HIS IS one of the small black-and-yellow taxis that dot the hilly streets of Kohima. Hanging around the front mirror is a small banner. “Liverpool Football Club”, it reads. In school, he had dreamt of playing professionally abroad. On the top right of the windscreen, there is another sticker that says “Nagaland University”. A computer engineer, Richmond Ao had hoped to become a software programmer. But try as he might, the 27-year-old could not find a job. And thus, his source of income is now his slightly creaky Maruti Alto.But Richmond will vote. “Because I need to vote for the best, cleanest candidate there is, who will not be corrupt, and will find our young people work. My time has come and gone, but my brother is in college, and I do not want the same for him,” he said. It is perhaps the youth of Nagaland who have paid the highest price for years of insurgency and political instability that have wracked the state. Now with elections in less than three weeks, they are the ones who want change most urgently.
In October 2016, representatives of the state government admitted that there are over 70,000 educated, unemployed youth listed in the ‘Life Register’ — as the employment register of the state Department of Labour and Employment is called. A complete lack of investment has left students across Nagaland completely reliant on the government for jobs. And when those run out, very few options remain.
Hekani Jakhalu was less than 30 years old, had studied at the Faculty of Law in Delhi, completed a Master’s from San Francisco, and had just been made partner at a law firm in New Delhi. It was the year 2006 and the “retail industry was booming”. “There were malls and shopping complexes cropping up everywhere and I could see young boys and girls from Nagaland, from the Northeast, working in cafes and restaurants. What worried me is that most of them had come straight from Nagaland, where the culture is very different and they might have had to face difficulties. But what worried me the most is that none of them had travelled out of choice. They had moved out of compulsion,” she said.
And thus, Jakhalu made her way back to Kohima where she began an NGO that works with the government to “empower Naga youth”. “The idea was to have a very broad platform that would allow any youth to do achieve what he or she wants. To speak for the youth, and to fight for opportunities and jobs that they must have. For, that is what is needed the most in Nagaland,” she said.
In 12 years, Youthnet, the organisation Jakhalu founded, has 30 employees divided into the departments of Skill Training, Job Placement, Entrepreneurship and Active Citizenship, and claims to have benefited at least 23,500 people. While that explains why 27-year-old Kikali Yeptho says she wants to work with Youthnet, it also tells a story of a lack of other such employment generators in the state. Kikali is an MBA in finance from Sikkim Manipal University, and yet, has struggled to find work. There have been battles to fight at home – while Kikali has always wanted a private sector job, her parents want her to get into the civil services.
“So many of my contemporaries have just been giving one competitive exam after another, simply because there is no other option in Nagaland. Even till the age of 35, which is the limit for the Nagaland Public Service Commission, people keep giving examinations. It is hard to convince my parents because the only stable job they have seen is with the government. It isn’t really their fault,” she said.
Many believe the crux of the problem lies in the state’s political instability, which explains why student bodies and civil society groups joined the call for “Solution Before Elections”.
Almost every major political party had signed a declaration demanding that the framework agreement between New Delhi and the NSCN(IM), which was announced with much fanfare in August 2015, be taken forward and elections be stalled till a “final solution” is reached. By February 7, however, after days of uncertainty, one by one political parties broke ranks and filed their nominations.
“The government of Nagaland, and all of us here at Youthnet, constantly call people and tell them to invest in Nagaland because what we need is big investment to generate employment. But they all point to security,” Jakhalu said.
The year 1997 might have brought a ceasefire, but to this day, underground ‘governments’ with their own departments function in Nagaland. Each has its own system of taxation. “The parallel governments deduct taxes from source. Even salaries ate taxed both by the underground and the Indian government. An investor wants protection from this, because he can never operate in such an environment. Where then will the jobs come from? A solution isn’t just a political battle, it’s an economic necessity for our youth,” said a person involved in the education sector.
Banner Chawang (25) is both a computer engineer and an MBA from the School of Management Studies in Nagaland University, but is “still looking for a good job”. Chawang, like many others in Nagaland, is proud of his Naga identity, and has never considered leaving. “If I could meet the next Chief Minister for five minutes, I would tell him to build clean institutions so work gets done and then jobs and everything else will follow,” he said.
Asked for an example, Chawang points in the direction of the Dimapur-Kohima highway, a road that connects the state’s biggest cities. There are more potholes than tar and a journey of 75 km takes over three back-breaking hours. “If the main road is like this, can you imagine what it’s like everywhere else? Everything, even our future, comes through a road,” he said.
It’s 3.30 in the afternoon, and while the Kohima college has emptied, six students stand and chat at a small grocery store near the gate. A time when they too will seek jobs is fast approaching and there is urgency in their voice as they talk of “the solution”, NSCN(IM), Naga identity, and the elections in three weeks. But there is also a sense of hope, even pride. One of them said, “Look around you. Nagaland is beautiful. It’s people are warm, honest and respectful. There is very little crime against women, and the streets are safe any time of the night. And there is talent that is waiting to reveal itself. All we need is a chance.”