Strategies for protecting interests of Northeast returnees after the lockdown
The current coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has led thousands of youth, mostly migrant workers from the Northeast region, to return home facing uncertainties regarding their future in terms of jobs and careers, and their livelihood. Hence, there is a need to engage with them and explore some strategic paths to address this issue and find some directions. For this article, information from 20 returnees from the eight states of the region has been gathered through digital communication. The returnees include those who were working in hotel industry, restaurants, food courts, retails, malls and business processing outsourcing (BPO) firms. This article looks at the challenges faced by these returnees and comes up with some concrete observations and recommendations regarding their possible livelihood activities for the government, including the state governments of the respective Northeast states, for the general public and for non-governmental organisations.
Northeast India is generally considered remote and faraway from the rest of the country mainly due to its geographical location, poor connectivity and different cultural practices. It needs seriousness or genuine effort for one to understand the eight states of the region, diverse with multiple religions, dialects and tribes, each with its distinctive culture and history. Each of the eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura – has its own key attractions with rich cultural heritage, distinct languages and customs, music and dances, folklores, festivals, sports, natural beauty, natural resources, wildlife, handicrafts and handloom. The region is also strategically located, having international borders with Bhutan, China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal. The Northeast region is very important for the country in order to connect with its neighbouring countries with whom India has trade and bilateral relations.
(The author of this article is also running a blog with additional information that can be found here: https://alanagolmei.wordpress.com/about/)
Returnees’ prior engagement
The proportion of people from Northeast seeking jobs in metro cities of India has increased tremendously over the last 10 years. This is due to lack of employment opportunities and unrest and conflicts in the region, which are political and ethnic in nature. The youth from the Northeast states who move to metro cities for better career, living and job opportunities have often been facing with many challenges for years. However, the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the sudden lockdown to contain the virus called severe acute respiratory coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has come as a big blow making them more vulnerable and throwing them into dire situations.
(See a video recording of the author, explaining the situation of people from Northeast in metro cities via this link:
Some of the youth have good educational backgrounds and are armed with degrees and professional courses. They have joined hotel industries or private companies by choice. Most of them, however, do not have proper education and, therefore, no option but to look for any job that they can get.
Such details were gathered by interviewing the 20 returnees. The details are provided in the table below:
|Name||Sex & Age||Native State||Place of Migration||Y/M of Stay||Date of Leaving Place of Migration|
|Sunny Tayeng||F (29)||Arunachal Pradesh||Delhi||7 years||20 May 2020|
|Pooja Tamang||F (29)||Arunachal Pradesh||Hyderabad||4 years||16 May 2020|
|Sujuk Chakma||M (20)||Arunachal Pradesh||Gurugram||5 months||21 May 2020|
|Suratjoy Daolaguphu||M (20)||Assam||Hyderabad||5 months||21 May 2020|
|Pranjal Pegu||M (31)||Assam||Delhi||5 years||27 May 2020|
|Shanat Kai||M (29)||Assam||Delhi||2 years||22 May 2020|
|Gairiaksin||M (27)||Manipur||Chennai||1 year||10 May 2020|
|Wangkheimayum Devlaxmi alias Panthoi||F (33)||Manipur||UAE
(Returned via Kolkata)
|3 years||9 June 2020|
|Thomas Chapao||M (27)||Manipur||Chennai||4 years||10 May 2020|
|Sweetie Angkang||F (26)||Manipur||Delhi||10 years||23 May 2020|
|Malsawmtluangi Ralte (Mimi)||F (26)||Mizoram||Goa||3 years||28 May 2020|
|C. Lalnunsanga||M (27)||Mizoram||Bengaluru||2 years||25 May 2020|
|Nangsan||M (29)||Meghalaya||Delhi||1 year||20 May 2020|
|Norbert Sunn||M (28)||Meghalaya||Chennai||4 years||13 May 2020|
|Sofia||F (21)||Nagaland||Delhi||3 years||13 May 2020|
|Roko||M (29)||Nagaland||Delhi||8 years||27 May 2020|
|M (26)||Sikkim||Mumbai||1 year||29 April 2020|
|F (25)||Sikkim||Jalandhar||4 years||22 May 2020|
|F (32)||Tripura||Bengaluru||1 year||19 May 2020|
|F (20)||Tripura||Bengaluru||1 year||19 May 2020|
|Total = 20 returnees|
Source: Alana Golmei, 2020
Note: Real names of returnees are used in this article with their permissions
Pooja Tamang left home in 2015 after completing her graduation and had been working in Hyderabad for the last 5 years in the hospitality sector at a high-end hotel. She did not face many problems during the lockdown as the company provided food and accommodation. Though she did not receive her salary for a month, she was able to manage from her savings since she did not have to send her earnings home. Her family owns a few local stores in Arunachal Pradesh, which is sufficient for their survival. Pooja is one of those privileged few amongst the Northeast people working in metro cities. According to her, 95 per cent of her friends from other Northeast states, mostly from Manipur and Mizoram, are sending money home, supporting their families or parents. Pooja said that some people returning home in the same train with her were planning to go back to cities if things got better. Most of them were working as private security guards to support their families.
A returnee like Suratjoy Daolaguphu from Dima Hasao in Assam had to face more challenges. As a person who has studied up to Class 10, he was working in a restaurant in Hyderabad but lost his job after the closure of restaurants due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. He returned home by a Shramik special train, a transport facility provided by the government exclusively for migrant returnees. For livelihood, his family is into jhum cultivation. (Jhum or shifting cultivation is a farming practice in hilly areas that involves clearing a piece of forest land to grow crops. When the patch loses fertility after some time, the farmer shifts to another cleared patch to allow the used patch regain fertility naturally.) Besides, his father works as a forest guard. The lockdown left Suratjoy with no money to buy food and pay his rent in Hyderabad. He faced lots of issues even after returning to Assam, as his father had not received his salary for around nine months and he had no one else to fall back on during such a difficult situation.
