Adolescent India


back to issue

WHEN I first saw the word ‘Kishore’ written on a signboard in the campus of that unique institution, Kishore Bharati, my heart filled up with a vague apprehension. Can the turbulent romanticism and attraction for abstractions associated with being a kishore or adolescent be institutionalised? Later on, when Kishore Bharati’s amazing world suddenly vanished, it felt as if a dream had ended. Fortunately, Kishore Bharati left behind its more stable progeny, Eklavya, aptly named after the tribal boy who refused to be deterred by the difficulty of finding an accepting teacher and carrying on with archery without a thumb. The challenges before today’s tribal adolescents are no less daunting, and the larger context is far more volatile and complex than it was in the times of the Mahabharata.

Why just tribal adolescents, childhood in rural India as a whole is in a state we would rather not appreciate. In the case of infants and children attending the primary classes at school, we know the extent of the neglect they suffer, and therefore can hope for improvement. In the states of the South, the system is in better shape, and might develop new characteristics like imagination and flexible responsiveness. In the rest of India, improvement in the rural child’s lot is going to take much more effort than the system in place is ready to put in. But when it comes to the rural adolescent, no one has taken stock of the scale of issues.

Let me first share what little I know about the psychological dimensions of the problem we face. The previous sentence conceals no personal apology. Drawing upon psychology is a genuine problem. Developmental psychologists are a shrinking tribe in India, their language an endangered discourse. I do not meet people who have read the works of the late Durganand Sinha. Sudhir Kakar is now better known as a novelist than for his path-breaking study of male infancy, The Inner World. This classic can still frighten and inspire even if you take its message half as seriously as it is conveyed in the book. The mother-son continuum Kakar draws in the context of infancy, is grounded in a world in which the young mother depends on her son for emotional security. The book explains how this romantic bond sets in a cycle of dependency and fear when infancy terminates, rather dramatically, and a long, confused male latency and adolescence starts, the latter characterized by the foreknowledge that independence is a futile dream.

I have already gone a little beyond Kakar’s balanced description into my own summary of the limited literature we possess on adolescence in modernizing India. One of the key points of this summary is that adolescence in India is marked by confusion over personal and collective identity in addition to the sadness that the sudden end to a prolonged infancy imprints on the growing male. Comparable analysis of the socialization of girls is hard to come by. How girls become women is something we know rather little about, though literary and biographical knowledge is now becoming available.


The family holds the key to containing the fire that muzzled dreaming ignites. The success of development planning in certain parts of India has a great deal to do with the secret, unsolicited cooperation that the state has received from the family. Trouble has begun to brew because the family appears to be losing grip. The millions of infants who grow up with an absentee father or who have no memories of a stable dwelling have an orientation to life no one can offhand delineate. There are many parts of metropolitan India where the alienation of adolescents and youth matches descriptions generated in the metropolitan slums of Latin America and Africa. Unemployment has been steadily rising in the countryside; the institution which has permitted the state the luxury of neglecting the rise is the family. How far can the family serve this role?

In the absence of decent sociological studies from different parts of the country, one leans on literature, personal knowledge of those who know better, and logical deduction. These are not reliable indicators of anything, but they do have suggestive value. It seems the family, particularly the authority of the father in enforcing decisions, is still strong, but the more generalized hold of the family in shaping urges and conduct is waning. Neither the immediate nor the distant context is conducive to the family’s capacity to socialize the young for a life of uncertainty and the force of unknown factors.

The spread of small arms across the northern countryside has cast an everyday shadow of violence. The spread of television has routinized a culture of sensations which are not capable of being translated from the virtual to the physical world. As an experience, education has failed to gain respect in the village though it has acquired status. It is not associated in the popular mind with ideas or lasting inner resources, but only with opportunities to earn money, and these opportunities are scarce even in the urban world, what to speak of the village. The implication is an unpurposive, rather depressive youth culture.

How pervasive it is may be hard to assess, but there is continuity between stampede deaths in a UP town when an army recruitment drive attracts a few lakhs, and deaths in India’s software capital following the passing away of a matinee hero.


One of the many roles education performs as a matter of routine is to declare several million youngsters ‘fail’. Both in scale and in its dramatic character, this annual labelling exercise can only be compared to the inoculation programme, the only difficulty in this comparison being that the award of ‘fail’ status enhances the receiver’s vulnerability whereas inoculation imparts protection. What happens to the stigmatised? Those who get categorized as failures within a school stage mostly drag on, hoping to ‘pass’ next summer. The official expression ‘retention’ is a matter of policy – although state practices vary – in the primary classes, hence those who fail cannot easily disenrol. However, those who fail in the final year of a stage, e.g. in Class V, VIII, or X have a strong chance of not coming back.


I have often wondered why failing is treated as an active verb in the English grammar. In Hindi it is not possible to attribute failure directly to the one who has failed – woh fail ho gaya, the ‘ho’ suggesting external forces. In public lore, however, the word conveys hubris. The one who fails at school carries not just a stigma but a sense of fate.

For a long time, failure at college carried a form of residual prestige, derived from having gone to college and having appeared at a university exam. In her study of autobiographies written by Indians during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Judith Walsh records the popularity of the letterhead entry ‘BA Fail’. Universities like Calcutta flaunted their high failure rate as a means of conveying rigour. Calcutta still takes pride in being stingy about awarding first class which stands at 60%. School boards have now increasingly made this a redundant watershed; in Delhi, for instance, a 60% scorer has no hope of admission to a course of college of choice.

