According to the latest census report, released earlier this year, 41 per cent of India’s population is below the age of 20 and nine per cent is above the age of 60. What does youth look like? It looks like India. In my work and travels across the country, I have observed three key trends — the young are initiative led, they will not accept the status quo and they will push for change. And the internet is their pet tool to engage and organise. This has led to a creative disruption both on the economic side and in social movements. On the economic side, social sharing through internet platforms has created the backbone of a “sharing economy” for small and medium businesses and fuelled other innovative apps and services.
Riyaaz Amlani saw this trend far before others did and applied it to re-organising the traditional restaurant and hangout business. He tapped into the desire of young people to come together and their need to have a “third place” away from home and work. In 2014, Riyaaz created Social, a place for young people to get together and exchange ideas modelled on the Moroccan “cafe khana”. His idea was to create urban spaces for the young at very affordable price points. He drove awareness-building almost entirely through social media.
His innovation of public urban spaces unleashed different types of local initiatives, sharing, collaboration and leadership on civic and economic issues.
In April 2015, Nepal was hit by a disastrous earthquake. Sumit Dayal, a photojournalist and curator, huddled in Social with his community of photographers and hacked the #nepalphotoproject on Instagram. That newsfeed created a common platform to document what was happening on the ground through photos and videos and share critical information pertaining to rescue and relief efforts.
“Thank you for putting such a personal face on this tragedy,” was one of the top comments that Sumit and his team of collaborators received on the project. The project was also profiled in Time as a visual chronicle of disaster and resilience. On the economic side, there are several start-up ideas that are being incubated at Social everyday across its 14 locations from Bengaluru to Delhi. I asked Riyaaz if he ever imagined that his new model for urban spaces would unlock such social and economic value. He continues to be overwhelmed by the things that groups of people coming together are achieving in these shared spaces. He is now working on an app which will work like an incubation service for budding entrepreneurs and investors visiting and hanging out at Social. He will also be expanding to tier II and tier III cities.
Recently, I was on a trip to Benaras — the seat of high culture and mysticism. All of us have fatalistically made peace with urban decay, congestion, dirt, open sewage, bad roads in all our urban centres — Benaras is just a little tougher than the rest. Here, I saw the same grit and initiative being displayed by the youth. In spite of floods, Benaras continued to get a steady stream of foreign and domestic tourists for the aartis in the ghats. The young volunteers of Ganga Sewa Nidhi stacked up wooden planks, creating temporary mobile bridges for visitors so that they could walk through the flooded areas to see the aartis in makeshift terrace locations above the ghats. They work tirelessly, mopping, cleaning and removing sewage manually, making sure visitors have an authentic spiritual experience. On the other side of Benaras, Umang Agarwal, the young proprietor of a local handloom enterprise is trying to build a global brand. He is participating in the global supply chains of large e-commerce retailers while also trying to become an online retail store in his own right. He tells me proudly that he chucked a lucrative career in finance with a rating agency in Mumbai and began re-building his family handloom enterprise using internet tools to accelerate growth and market access. Today, the United States drives the highest value for his business and India the highest volume. He returned to Benaras four years ago.
Max Weber famously held that urbanisation and modernisation are concurrent processes. India’s biggest challenge is addressing both. There are 701 million people in the country who are below the age of 30.
From Riyaaz to Umang to the spirited volunteers at Ganga Sewa Nidhi, I see one uniform trend — institutions are failing and individuals are charging through, driven by a higher purpose, their desire to have an impact and lift themselves and others. I and many others in my generation grew up with ration cards — where even consumption decisions were taken by the state. Growing up in a shortage economy meant accepting status quo. It was fate. Not so with this generation of millennials. They will not seek permission to usher in change.