“Initially, the idea of starting a think tank was a little intimidating, because nobody had done it before. But that’s also the good thing, because you are going to create something that nobody has done before,” says 16-year-old Maahir Jain. Along with his friends, Veer Bathwal (17) and Govindnarain Khandelwal (17), Jain co-founded The Future of Everything (TFoE), which specialises in research by young people and examines topics of global interest. Among the issues that its first cohort wrote reports on included online education, financial technology, cyber-bullying, and optimism bias in mental health.
In Delhi, Young India Foundation (YIF) is a non-partisan organisation engaged in re-focusing public and administrative attention on the youth of India, by conducting elections for young independent candidates at the grassroots level. As its 19-year-old co-CEO Rishika Arora says, “YIF’s think tank works to close the gaps through the research we generate, because young people aren’t adequately and discretely recognised as political agents.”
While there’s a tendency in the country to overlook or totally disregard the youth demographic in both public discourse and policy making, young Indians have started creating their own spaces to hear and be heard. Whether this is through pure research, like TFoE, or advocacy like YIF, youth participation is key to this trend.
“When I started TFoE, as a Class 9 student, I did combined research on psychology and computer programming with a few friends. We collaborated and came up with a unique topic. That really stayed with me; because of how we brainstormed so many different ideas. It struck me that two minds are better than one,” says Bathwal.
The three youngsters were guided by educational consultant Neeraj Mandhana, while establishing TFoE. “We wanted a research platform that would help students to not only explore their passions, but also meet others and interact with them, while growing as individuals along with their academic interests as well,” says Bathwal.
The wide range of topics explored by the first batch of researchers under TFoE’s umbrella (their nine reports are available on the official website), shows the promise of research becoming a part of mainstream education. “In school you spend a lot of time studying textbooks and websites. But a think tank enables you to critically analyse your own thoughts and learn, while gaining insights from others,” says co-founder Khandelwal.
Ultimately, the TFoE founders hope that the reports will lead to some kind of social impact. “We have noticed that many students who have taken part in our programme have gone on to create organisations, platforms and communities that implement the research that they worked on. So while we haven’t really done much with TFoE’s reports, we are proud to see our scholars try research in any other category, which is really meaningful,” says Jain.
For YIF, the most basic challenge has been to establish the most accurate definition of ‘youth’ in India. “Policy makers like to fantasise about the concept. India defines youth as the age of 15-29 years, while the UN defines it as from 15-25. Age does matter when we talk about policy, so I think that was a push for us to not just to work on political action, but also bring a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a youth and how that contributes to different areas of policy. I think we are leading the way in research, because it is being conducted by young people,” says 26-year-old founder Sudhanshu Kaushik.
YIF’s election tracker, age calculator (that shows which political parties platform the nation’s youth), and field surveys feature the opinions of young respondents, to study how policies affect them. “If you look at other developed democracies, you’ll notice that generational gaps are a vital tool of analysis in politics. In India that’s really not the case. Our aim is to supplement incoming politicians with youth-specific concerns through data-based research,” says co-CEO Arora. “Things will change only when young people are considered as a real analytical category, and when age is seen as a social identity in policy making and political entity.”