Is it time to grant voting rights at 16?

Not many countries seem to have taken note of the precocious abilities of I-Gen teenagers

Nithin Kamath, founder of Zerodha; and (right) Ritesh Agarwal, founder of OYO. (Photos: Getty Images)
Nithin Kamath, founder of Zerodha; and (right) Ritesh Agarwal, founder of OYO. (Photos: Getty Images)

K Raveendran

The 61st Constitution amendment of 1988 brought down voting age in India from 21 to 18, reasoning that the ‘present day youth’ were more literate and enlightened and therefore deserved the opportunity to express their feelings and elect people’s representatives. It was also observed that ‘they were very much politically conscious’.

The amendment took care of the millennials, those who were born between 1981 and 1996 and partly Generation-Z, born between 1997 and 2012. But the new ‘I-Gen’ generation (which draws its name from the ubiquitous Apple iPhone) are perhaps even more precociously enlightened than those targeted by the 61st Amendment.

It is 34 years since the voting age was lowered to 18 and the biggest difference is that today’s I-Gens are born in the internet era, which is a milestone in human history, impacting every aspect of life on this planet. Pre- and post-internet youth have had vastly different exposure. Today’s adolescents have been exposed to a lot more of experiences that have influenced their thinking. They have no idea of life without mobile technology and social media, both unknown to the previous generations.

Studies have shown that today’s super-connected kids are more environment conscious, tolerant, respectful and inclusive of diversities, but more individualistic. Of course, they have their own share of problems related to mental health, social interaction and much less experience in interacting with others as they spend more time texting and on social media as well as games.

But importantly, they have all the attributes that merited the inclusion of millennials and Gen-Z in universal adult franchise. It is, therefore, high time to further lower voting age to cover the 15-17 age group. I-Gen members have shown that they are ambitious and daring, have big dreams and are endowed with more problem-solving capabilities than those belonging to the previous generations.

There are at least a dozen successful Indian entrepreneurs who made it big before they attained the present voting age. OYO founder Ritesh Agarwal was only 17 when he set out building his empire, valued at over $10 billion. With a personal worth of more than $1 billion, he is supposed to be the second youngest self-made billionaire in the world.

Similarly, Nithin Kamath of Zerodha, the third biggest stock trader of the country after ICICI and HSFC, began his stock trading when he was just 17. Today Zerodha has over 7 million users, a large number of them belonging to Gen-Z and I-Gen.

There are many more successful teenage entrepreneurs in India, such as Advait Thakur, who heads a global technology and innovation company specialising in IoT related services and products; Tilak Mehta, one of the youngest Forbes panelists and a TEDx speaker, whose Paper N Parcels won him an youngest entrepreneur award; Akhilenda Sahu, recognised as the world’s youngest serial entrepreneur; and Farrhad Acidwalla, whose Rochstah Media success prompted CNN to interview him at the age of 17.

The first time when the age group 15-17 got highlighted was during the Covid pandemic when the vaccination drive was extended to cover the members of this group. It was estimated that there were 74 million people falling into this age group for the purposes of vaccination. This is a substantially large age group, which needs to be considered for inclusion in adult franchise.

Their inclusion could also bring about a new dimension to the country’s electoral politics, as they have significant clout in determining the outcome of elections.

A back of the envelope calculation shows that the addition of 74 million new voters to the electorate would mean addition of over a 100,000 votes on an average to every Lok Sabha constituency. A large number of candidates elected to the Lok Sabha have victory margins of less than 100,000 votes and such large scale addition to the voters’ list can tilt the balance in any constituency. Given that the new voters are more strongly inclined to social causes and inclusive traits, I-Gen could turn out to be the decisive factor in future elections.

It is time for these young people to get the right to participate in the most crucial decision-making process in running the country.

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