey from the main road, 40 km away, involved two overcrowded jeep rides followed by a five-hour unrelentingly steep uphill walk. The village primary school taught up to Class 5, after which most girls and many boys dropped out. The small handful of parents who sought a high school education for their children had to send them away from the village.
Like much of the region, life in Bemni has changed dramatically in the last decade. After sustained political action by the village, a mobile phone tower was installed, followed by electricity, and finally, in 2012, a dirt road. New schools were built in Bemni and neighbouring villages, so students can complete their entire high school education while living at home (albeit having to walk 90 minutes each way to the nearest high school). Many young people have gone on to complete BA degrees by correspondence at the local degree college.
Charting the lives of the children I knew in the early 2000s reveals much about these changes. Take Rani, for example, from a particularly poor Scheduled Class family. In 2004, aged 11, Rani was pulled out of school after Class 5 in what seemed to be the end of her education. After 3 years of household work, however, she won a scholarship to attend a government boarding school in the nearby market town. She is now in her final BA year. It is a staggering achievement, particularly in a context where almost all the mothers of her generation are illiterate.
The implications of these infrastructural and educational changes have been complex and manifold. They have affected employment strategies and aspirations. They upset labour availability and the agricultural cycle. And they have had repercussions for intergenerational relations and even the ways in which marriages are arranged. Villagers exclaim somewhat breathlessly, ‘Who could imagine that our village would ever be like this?’
It is precisely the young people I knew as children, labouring the land in the early 2000s, who have been at the forefront of negotiating these changes. Now in their twenties and early thirties, and the first generation to receive a full education, these young people have become the go-betweens, straddled between an illiterate older generation of farmers, and a younger generation of school children for whom physical toil may no longer be the primary lens onto their life. They have become a new generation of social activists.
They often explained that they were motivated by a sense of responsibility to their village, and frustration over government inaction and greed
Between 2011–15, I returned to Bemni to examine (with Professor Craig Jeffery) the politics of educated unemployed young people in north India, on a project that also had teams in Sri Lanka and Nepal. We collectively spent another 10 months in Bemni, exploring the role of this generation of youth actors in social change in the region.
Far from the image of disaffected youth peddled by much of the media and other organisations, we found that for young people in Bemni, the notions of ‘social work’ and civic action were paramount to who they are. This ‘new generation’ spent their time offering advice, campaigning for new resources, acting as spokespeople for disadvantaged sections of society. The campaign around the broken bridge exemplified the type of work they did: mending paths, mobilising others for protests, writing letters, escorting ill villagers to the local clinic and generally doing ‘service’ (sewa), as they sometimes put it.
Many young people talked in analytical terms about the nature of their ‘civic action’. They often explained that they were motivated by a sense of responsibility to their village, and frustration over government inaction and greed. Many referred to their work as politics, but distinguished it from what they perceived as the negative politics of bureaucrats, where greed and corruption were the currency. Instead, they argued, it was a type of generative politics—one concerned with making and protecting resources—rather than the self-interested politics of members of the political establishment. As Rajesh told me, ‘politics is not just about getting my cut but actually producing things’.
At the same time, several young people also believed that, if they got their politics right, sympathetic government officials would be there to help. They argued that however inefficient the state might be, it had delivered an impressive range of benefits to Bemni in recent years such as the road, communications facilities, and (slightly) improved schooling. So, they made sure that in their approaches to political action, they did everything that politicians did not do. They tried to be accountable to those they helped, took no money in return for accomplishing tasks and were careful to act in a polite and ‘civilised’ manner. Their sense of community service was inextricably tied up with young people’s sense of self—as one young man put it, ‘I’m nothing but service (main bas sewa hum)’, a phrase that can be loosely translated as ‘I serve therefore I am.’
A young activist in the Indian Himalayas. Young people like this are at the forefront of creating change. Photo: Jane Dyson