The TN2016 Youth Vote: First-gen learners in Tamil Nadu push back as poverty and odds threaten to overwhelm them

Editor's note: Tamil Nadu’s political parties are fighting each other mainly for one section of the electorate this year. This election is all about how the youth will vote. Over 60 lakh youngsters will ink their fingers in May and with little ideological baggage, an aspirational and determined youth is calling the politician’s bluff on a number of issues. In this series, Firstpost compiles what the Tamil youth want, if only the politicians would listen. This is the concluding part of a four-part series on #TN2016: The Anger of the Youth.


K Kanimozhi, 24, refuses to crack a smile. The serious young lady appears older than her years, with a few grey hairs already showing. One understands why only when she begins to open up about her life. Kanimozhi is a Dalit belonging to the Pallar caste and lives in a Dalit slum Solama Nagar near Trichy. She is the eldest of four brothers and two sisters, fatherless and with a stay-at-home mother. Kanimozhi is the sole earning member of the family. She works as a salesgirl for the skin care brand Garnier, taking home Rs 7500 every month.

Kanimozhi and Malathy, both first generation graduates, struggle against extreme poverty and hardship to make their degrees count. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

Kanimozhi and Malathy, both first generation graduates, struggle against extreme poverty and hardship to make their degrees count. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

Kanimozhi is a first generation graduate, with a Bachelors degree in Economics. She was very proud, she says, when she received her degree, but then reality took over, wiping the smile off her face. “I got a government job through the first generation graduate scheme,” she explained to Firstpost. “It was a librarian posting at the Nehru Memorial. But only the night shift was available, so I could not take it up,” she said.

With too many mouths to feed and too many little siblings to educate, Kanimozhi says that life runs on debt. “What other choice do I have?” she asked with a resigned look on her face. “I take a loan to pay school fees and repay part of it. Then I take another loan from someone else and repay this loan. I can never completely finish repaying all these loans. I just keep rotating them,” she explained.

Kanimozhi says she does not know how she put herself through college, with so many dependents. “I worked part-time and studied late at night,” she said. “Actually I honestly don’t know how I did all that. Somehow I had to get my degree and I did everything I could to ensure that happened.”

She’s now hoping that her younger brother will begin earning and contributing to the family income once he graduates. That though, is still a year away. “I really need more income,” she said. “I need a government job.”

Kanimozhi’s friend and neighbor 28-year-old A Malathy is in similar straits although her family is not as large as Kanimozhi’s. Malathy is currently pursuing an MBA course in Bharathidasan University, which she says is taking a toll on the meager income of the family of four. The fees, she says, are too high and the books, way too expensive.

“I was working for the past six years in a BPO but ever since mom died, I have been at home,” said Malathy. “Even there, salaries being offered were very low. I was earning only Rs 5000 a month,” she said.

Malathy tells Firstpost eagerly about a discussion that she had with her friends. “In Bangalore, there are BPO jobs available for Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 a month I am told,” she said. “I wish we had such opportunities. I cannot even leave this city, let alone this state,” she rued. Malathy too is Dalit, of the Pallar caste, and is a first generation graduate.

A helping hand

In 2014, as per an official release by the Anna University, 54% of new students were first generation learners heading into college. Over 92,000 such students thronged the university that year alone. Successive state governments in Tamil Nadu have tried to give a fillip to the first generation learner.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government introduced a scheme in 2007-08 whereby tuition fees in technical colleges of first generation graduates were waived in toto. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government has continued and expanded upon this scheme, helping large numbers of students gain access to tertiary education.

Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK, in January this year, outlined her government’s achievements in the state Assembly. Stating that the previous DMK government had spent Rs 149 crores on over 78,000 first generation graduates in technical education, she pointed out that in the past five years, the AIADMK government had helped 2.84 lakh students by spending a sum of Rs 2268 crores.

The AIADMK government’s decision to abolish the Common Entrance Test (CET) in 2005 too and admitting students into college on the basis of marks scored in standard 12, gave a huge boost to the number of first generation learners heading into college in the state.

The DMK government’s manifesto in 2011 promised to give priority in government jobs to first generation graduates. The party received a drubbing on the back of anger over land grabbing allegations across the state.

Feeling the pinch

Although access to education for first generation learners has been improved by successive governments, problems of poverty and lack of jobs continue to plague these youngsters. Those like C Karthik, another first generation graduate from Kavalkara Theru, near Solama Nagar, have managed to arm themselves with degrees but say jobs are scarce and low paying.

Karthik, another first generation graduate, says the educated youth has no money in hand. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

Karthik, another first generation graduate, says the educated youth has no money in hand. Firstpost/Sandhya Ravishankar

“Real estate is in a big slump so business is down,” said Karthik, 25, son of an auto driver father and a home-maker mother. “I am currently roaming around selling wires for a company. I get paid Rs 4000 a month. Everyone talks of farmers facing a tough time and government gives them so many sops. But engineers and small shop owners too are having a tough time,” he stated.

Karthik made a key observation that resonates with the youth of Tamil Nadu. “No one has money in hand,” he said. He gave an example of his classmate, a graduate, working in Chennai as a painter. “He earns Rs 8000 a month but because he lives in Chennai, his monthly outgo is Rs 11,000 a month. His father sends him Rs 3000 extra every month. I don’t understand where things are going,” he said.

Youngsters in Tamil Nadu like Karthik are confused and angry. After battling immense odds to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, these first generation graduates hope to finally find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Only to find that the rainbow, in all likelihood, never existed.

It is perhaps time that politicians cutting across party lines put their ears to the ground and listened carefully to what the youth of the state are saying.

The author tweets @sandhyaravishan

Read parts one, two and three

Updated Date: Mar 17, 2016 12:18 PM

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