With education and employment on their minds, hundreds of students and youths from across the country marched from Jama Masjid in Old Delhi to Jantar Mantar in central Delhi on Thursday. The Young India Adhikar March was the joint effort of students’ unions and youth organisations from various states.

Led by some students from Jawaharlal Nehru University and the All India Students’ Association and Revolutionary Youth Association – with both groups affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – the march is an attempt to stitch together student and youth campaigns across the country into a common movement like India’s farmers have done.

The students are demanding that all government vacancies be filled, an increase in public spending on education to 10% of India’s gross domestic product, full implementation of reservations for backward groups, an end to the closures of schools and the underfunding of public education. They also want an end to gender discrimination and sexual harassment in higher education and the stranglehold Hindutva forces have on both higher and lower education.

Contingents of students or student leaders from over 40 institutions and organisations – including the student and youth wings of the Aam Aadmi Party, Swaraj India and the Samajwadi Party – participated in the march.

Its participants came from states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Punjab and Assam. In a statement on behalf of the coordination committee, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president, N Sai Balaji said the youth group will “pass resolutions to actively participate in the upcoming election”.

While they all adopted the common charter and list of demands, the students at the protest – many of them first-time protesters in Delhi – brought with them their own experiences and concerns. Scroll.in spoke to a cross-section of them:

Longkiram Rongphar | Karbi Anglong, Assam

Rongphar agreed to make the three-night journey on the Brahmaputra Mail from Karbi Anglong to protest in Delhi – his first visit to the national capital – because of the shortage of jobs at home. His father is a vegetable farmer with some land of his own. It is hard, physical work and Rongphar does not intend to do it. At 20, he is a second-year student of arts in Karbi Anglong College but despite getting an education, he said the employment prospects at home are bleak. “All posts and government jobs are instantly grabbed by political people,” he complained. He hopes to be a teacher. Rongphar came as part of a group of about 40 students led by the district branch of the left-wing, All India Students’ Association. Most of the others in the group were from Assam University’s Diphu campus. The group had some demands of their own: Karbi Anglong be declared an autonomous state, withdrawal of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and roll-back of the 13-point roster for reservation that has drastically reduced the number of teaching posts available for tribal applicants in higher education.

Praveen Kumar | Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu

Several members of Kumar’s family have academic degrees but no jobs. His sister is one of them. She has a degree in education. “Even educated people wash glasses in shops or work as drivers,” he said, explaining his reason for travelling to Delhi from Thanjuvar where, he is a second-year student of physical education. Kumar, 19, comes from a farming family that owns two acres of land. He says his generation wants government jobs. “Private schools do not pay well but even those jobs are hard to gets,” he said. “Otherwise, there are construction jobs but those are not steady either.”

Rajesh | Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu

Rajesh has a permanent job in a factory manufacturing plastic parts for car interiors. It is exactly the sort of work profile he is trained for – he is a diploma holder in plastic manufacturing. But he joined the march for the over three lakh workers in the Special Economic Zone, Sriperumbudur, who are on contract or on permanent traineeship. “It is very hard work but they are paid below Rs 8,000 per month or are kept as trainees for years,” he said. “Traineeship can count as work experience if it leads to a permanent job. But what happens here is a trainee is thrown out after some years and then has to start again as a trainee in another company. There are full-fledged engineers who are employed as workers.” He wanted to know where the jobs Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised went. His other big reason for joining the march was the National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test for medical college admissions. It replaced a state-level mechanism in 2017 and hurt the chances of rural candidates.

Snigdha Tiwari | Almora, Uttarakhand

Tiwari’s main concern is education. Head of the Almora branch of the Uttarakhand Students’ Organisation, Tiwari, 22, said her organisation was already protesting against the mergers of state schools in Uttarkhand. “Some are being merged with Shishu Mandirs [run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindutva organisation to which the BJP is affiliated],” she alleged. “And there is no infrastructure even for primary education.” Tiwari graduated from a Dehradun law school last year and hopes to join the master’s programme in Kumaon University this year. The Uttarakhand Students’ Organisation is not affiliated to the All India Students’ Association or any Left group. “We associate ourselves with a green ideology,” she explained. She and several others travelled over 12 hours by bus to reach Delhi for the march. “In this instance, I think it is important for all students to be united,” Tiwari said. “The government is privatising public sector education. They do not want us to study so they can fool us and make us fight against each other. If citizens are educated, they will be in trouble.”

