One late night, my messenger beeped. I checked lazily. Since it is lockdown I thought it wouldn’t be something important that would require much attention. When I saw it was from a young entrepreneur from Nagaland I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t expect her, at this time and situation. We were friends, ever since I did a story on her journey of entrepreneurship. Just less than a year-old small scale business in Dimapur. After exchanging pleasantries, I casually asked “any interesting stories?’ she replied “I am more worried about the economy than the disease” she said, “especially for beginners like me”. I pondered for a while, thinking about the future. I answered, “yes, for people like us freelancers too, it is going to be a hard time”.
We didn’t say much to each other. We did not chat for long. She was anxious and so am I. Several national and regional media and publication houses have terminated employment and effected salary cuts. Media jobs are the barometer of how good or bad the economy is, but beyond this little world also reality stares us in the face.
The pandemic has adversely affected the organized sector, but those in the unorganized sector are the worst hit. As the lockdown continues, all of us have seen and heard tragic stories from across India of daily wage earners or “migrant workers” walking hundreds of miles to reach their home towns and villages.
Thousands of such “migrant workers” mainly holding blue collar jobs in cities, and students are also returning to their home states in the Northeast. The majority of them are employed in the private sector, hospitality or tourism and business process outsourcing. The key sectors that are worst affected by the pandemic. Some have lost jobs in business processing while others are out in the cold as hotels and restaurants remain shut. Unfortunately for these young people from the northeastern states, the hotel and tourism industry is likely to be the last one to be back in business.
Like we are hearing of reports from UP and Bihar in states like Assam also, many of these “returnees” no longer desire to return to their workplaces in the big cities. How does that augur for these home states in terms of creation of employment as they deal with this demographic windfall?
Age group between 15- 29 constitute 27.5% of India’s population ( 2011 census) . Of the total population of age between 15-35 years, the Northeast region share 4 per cent. The region also has higher proportion of youth unemployment in the same age group compared to all India level.
Unemployment has always been the Achilles Heel for the conflict-ridden northeastern states. That is the reason why such large number of people left for the cities in the first place, because absorption capacities here are limited.
There is expectation that investments will be diverted to the northeast region as infrastructure projects see the light of the day. The Bogibeel and the Dhola-Sadiya bridge that impact development in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are a case in point. Widening of National Highway 39 or Asian Highway-1 that connects Assam to Moreh (Manipur) on the Indo-Myanmar border is another illustration of improving infrastructure. Then what?
Just ideas and words will not be enough anymore. Public leaders in Delhi and here, business people and intellectuals will have to suggest credible and doable solutions. And fast because once the lockdown opens, it is not just coronavirus that we will be dealing with – we will have to deal with lost livelihoods at home.
A new normal is being brought by the pandemic and the ripple effects of this post-COVID situation could change for the better livelihoods in the northeast region if dealt with sensibly and urgently. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his public address on May 12 mentioned, India has to reap its demographic dividend. That is even truer for the northeastern region.
For one, reverse migration may sort out a big problem: a skilled work force of which there is a shortage here. Those working in the metros are not only skilled, but also experienced. Northeast has a large population of youth, skilled and educated with technical knowledge. These people are now returning home. These sections of the society can fully be utilized into a massive economic regeneration. Possibly the region is seeing a reverse of the “brain drain”.
Modi announced a whopping Rs20 lakh crore economic package for the country. One needs to have a quantitative estimate how of this is going to be available to the northeastern states in general and for creation of job opportunities in particular.
The onus is on our leaders who should invite big corporates to make real investments and bring employment to the people: instead of people going to employment in big cities. Delhi would do well to dismiss status quo and think out of the box while local leaders need to go on an investment-hunting spree.
The next two years would be crucial. This year, governments in the region can coordinate and synergize efforts to improve infrastructure necessary to business. Relations among states can be based on mutual benefits. One can see a mosaic of northeastern people – not based on their statehood – in many industry sectors. In short, employment is not dependent on state boundaries.
Uninterrupted power supply and digital highways even in a few zones could attract businesses in this unpolluted biodiversity hotspot. These zones could straddle state boundaries. How much does an idea cost? New ideas like the transition from BPOs to data collation for AI Networks can be exploited and local human resources be utilized. COVID19 is changing the world, the Northeast should not miss the opportunity.
Independent journalist and commentator