Up a narrow set of stairs, past an Italian restaurant and a shop that stitches wedding gowns, the two-roomed Nagaland Job Centre has a steady stream of visitors on any given day — stylish young girls who want to work in beauty parlours and banks, boys in leather jackets who dream of manning the reception at a five-star hotel.
“They walk right in and say ‘Help us. We need a job’,” says 29-year-old Supeno Kikon, who sits at the front desk of the Centre, located in the heart of Kohima.
Four years back Kikon, who hails from Yimpang, a village nine hours away from the Nagaland capital, was one of them. She, too, had walked right in. Consultations ensued and training workshops followed and the shy Kikon learned a thing or two about ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘customer relations’.
Over the years, the Northeastern state of Nagaland has become infamous for its damning unemployment rates (according to records, the highest in India), traced back to a long-running insurgency which seeks to establish sovereignty. While peace talks are on with the government for a resolution, the state still lives in the shadow of its bloody history with educated youths failing to convert their degrees into gainful employment.
While in a year Kikon landed a job at the Centre itself, there are thousands of others who fail to change their fortunes. “There are no jobs in Nagaland,” says Honkai, who rides a two-wheeler taxi. The 25-year-old, who wished for a government job, failed three attempts to clear the qualifying exams.
Last year, Honkai walked into the office of Youthnet, a “youth empowerment” organisation formed in 2006. Like Kikon, he too, underwent numerous consultations and training before engaging himself in the bike taxi business.
Over the last decade, Youthnet has touched thousands of lives and their office in Kohima is replete with such tales — of the villager who started his own bakery, of the school-dropout who is the head chef of an Italian restaurant in Dimapur, of the art graduate who rides his two-wheeler ferrying people across hilly Kohima roads.
It all goes back to a Delhi evening when Hekani Jakhalu, a young Naga girl, fresh out of law school in the US and recently named a partner in a law firm in the Capital, decided to do a survey.
BRIDGING THE GAP
In the summer of 2005, Jakhalu would notice young Northeastern boys and girls in shops across Delhi. “It disturbed me. I would wonder: did they want to be here? Were their jobs safe? Were they safe?” recalls the 40-year-old Jakhalu.
It bothered her so much that Jakhalu gathered together a few volunteers and embarked on an ambitious survey to find out. “We divided Delhi into zones and went from shop to shop, meeting people,” she says.
Jakhalu and her team discovered that most boys and girls had moved to Delhi, not out of will, but out of compulsion. “There were no jobs back home and here in Delhi, they were like headless chickens in the big city. There was no job security, rampant racial discrimination and even cases of sexual harassment,” says Jakhalu, who then decided to move back to Kohima.
On February 1, 2006, she founded Youthnet, along with a group of young Naga professionals, all in their twenties and thirties.
The Nagaland she came back to was very different from what it is today. “All shops would close by 4pm, there was military on the roads, and fear in the minds of people,” she says.
The first step Youthnet took was a survey: the team travelled across 11 districts of the state to “understand what was going on in the minds of the youth.”
“We found that there was sense of resignation. ‘But this is Nagaland’ they would say. The only reality they knew where jobs were few, and futures were bleak,” says Jakhalu. Apart from school drop outs, the survey also brought to light the plight of many educated youngsters who had failed to find a job.
According to the “life register” or the employment register of the state’s Department of Labour and Employment, there are 74,283 educated but unemployed youth in Nagaland as of May 2019.
“It is because a government job is seen to be the only credible means of livelihood in Nagaland,” explains Jakhalu. With barely any private investors in the state — dissuaded by a “taxation” system levied by the “underground” (an euphemism for the multiple insurgent groups in the state) — government jobs become the only hope for many students.
“And that’s where Youthnet comes in,” says Lezo Putsure, the director of the organisation. Putsure’s family, too, had moved away during the more troubled years and while he went on to study abroad, the 39-year-old returned in 2010. “We want to ensure the youngsters that there is an alternative,” he says.
And they have. Before launching the Nagaland Job Centre — a placement cell that has helped people find employment as chefs, drivers, accountants and receptionists — the team was publishing a weekly tabloid-sized newspaper, “Youthnet Opportunity Express”, of job listings. Though that did not take off, the team carried on. In 2012, they created the Nagaland Career and Development Centre — a space where young people could come and learn soft skills.
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Over the years, Youthnet has visited schools and colleges, holding “edu-fairs” and placement drives, and even fellowships across the Northeast. “How do you tackle job interviews? In a place like Nagaland, how do you even figure out what to do? Once you pass out of college, all you actually have is a piece of paper. That is when youngsters need the most guidance,” says Jakhalu.
For many programmes, the state government has tied up with Youthnet. “When government does it independently, there is a trust deficit. Youthnet has become a buffer between the young people and the government,” says Kevi Leno Angami of the Planning Department, “It works so well because the Youthnet members are young people themselves.”
The Naga insurgency, often referred to as the “mother of all insurgencies” in the Northeast, is a problem that dates back to 1947. While the fight for independence is a cause that has the sympathies of most Nagas, years of militarisation of the state has resulted in a society inured to news of deaths, bandhs and curfews, and poor development indices.
While today, youngsters have it much better, the repercussions are still felt. “It is peaceful now. While in some remoter districts, the situation is yet to improve, I personally have not been affected,” says 23-year-old Alfred Kath.
Kath’s worries are more mainstream. He talks of pathetic road conditions through Nagaland, where sometimes it takes one hour to traverse just 5 km. And jobs.
“Even today, our parents want us to get government jobs. But not everyone is cut out to be an officer,” he says. On a Thursday afternoon, at the Youthnet office in Kohima, Kath and a group of college graduates are making posters, as part of a training workshop activity. Four out of five want to join the hotel industry. One wants to start her own business.
Exactly the kind of dreams Youthnet wants to nurture. “We want to tell these kids that being an entrepreneur is okay. That it is not a last resort but a viable career choice,” says Putsure.
To that end, the organisation has come up with Made In Nagaland, a platform and a physical space for young Naga youths to showcase their entrepreneurial skills — from homemade jams to dolls to clothes to pickles to books.
“Things are changing now. A lot of young people are coming out of their shells and exploring creative things. Thanks to Youthnet, I have realised that being an entrepreneur is actually cool,” says Kath, who first came across the organisation on Instagram.
On it, he read about the horticulture graduate who sells tea and the butcher who has an MBA degree. “These are the only kind of stories you will find on Youthnet’s social media handles. Otherwise, there is just too much negativity in — and about — Nagaland. We want to change that,” says Jakhalu.
Fittingly the chief hashtag they use in all their posts is #PositiveNagaland.