Despite the inflation in high school scores, the idea that a high rate of failure means a better exam continues to sit peacefully in the public mind, muddy and bewildered though it is on account of familiar stories of exam culture, such as mass copying, contracted centres, proxy candidates, and so on. Generally, it seems the newspaper reading public feels reassured when the pass percentage is low. Such sordid stuff is for villagers to cope with. The fact that CBSE results – announced in the Delhi media as if they are national results – show a high pass percentage in ‘public’ schools merely confirms the popular perception of these schools as being decent institutions. Provincial boards do not have the aura of CBSE; their pass percentages are not widely known. Class X results are typically far lower than Class XII, which is in all likelihood a structural feature of the system. It permits the system to siphon off a few million children after Class X. What happens to them?


When people like ‘us’, i.e. readers of Seminar, think of career options for our children, we have in mind certain kinds of trajectories all of which end up in living a copy of what is regarded as a decent life. We have been vaguely aware since our childhoods that this kind of lifestyle is not available to all, that it cannot become available to all. Some of us recognize, if the earth is to be saved, that the lifestyle of the effectively educated need not be available to all. When we were young, it was accessible to just a few families in the district. Thousands of others who lived in the town headquarters and the vast countryside surrounding it lived a different life cycle, with no bank accounts, no admission forms, no VPP deliveries from shops located in distant cities.

The great development game aimed at stretching the orbit of this lifestyle, with saving accounts in post offices, fertilizers and functional literacy. Now, some forty years after bank nationalization and the arrival of foreign banks, and hybrid seeds which brought the Green Revolution giving way to genetically modified seeds, ‘we’ feel the country has bypassed the worst fallouts of what was described in books that our fathers read as explosion of the population bomb. Little do we realise, and our morning papers shield us from any thought that might invade and offer the insight, that the countryside is exploding with rampant unemployment, displacement, violence and a sense of hopelessness among adolescents.

Adolescents are supposed to be especially prone to the depression of the idealistic, not the depression of the bewildered and the frustrated. To offer hope to our rural adolescents of both sexes, we must try to understand what happens to the dreams they are supposed to entertain in the course of their natural development as young adults. These dreams are often vague, at least partly because the kind of education rural schools provide fails to nurture self-worth and the capacity to reflect on oneself. Language teaching is dominated by the anxiety to mainstream, denying dignity to rural tongues, ignoring the role that language plays in building memory and imagination.


Any positive planning for the rural adolescent must take into account what is happening in the context of agriculture and in the heritage craft sectors. These two are our civilizational resources, and it is wrong to see them in purely material terms. Biotechnology is undoubtedly an exciting field to those of us who regard the pursuit of it as something good for its own sake, but its meaning for the peasant who will negotiate his own and his family’s existence in the shadow of a world he will decipher even less than he deciphered the inscription on pesticide bottles are quite different.

If I go on in this vein, I will lose quite a few of my readers, especially those who work as civil servants and are excited by the tiny fruits and seeds of post-industrial development that have been showered on India of late. They do not want to engage with issues that complicate development plans already in place. I wonder if they have accepted the prospect of a vast death for India’s rural masses, in the battle for sustainable modernity for the India that has begun to look like a pale copy of the smaller countries of Europe.


If I am wrong, I would like to make a plea in defence of some conventional ideas and institutions. Decent schooling and health at public expense of the state are primarily qualifiers for the title of a welfare state. Let us not outsource these; let us not destroy the institutional apparatus that was devised in the Nehru era to strive for these basic services. The apparatus, even the Directorate of Education, deserves to be reformed, not destroyed, in the name of privatisation or panchayati raj. Good governance must be inclusive, giving a place to all players, but someone has to take responsibility.

It is nobody’s design that our state Secretariats and Directorates of Education are preoccupied with transfers and court cases. These offices of Victoria’s Raj need curriculum experts, professional managers of mass recruitment and publication, psychologists, sociologists and artists to guide policy. Each school needs counsellors and curriculum consultants, telephones and internet, library and workshop. Enrichment of the rural school will create, apart from lakhs of jobs and business opportunities, an ethos capable of inspiring the young to succeed in a million different ways rather than fail in just one.

All this and more can be planned and done if we stop dreaming like adolescents and sit up like adults to take a realistic look at our stunted, bruised system. If the village school is to be upgraded and improved, the headmaster and teachers would need better salary and status, not worse than what it is. It is simply amazing how rigid and cold our provincial directorates and district-level authorities are towards teachers. Casualisation of the teaching workforce in the name of accountability will decimate a role that has given inspiration and reason to hope to millions of youth. On areas linked to education and livelihoods, craft cooperatives will need to be nourished as economic and pedagogic bodies. DIETs will require an apparatus capable of serving the curricular needs of schools, and for this industrialists will need to help.

An Institute of Education in every district was not a bad starting point, but we have made little progress in giving imaginative functions to this institute. In general, the bureaucracy has managed to keep new institutions like the DIET under tight control of the kind that schools have been used to. Imparting of authority and a professional leadership role to school heads can help us move on. This calls for a policy to treat the school as a unit, open them up to civic intervention, and to recognize teaching as an inviolable professional activity (as suggested by the Chattopadhyay Commission). I suppose the satisfaction of running one Navodaya in every district is so great that we do not want to even imagine what it might mean to run every school like a Navodaya, or at least like a Kendriya Vidyalaya. Children born in families of central government servants have enjoyed the KV’s modest, decent national norms. When will it be time to say that India is capable of extending these norms to schools whose children did not organize their birth so it would occur in a central government servant’s home?