Guwahati (Women’s Feature Service) — Every year, hundreds of young women and men from the eight states of the Northeast pack their bags and move to cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore in search of better education and employment opportunities. It’s not an easy decision for them but one that they are forced to take in order to escape the threat of conflict and overcome the frustration of unemployment that plagues their lives.
What they are seeking today is lasting change — one they believe will come as more and more young people like themselves take on the responsibility of questioning their political leaders and demanding transformative policies. Lanu, 24, from Sikkim, who has returned home after her graduation in Delhi, is well informed about the policies that have been formulated to boost economic growth in the region and would like to see some proactive steps being taken. She states, “There are funds earmarked for the development of the Northeast by the Centre, and yet things happen at a snail’s pace here. Government apathy mixed with corruption, especially at the state level, is responsible for this mess. There is a dire need to expedite infrastructure projects that usually tend to drag on for years.” Lanu hopes to start a business in her home town of Gangtok, capital of Sikkim, but she is not quite sure how it will take off considering the many administrative bottle-necks.
In the neighbouring state of Assam, Joutishman Dutta, a young entrepreneur, expresses his exasperation with the prevailing political climate. He strongly advocates some radical transformation, “perhaps on the lines of an Aam Aadmi Party”, in order for things to improve, “What we youngsters want are equal opportunities like everyone else in this country. We don’t want to be left behind. No one wants to leave their home for a petty job, but is there any choice for us? I believe that improvement in even basic infrastructure, like roads and power, will encourage industries to come in and that would mean more jobs.”
No one understands the devastating effects that lack of proper schooling and a suitable profession can have better than Jenpu, a Naga from Kohima. He has faced a double blow in life: not only did he drop out of high school, he also lost his brother to drug overdose. Yet, Jenpu managed “to bring his life back on track” by setting up Young Club, an NGO that reaches out to dropouts, drug and alcohol abusers, as well as children affected by HIV/AIDS. He says, “The political scenario in my state is dismal. The people who are in power are getting richer, while the rest of the population is battling serious hardships. With hardly any employment avenues, many Nagas leave their families and head to the bigger cities. Unfortunately, those who cannot succeed fall in the deadly trap of alcohol and drugs. If only our leaders were able to realise what their callous attitudes are doing to the future generations, many lives would be saved.”
Despite the fact that all the eight northeastern states — Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim — have been blessed with nature’s bounty, the region remains largely unexplored and untapped. Contributing further to the underdevelopment are the frequent economic blockades and conflict outbreaks that bring normal life to a standstill.
Sarah Phangchopi, who lives in the Karbi Anglong area of Assam, which is often in the news for violent clashes between different ethnic groups, speaks bitterly about the incompetence of the local administration to address the problem. “For me, conflict between communities is a major concern. But what is even more frustrating is that the administration does not do enough to get to the root cause of these endless episodes of violence and instead chooses to remain a mute spectator,” she laments.
According to Sarah, it’s been more than seven months since fighting broke out between the Rengma Naga and Karbi people in the area, and yet the local people continue to languish in relief camps. The state government did not intervene in time and it resulted in widespread arson and loss of life. “No one discusses these issues at the national level or in the Parliament. For development to take place, peace must prevail,” she emphasises.
Murchana Barkakati, 26, a clinical researcher in Guwahati, puts it this way, “Equilibrium and harmony between different sections of the society, whether tribal and non-tribal or diverse religious groups, is the need of the hour.”
Negotiations and ceasefires between various militant outfits, state governments and the Centre have been a constant feature for decades now, although examples of lasting solutions are few and far between. Only two successful instances come to mind — the Mizo insurgency that culminated with an accord in 1986, and the Bodo insurgency led by the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) that ended with the disbandment of the outfit in 2003. At present, one of the most publicised peace talks involving the banned United Liberation Force of Asom (ULFA) in Assam are in progress, although no resolution is in sight yet.
This apathetic and sluggish approach is no longer acceptable to the region’s young population. They too want a corruption-free, pro-youth and pro-development political order. Remarks Lienboi Haokip, who works for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Manipur, “For me, preserving the region’s environment is an issue that’s very important because it is a source of livelihood for many. I am optimistic that things will change in my state if the participation of youth in the political process increases.”
Going by the results of the recent assembly elections held in four states, the one trend that has emerged clearly is that participation of the youth can definitely change the tide of popular politics as well as the manner in which key issues are framed and prioritised. Attempting to channelize their energy and passion into creating that change is a national campaign, ‘My Space, My unManifesto’, that is working in 15 states to put together a crowd sourced youth manifesto for the coming 2014 general elections. In the northeastern states, Father Jerry of the Guwahati-based Bosco Institute is leading the initiative. He observes, “On the basis of a study we conducted recently, I can say that while youngsters here placed high value on politics being able to bring about change, they shy away from active political involvement.” He adds that while “agitations by different groups see a lot of young people joining in, they are mostly told what to do”.
The idea of the unManifesto campaign is “not just to encourage them to think on issues that concern their area and their people but also take ownership of larger regional and national challenges” so that they can mark their presence across the country. “Politicians are not demi gods who are unreachable. That image has to be broken. As responsible citizens, young voters have to raise questions related to policies being made for them; they have to realise that they have a voice that can impact the decisions the leaders take,” he asserts.
Violence forced Jenpu’s mother to close down her small fast food joint and his brother succumbed to the pressures of unemployment. But if Lanu, Murchana, Sarah, Joutishman and others have their way, then good governance would mean adequate allocation of resources to create employment opportunities and bring an end to conflict in the region.