2016 will perhaps be best remembered in history as an year when the status quo around the world was seriously questioned. In the west, the long-cherished liberal world order gave way to protectionists like Donald Trump in the US, and right-wing and anti-immigrant movements that have gained significant ground in Europe. In India, 2016 will be best recalled for financial disruption unleashed on the common man by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even as the South Asian heavyweight eagerly awaits the promised fruit after swallowing the bitter pill of currency ban.
Twenty-sixteen wasn’t all doom and gloom though. It was the year of women and young achievers hands down, both in India and overseas. Centuries-old notions of gender stand shattered as India’s women athletes did the country proud at the Rio Summer Olympics, even as more of them show promise to be world-class athletes.
In some instances, the value of patriotism was held up for scrutiny as people took a stand against the system, that they should have probably taken long ago.
The common thread binding all those being referred to, and featuring in this list, is that all are under the age of 30, much like half of the world’s population. What differentiates them is their indomitable spirit to take challenges head on.
1. Neetu Sarkar, 21
At the top of the list is a junior wrestler from Haryana, a small northern Indian state notorious for ‘honour’ killings and entrenched notions of outdated caste-based order among its people. The state doesn’t fare well on sex ratio either, having a deplorable 834 females for every 1000 males in 2011.
The story of Sarkar is basically the story of women in Haryana, except that she decided to take the bull by its horns and ended up representing India in the World Junior Wrestling Championship in Brazil this year. Neetu reportedly got married at the age of 13 to a mentally challenged man who was 30 years older to her. According to an account, her father-in-law tried to rape her, prompting her to flee back to her parents’ home.
She was married off again soon after and borne twins at the age of 14.
A cruel life, however, didn’t deter the budding grappler from pursuing her dreams as she went on to train hard, despite headwinds presented from Haryana’s patriarchal society.
All her hard work finally bore fruit when she won a silver medal in wrestling at the National Games in 2015.
2. Sakshi Malik, 24
Another woman wrestler from the Indian state of Haryana, Sakshi Malik got India its first ever Olympic wrestling medal at 2016 Rio Di Janiero Olympics.
In a country where the birth of a female child is still frowned upon in some conservative households, Malik also smashed stereotypes by getting India its first of two medals that the country of 1.3 billion people could manage to win. The other medal was won by a female shuttler PV Sindhu.
Malik mostly encountered the same pressure from society on her path to success as faced by Sarkar, or as would be faced by any budding female wrestler in Haryana. Being a daughter of a bus conductor meant that she had to work even harder for every opportunity that presented itself to her.
According to a profile done by an Indian news website, Malik used to practise wrestling two hours every morning before heading to school, and she had been doing it since 12 years before she got her first shot at success. She reportedly practised in a gym where she was among a handful of women in a highly virile environment. If anyone has the faintest of ideas about boxing and wrestling gyms in Haryana and neighbouring states, one would appreciate the circumstances she comes from.
Beside doing her country proud at Rio Olympics, Malik has also won medals in Commonwealth Games and the Asian Wrestling Championship.
Malik had previously won the silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and the bronze medal at the 2015 Asian Wrestling Championships in Doha
3. Colin Kaepernick, 29
American club footballer Colin Kaepernick garnered national and international attention after he sat through the playing of the American national anthem. A quarterback for a San Francisco-based club competing in US’ National Football League (NFL), Kaepernick said he took the stand in order to protest against extrajudicial killings of Black and coloured Americans by White police officers.
Kaepernick sat through the national anthem in the first game when he started his protest, but has since toned down his protest and now kneels down so as not to hurt the sentiments of US armed forces.
To understand the significance of Kapernick’s protest, one needs to understand race relations in America, where segregation of races in public spaces was legal till as recently as 1964. The remnants of its racist past still haunt the so-called leader of the free world, and the fault lines show up every now and then, mostly through how minority communities are policed.
According to a US government statistic, 51.1 percent of 12,765 people shot dead by American police officers between 2008 and 2012 were Black Americans, who make up only 12.7 percent of the total population.
For a footballer of mixed background coming from the social fringes of American society and rising to the top of his field, Kaepernick may well have put everything on the line just to take on the “unfair” system.
His national anthem protest has even earned him the wrath of incoming US President Donald Trump, signalling tough times ahead for the football star.
4. Ginella Massa, 29
Toronto-based Massa became Canada’s first hijab wearing news anchor in November. The feat was significant as it came amid a heated global public debate between the right and left over the role of non-White immigration in Western societies.
As the developed countries around the world from America to Australia grappled with a rising tide of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric, here was another advanced democracy where a Muslim woman with a hijab was allowed to go on air. With the debate over face veil-ban raging across Europe and the election of Donald Trump next door in the US, both Canada and Massa sent a strong message of unity and reconciliation.
“It’s pretty exciting to be recognized as the first,” Massa reportedly said.
According to Yahoo, she also said,“But it’s also unfortunate that it has taken this long in a country as diverse as Canada.”
5. Mayank Kachhwaha,29
In a country where bank loans are in huge demand but can take weeks to disburse, Kachhwaha’s fin-tech start up Indialends facilitates connecting customers with banks and other financial institutions.
Indialends is a credit underwriting and analytics platform for unsecured consumer lending. It connect borrowers with the right financial institutions, according to LinkedIn profile of Kachhwala.
The IIT-Madras alumnus’ online platform reportedly goes beyond the normal criteria like credit ratings in order to scrutinise loan applications, also taking into account the recent spending patterns of the customers.
Bad loan is a big problem in Indian banking, with the country’s state banks having reportedly written off loans worth Rs 1.14 lakh crore between 2013 and 2015, according to an estimate. At the same time, there is a huge market for unsecured loans in India with over 50 percent of its population under the age of 25.
Kachhwaha’s concept is revolutionary in Indian context as it helps vet prospective lenders in an objective manner. According to some commentators, laxing up of rules for the well-connected is how Indian banking got to this point in the first place.
However, how far can start ups like fintech go in cleaning up India’s banking system is anyone guess at this stage.
Kachhwaha is also featured in Forbes India magazine’s ’30 under 30′ list for 2016.
6. Raman Jit Singh Chima, 29
Chima, the global policy director at an advocacy group fighting for fair internet, is involved in lobbying the Indian government for ‘net neutrality’.
According to Forbes Magazine, his employer Access Now has played a key role in getting net neutrality legal protection in European Parliament. Chima is leading the charge in India, and hopes that the Indian government will pass a law similar to Europe.
Chima also features in Forbes ’30 under 30′ list.
7. Richa Chadda, 28
The swashbuckling Bollywood actress is known for being straight up, as much as she is known for her good looks.
Also featuring in the Forbes ’30 under 30′ list, the 28-year old actress raised eyebrows earlier this year when she revealed that she suffered from an eating disorder early in her career because she couldn’t match up to a certain standard of looks that Indian actresses are expected to have.
Chadda’s confession was met with outpouring of support from both within Bollywood and outside, also triggering a debate around misogyny believed to be prevalent in the Indian movie industry.
The actress shot to fame with her role in gangster drama movie ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ in 2013, and has gone on to feature in multiple high-budget films since.