"Youth is not the future of this country. Youth is the present." This is the premise on which 25-year-old Naga Sravan Kilaru from Andhra Pradesh has set off on a journey across the state, hoping to raise awareness about politics among youngsters.
Under the banner of 'Yuva Galam', Sravan and a group of youngsters have begun their journey from Ichapuram, the northernmost point in the state in Srikakulam district. They plan to meet several thousand students, covering at least two or three colleges a day, and thereby draft a 'state youth policy' with a manifesto. The group will walk or cycle the entire distance, roughly amounting to 3,000 km.
Speaking to TNM, Sravan says, "The idea is simple. Galam means voice and we plan to unite the voice of the youth across the spectrum and make political parties look at them as a unified vote bank, unlike the fragmented way in which they are seen today."
"My political journey started when I was 17 after I started reading about several figures from Anna Hazare to Jayaprakash Narayan to Santosh Hegde. I was curious about how much access people had to information and how that could be passed on. My core has largely remained the same," he adds.
Sravan spent a large part of his life in Vijayawada before travelling to Bengaluru to complete his education. In 2014, he and his friends launched 'Vijayawada Needs U' to campaign for better governance, conducting mock youth Parliament sessions, to encourage more youngsters to engage with politics.
The campaign also launched a report card at the time, on the performance of MPs in the state, based on their attendance in Parliament and the number of questions they asked and bills they moved or supported.
Sravan also agrees that many privileged youngsters in urban areas especially, do not feel compelled to participate in politics because it does not affect their lives on an everyday level.
"It is not that they don't want to know how it works, but itâ€™s just that they expect politicians to behave a certain way. Instead, we ask them to introspect and engage with politics and ask what they expect politicians to do," Sravan says.
The 25-year-old is not too content with politicians either. "Most of the politicians think that all that the youth require are jobs, employment and skill development, but there is much more to it than just that," he adds.
"The state is going to have 37 lakh first-time voters in the 2019 elections and around 1.12 crore people will be between age of 18 to 35. We need to organise and tell the political parties that these are our list of demands. Then they will also come forward," he explains.
On January 12, 2018, Sravan even received the National Youth Award granted by the Ministry of Youth Affairs And Sports Government of India for 'active citizenship'.
"When I received the award, it didn't give me as much satisfaction as I had imagined, but it thrust a moral responsibility on me to continue doing more and hopefully inspire others to participate more as well," Sravan narrates.
The Yuva Galam team at present has covered close to 200 km of their journey and when asked if they have been able to find any common demands among the youth, Sravan says, "A lot of people have said that career guidance would have helped them in their school days. They said they would benefit if someone told them what courses to take up for the profession that they wanted to pursue."
"In rural areas, many youngsters said that when they tried to engage locally at the panchayat level, their own family and village elders advise them against it because they don't like that authority is being questioned. But many of these youth want to stay in their village and change that. It is very heartening to see," he adds.
Another key demand of the campaign is to advocate for 30% reservation within political parties itself, for youngsters.
"This doesn't require any constitutional amendments. All it needs is political will for the parties to have youth representatives in all their committees. This will also motivate more youngsters to contest elections at a grassroots level, before building their way up to the higher seats," Sravan explains.
"Technology is on our side and we are empowering the youth with political awareness. What we want is for them to organise and engage, rather than expect a politician to do something. We have received a good response so far as many of them are gaining confidence," he adds.
The campaign is also looking for one 'mentor' from each political party and has already signed up TDP MP Rammohan Naidu and Nellore MLA Anil Kumar from the YSRCP besides BJP MLC PVN Madhav.
Others like former CBI Joint Director Lakshminarayana have also signed up as a mentor, while Loksatta founder Jayaprakash Narayanan has also extended his support.
"I believe that everyone should have some political ideology but our debates should be non-partisan and focus on policy rather than the politics. I dream of a day when TDP, YSRCP, Congress, BJP and Jana Sena leaders can sit on the same table and debate and discuss ideas rather than squabble with each other," Sravan explains.
Sravan himself, also says that he would like to continue working in politics.
"I can't say I have specific plans but I don't mind working behind the scenes or in full public view. If there is a time when I choose to enter politics, I would like to start from a grassroots level myself and work my way up," he concludes.
He also hopes that Yuva Galam, someday converts into 'Yuva Dalam' or a youth force.