Sandeep Singh | Faridkot, Punjab

Singh’s older brother is an engineer but is unemployed. His father worked in a sugar factory that shut in 2006 and has worked as a farm labourer since. “My elder brother is already at home and the way things are going, I will be too when I graduate,” he said. Singh, 21, is a final-year student of agriculture. Singh is a member of Youth For Swaraj, the youth wing of the Swaraj India political party. He summed up the employment situation thus: “Degree-holders and diploma holders get the same jobs and pay, my mother is an aanganwadi [or early childhood care centre] worker and goes three-four months without pay at a time. In the case of government jobs, questions for the entrance test are leaked in advance.”

Koena Lahiri | Gandhinagar, Gujarat

Lahiri, 29, is a research scholar in international politics at the Central University of Gujarat. She is not directly affected by the new roster for making reserved category appointments in higher education but said it “impacts the university and it impacts the academic culture”. “We might not understand the benefits that come from diversity and in Gujarat, the condition of the social sciences is already terrible,” said Lahiri. She joined the march to also make another point: there is another side to Gujarat’s narrative of development. “Many of Gujarat’s cities are among the most polluted in the country, private education is flourishing but not public education,” she said. “I am a PhD student but I do not think I will get a job.” She also pointed out that Gujarat has neglected scholarship in the social sciences for decades. A member of Left Democratic Students’ Front – not affiliated to the All India Students Association – it was her first time protesting in Delhi.

Pawan Kumar | Gandhinagar, Gujarat

Kumar is also a researcher in the Central University of Gujarat but he is originally from Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh. A member of the Other Backward Classes, his parents are from the caste of blacksmiths. “My father still works as a blacksmith and also as farm labour,” he said. At 28, he is the first in his village, Balchhat, to join a research programme. He would have been the first one to teach in a college as well but thinks his chances are slim with the new roster. “Our family does not own land, so employment is a huge issue for us,” he said. The shrinking space for dissent and debate is an important issue for him too. “For four years, there has been an attack on our [university communities’] freedom of expression and dissent – this government does not understand that a democracy [allows the expression of] people’s everyday struggles.”

Susanta Dhibar | Bishnupur Bankura, West Bengal

Last year, after completing four of six semesters, Dhibar dropped out of the government polytechnic he was attending. The funds he had raised selling vegetables had run out and the four-hour journey – first by train and then bus – from Bishnupur to the polytechnic in Jhargram was taking its toll on his health. He has enrolled again although he has not received the Union government scholarship he is entitled to as a Scheduled Caste student after Class 10. He became full-fledged member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)- Liberation in 2017 after a three-year stint with the Bajrang Dal, before which he was with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He set out from Bishnupur on February 4, travelling by train to Asansol. From there he took another train to Patna, and a third one finally brought him to Delhi. He has three main demands: increase allocation to education to 10% of the gross domestic product, financial support for the unemployed and a counter to forces that set Hindu and religious minorities – especially the Muslims – against each other.

Rahul Datta | Kolkata, West Bengal

A postgraduate student of accountancy at Calcutta University, Datta wants “full, dignified jobs” for the youth. “Not chai, pakora, paan” – not in tea, fries or paan stalls – he added for good measure. “This government seems to have lost more jobs than it has generated,” he said. His older brother graduated in commerce in 2012-’13 but is unemployed. When Datta, 21, graduated, all that was on offer were minor book-keeping jobs in shops. “I didn’t take any but a friend who studied commerce till Class 12 but did not go to college took it,” he said. Another friend studied engineering in a private engineering college and was recruited in a Bangalore company for Rs 10,000 per month. “He came back after two months upon discovering that he ended up spending over Rs 8,000 of his salary on food, transport and other necessities,” said Datta.

All photographs by Shreya Roy Chowdhury.

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