Democracy does not serve as an automatic remedy of ailments as quinine works to remedy malaria. The opportunity it opens up has to be positively grabbed in order to achieve the desired effect. ~ Amartya Sen
Abraham Lincoln once defined democracy as ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ It is indeed by far the most challenging form of government both for politicians and for the people.
The achievements of democracy depend not only on the rules and procedures that are adopted and safeguarded, but also on the way political parties in power and the people use the opportunities. It may not be a necessary or an essential condition for high growth, but the most important benefit of its functioning and free speech is that if wrong policies are followed, a correction is easier and unavoidable under public pressure and open discussion.
Presently, India, is in the midst of a seven-phase general election for the constitution of its 17th Lok Sabha. It is the world’s biggest voting event. The total number of registered voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha election has gone up by around 84.3 million since the 2014 polls.
The new voters who have raised the total number of voters to 900 million include around 15 million first-time voters in the age group of 18-19 years. The electorate of the second most populous country is larger than the combined population of the United States, Indonesia and Brazil. The Census of 2001 confirmed that the pace of demographic transition in India was steady, if slow.
In reality, according to Down To Earth, a fortnightly of the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi based NGO, between 2018 and 2019, the actual size of the first-time young voters has increased by a record-breaking number of 52.6 million.
This increase is attributed to the post-Millennials, specifically those born at midnight as the 21st century unfolded. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, ‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.’
So the wisdom and foresight of these 52.6 million first-time voters will play a vital role in deciding whether the basic certitudes of democracy, as envisioned by the founding fathers of our Constitution, are aptly adhered to. At stake are the concepts of equality, justice, fraternity and freedom. The State as an entity of governance has shunned its responsibility to empower, enable and transform the young into conscientious and discerning individuals.
The second National Family Health Survey (NFHS-2) was conducted in 1998-99 covering 99 per cent of India’s population living in the 26 states. The survey report points to the status of elementary education, mortality, nutrition, health and healthcare of 25 states (excluding Tripura) in the beginning of the present century. Illiteracy muffles the political voice of the people. Proper education can change the general perception relating to human rights.
It can help reduce inequalities related to the divisions of class and caste. In the words of Amartya Sen, “Learning and studying can be immediately enjoyable and creatively engaging activities, if they are well arranged and well supported, and the process of schooling itself can add greatly to the quality of life of young people, apart from the long-run benefits they receive from it.”
It is clear from the NFHS-2 report that the proportion of children, aged 6-14 years, attending school had increased for all ages, particularly for girls, to 79 per cent, up from 68 per cent in NFHS-1. But girls continued to lag behind boys in terms of school attendance.
To that can be added the increasing dropout rate. In the age-group of 6-10 years, 85 per cent of boys attended school compared with 78 per cent of girls. By 15-17 years of age, 58 per cent of boys attended school compared with 40 per cent of girls. Education relating to skill development makes our children independent entrepreneurs.
The ideas of empathy and human values help them to be responsible citizens. But our education system has lacked in the vision that would have equipped the youngsters with logic, rationale and the ability to argue and engage in a fruitful debate.
At present, the situation has not improved. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018, of all children enrolled in Standard 8 about 73 per cent can read at least a Standard II-level text. At least 13.5 per cent girls in the 15- 16 age group had not been enrolled in schools.
Around 95.7 per cent of the children enrolled in Class XII are not part of any skill development programme. Moreover, as per the ASER 2017 over 70 per cent children aged 14-18 years use mobile phones, but one-fourth cannot read the content written in their own language.
It is hard not to wonder how these voters will be able to think and decide from a societal perspective and elect a logical and rational political system. Effective democracy necessitates public discussion on urgent issues.
Battling malnourishment is one of the most effective tools to control diseases, reduce infant and maternal mortality, break the vicious intergenerational cycle of malnutrition and improve the learning outcome for empowerment. Malnutrition indicators in India are among the highest in the world despite a declining trend since the early 1990s.
The Constitution provides for social, economic and political justice. But our first-time voters have been deprived of justice. Apart from malnutrition, they are also victims of injustice. The report of the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NHFS-4) revealed that every fourth child is married off at an early age ~ the figure translates to 26.8 per cent of children in the country.
In Bihar, 42.5 per cent girls are married off before they turn 18; in Rajasthan, 34.4 per cent; in Madhya Pradesh 32.4 per cent; in Chhattisgarh, 21.3 per cent and in UP 21.1 per cent. Child marriage reflects the low value accorded to human rights of girls who face the risk of violence, exploitation and abuse.
Child labour implies exploitation of children through any form of work that deprives them of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and is mentally, physically or normally harmful.
In the interest of first-time voters, it would be instructive to quote Colin Powell ~ “You’re not just voting for an individual; in my judgment, you’re voting for an agenda. You’re voting for a platform, you’re voting for a political philosophy.” The first-time voters can play a crucial role in the current Lok Sabha election.
The critical question is: How do these young voters view the existing democratic system and respond to the appeal of a political party? The wrong choice can place the country and its sovereignty at stake. To the young voters of the 21st century, the ongoing general election is both a challenge as well an opportunity.
(The writer is a retired IAS officer)