Patan (Gujarat): The state highways are smooth but the journeys are long and arduous. So they take refuge in their smartphones, mostly encased in plastic, shutting themselves off from the rest of the world.
The occasional chuckle from the youngsters and the sound leaking from ear plugs give some hint about the source of entertainment- mostly video clips of Bollywood flicks, regional albums or comedy clips.
Prince Parmar is on one such bus, travelling to Gandhidham, a town in Kutch district, from Patan town.
The 23-year-old youth, son of a landless farmer, works as a “supervisor” in a garments company in Gandhidham for a meagre salary of Rs 10,000 per month. “And they deduct half the salary if you take even three days off,” Parmar, a Dalit, says.
While sharing his angst and frustration, Parmar suddenly asks, “How much do you earn? What did you study?”
As Gujarat prepares to vote in the second and last phase of the election on December 14, Parmar’s question has added significance, reflecting not just the many worries of youth in the state but also sending out a message for parties competing for power.
A recurrent highlight of a nearly 550-km road trip across north Gujarat is the Gujarati youth’s curiosity about the world of white-collar jobs and their sense of astonishment over the perks and privileges that come with it.
Koradiya Wasimbhai Mehbubbhai, a resident of Radhanpore’s Jain Boarding locality, drops in at the makeshift poll office of the Congress with two of his friends. Mehbub says he finished school and underwent vocational training at an ITI (Industrial Training Institute).
When a local Congress worker interjects saying he is now doing sundry jobs to eke out a living, the 20-year-old snaps. “What he is saying is not true. I am looking for a good job,” Mehbub says, his voice choking with anguish and a sense of shame.
Later, walking towards his shanty on the fringes of the town, Mehbub narrates how circumstances forced him to quit studies after high school. His father is a driver, who earns Rs 5,000 per month. Minutes later, Mehbub, in a manner nearly identical to Parmar, inquires about this correspondent’s job profile, qualifications and salary.
“Did they also pay you separately for this trip over and above the salary? Do they have entrance exams for the job?” Mehbub asks.
En route to Patan’s Sami tehsil, Deepakbhai Devipujak, a resident of the district’s Baspa village, pulls out his China-made tablet to show images of devastation caused by the July 2017 floods in his area.
“All our standing crop was levelled by the surge of water. And till date we have not received compensation for the loss despite numerous promises by the authorities,” he says.
Deepak says he will pursue a law degree, in accordance with his farmer father’s wish. However, only reservations can ensure a government job that can secure his future, he affirms.
“Our caste numbers around 1.5 crore across the country. We are listed as Backward Castes by the Gujarat government. But we want reservations to end the discrimination against us and ensure our proper representation in the government,” he says.
The Devipujak community, listed among the Nomadic Tribes and Denotified Tribes in Gujarat, fall in the OBC category. But they have been demanding a separate quota within the 27 per cent reservation for OBCs as they are too marginalised to compete with other groups.
In Vadgam constituency’s Chhapi village, Bhawesh Kumar echoes a similar sense of despair. The 29-year-old, who has completed his MA and BEd, is desperately seeking a government job but runs a mobile repairing shop out of necessity.
These voices have little presence in the prevailing political discourse of the state, saddled by raging debates on wild conspiracy theories and a heady dose of religious polarisation.
The Patidar agitation for reservations, led by Hardik Patel, reflected similar frustration even among the youth of the landed Patel community.
According to the RBI’s handbook of statistics, Gujarat’s growth driven by capital-intensive industries has not generated adequate amount of jobs, and in recent years the rate of manufacturing output has steadily fallen.
Small and medium-scale enterprises have also shut shop more than ever before, especially after the introduction of GST and demonetisation, resulting in further shrinking of job opportunities, data reveals.
Will Gujarat’s youth make their presence felt in this election? Counting day on December 18 should provide some answers.