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Managing Kashmir’s youth bulge

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-03-2017 Nikhil Raymond Puri

Take 20,000 young men from an area spanning 15,948 sq. km, educate them beyond the national average, then deprive them of jobs, deplete their self-esteem, and limit their search for purpose to a history of secessionist sentiment, street noise, and militant violence. Nestle these conditions between the Pir Panjal and the mighty Himalayas and you have the present-day reality of the Kashmir valley.

According to the latest census, 63% of the valley’s male residents are under the age of 30 and 70% are below the age of 35. While they should be leveraging their combined energy, skills and enthusiasm towards the much needed development of the region, Kashmir’s young men are languishing. Male youth unemployment in the valley stands at roughly 41%, almost twice the national average. Of all the unemployed men in the valley’s 10 districts, 60% are aged 15-24. These figures are staggering and they don’t even acknowledge that thousands more of the valley’s young men are engaged in marginal labour that only keeps them occupied for part of the year. Urgent steps are needed if the valley is to harness its youth bulge and avert a demographic disaster.

Although investments in education are important to ensure that young members of the population are job-ready, an exclusive focus on the supply of human capital is unlikely to solve Kashmir’s unemployment troubles. In fact, the 2011 census suggests that young Kashmiri men struggle to find employment despite their above-average educational achievement.

A comparison between male 15- to 24-year-olds in the valley and their national counterparts is revealing: the former are more likely to complete middle, secondary, and higher secondary school, while also including a higher proportion of graduate degree holders. Granted, completing a degree in Srinagar cannot be synonymized with a similar achievement in, say, Delhi.

Schooling across the valley is punctuated by frequent hartals, effectively reducing the quantity of education students can enjoy each school year. Last year, for instance, students in classes X and XII were only tested on 50% of their syllabus after unrest across the valley kept schools closed for several months. But even if we account for such disruption, education emerges as a clear liability in the search for employment: While only 78% of the valley’s total male population is literate, the literacy rate among unemployed male youth aged 15-24 is above 93%.

The problem lies on the demand side: Jammu and Kashmir simply does not have enough jobs to keep its youth occupied. A comparative reading of the fifth and sixth economic censuses tells us that just over 54,000 jobs were created in the state each year from 2005 to 2013. During roughly the same period, the state’s labour force was expanding much more rapidly, accepting more than 100,000 new entrants annually. If the resultant shortage of jobs is not frustrating enough, the state’s men must now compete for the limited slots available with a growing pool of women ready to enter the job market. While the contingent of male workers in the state shrank by 55% in the eight years between both economic censuses, the number of female workers increased by 146%. Although the contributions of the secondary and tertiary sectors to the state’s economy are growing relative to that of the agricultural sector, these changes are not occurring rapidly enough to absorb the state’s increasingly restless young talent.

There is a way out of this mess. If adequate jobs do not come to the valley, young Kashmiris must be encouraged to travel elsewhere in search of occupation. According to data collected by the National Sample Survey Office, Jammu and Kashmir leads all Indian states in terms of the proportion of its male emigrants who remit money, with 838 out of every 1,000 male out-migrants remitting. Moreover, these emigrants tend to remit more frequently and in higher amounts than the average Indian out-migrant. The problem is that not enough of Jammu and Kashmir’s men leave home in search of work, thus limiting the overall volume of remittances the state receives. Compared to their national counterparts, men in Jammu and Kashmir show a below-average propensity to move to other states in India and to migrate abroad.

Although the state government established a corporation in 2010 to facilitate economic emigration from the state, the entity was disbanded last year after government officials acknowledged it was “doing absolutely nothing”. It is time for the government to more earnestly encourage the export of manpower from the state with an eye on alleviating youth unemployment and boosting remittance-based investment. Taking a cue from other labour-exporting states, it ought to provide the full suite of services required to support a system of emigration.

Apart from its economic benefits, such labour migration can also promote sustained interaction between Kashmiris and members of their host communities in other states —an important condition for peace-building that has remained unmet. As young Kashmiris mingle beyond the valley, they are more likely over time to spread awareness about their own peculiar circumstances, while also remitting home attitudes conducive to peace and progress.

The next census in 2021 will record a cohort of young men in the valley that is larger and better educated than the one tallied in 2011. Stability demands that it be on the move.

Nikhil Raymond Puri is a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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