Returnees to Tripura, Annu Pati and Shakti Rani, who have studied up to Class 9 and Class 10 respectively, narrated similar stories. Both of them are from the indigenous community in Udaipur and Maharani in Tripura. As their parents have no income, the girls are the sole bread earners in their respective families. They were working in restaurants in Bengaluru before the lockdown. With the pandemic, they lost their jobs and returned home.
A returnee like Sweetie Angkang from Manipur went to Delhi in 2010 at a young age of 16. She has studied up to only Class 10 but taken up the responsibility to take care of her big family back home. It was a bigger challenge for a young girl like her to work in a metropolitan city in order to even be able to support herself. Before the lockdown, she was working in a restaurant near the airport in Delhi but decided to return home when she did not receive her salary after a time. Another main reason for her decision to leave Delhi was her own safety. Many Northeast people are often targeted in cities outside the Northeast. They are being labelled to be carriers of the virus because of their Mongoloid features since the virus was believed to spread from Wuhan in China. Being a young woman without any support system in a city like Delhi, Sweetie would have no one to take care of her if anything happened to her. So the best option for her was to go home.
Norbert Sunn from Meghalaya joined the hotel industry in 2016 after completing his diploma in hospitality from Kolkata with the help of government sponsored training. Nobert has a big family and he supports his parents and siblings. However, he lost his job along with 500 other staff at Hyatt Hotel in Chennai after the pandemic. He has returned home now but is more worried about finding a job again to be able to continue to support his family.
Thamchay Doma Pulger, another young woman who returned to Sikkim, also shared her difficult experience during the lockdown. She did a course in tourism and hospitality at Lovely Professional University in Punjab and had been working for about one and a half years at a reputed hotel in Jalandhar. Although she did not face financial problems, yet she felt insecure due to her Mongoloid features. Thamchay was staying with a friend in a rented flat, which was about 15 minutes away from the hotel. She says that during the pandemic she took a bus or cab to the hotel, but people avoided sitting next to her and local people teased her saying “coronavirus aagaya” (the coronavirus has come). However, Thamchay says, instead of protesting she tried to inform and educate them about Northeast India’s people and culture. She came across two kinds of people; some were actually ignorant but some others did it deliberately to assert their racial supremacy. She became so insecure that she just wanted to return home.
Most of the Northeast youth expressed similar views on loss of jobs mixed with racial discriminations and cited it as one of the reasons for their return home.
Livelihood possibilities of the returnees at home
Most of the returnees have not many options in their home states when it comes to finding suitable jobs, making careers or even to plan or start their own ventures. Nothing seems to be available in the region. The present situation is also quite uncertain as all the states are battling to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2. This is quite a setback for the returnees.
For Malsawmtluangi Ralte (Mimi), who had been working in a casino in Goa for the last three years and had returned to Mizoram since the pandemic, it appears that there are hardly any good chances of earning at home. She plans to go back to Goa once the situation gets better. As of now, she wants to join a beautician training course for three months, which is being implemented under a government’s scheme in Mizoram. But she feels that even if she completes this training, chances to earn well are slim as there will be lesser clients as compared to metro cities.
Pooja from Arunachal Pradesh, Thamchay from Sikkim and Panthoi from Manipur have not yet decided what they would do back home. After completing their degrees and professional courses, they had joined the hotel industry and were doing quite well but it all ended abruptly due to the pandemic crisis. All of them seem to share same thoughts that there are hardly any suitable jobs in their area of expertise. Therefore, once the pandemic is over, they would prefer to go back to metropolitan cities or abroad to pursue their career further as well as find more stable and higher paid jobs.
Sujuk Chakma from Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh was still on the lookout for a job in Gurugram in Haryana when the pandemic happened. He was forced to return but plans to go back to a metropolitan city to make a career in the aviation sector. His family is native of Arunachal Pradesh and he was born and brought up there, But Chakma people face challenges in their home state as they do not have reservation for state government jobs. So they have to opt for government services available at the all India level.
Some youth are looking for other alternatives. Roko from Nagaland is a professional mixed martial art (MMA), boxing, physical fitness and Cross Fit trainer. He ran his own training centre in New Delhi called Delhi Combat Academy. He returned home as all fitness centres were mandatorily closed during the lockdown. He tried offering trainings through online classes, but it did not receive good response. As opening of a gym at home in Nagaland will be difficult and not appropriate for the place and environment, he is now planning to start a piggery or poultry farm.
Thomas Chapao from Senapati district of Manipur, a commerce graduate, has returned from Chennai. He has been working since the past four years with a BPO company. After coming back to Manipur, he continues to work from home for the same company. Thomas’ parents are farmers and they are planning to expand their farm for commercial purposes. Thomas too looks forward to joining the family farm as an alternative career.
For some educated youth, working for the community too seems to be an alternative career option, at least till they stay at home. Shanat Kai, who returned from Delhi to Assam, was initially working as assistant manager in a technical design company in Gurugram but quit his job in 2018. Afterwards, he was into freelancing, mostly in the field of photography, videography and graphic designing. At the same time, he was preparing for competitive exams under the Union Public Service Commission. While continuing to work from home in Assam for his freelance works, he is also exploring alternative livelihood options. While being at home for two or three months or maybe till October, he plans to start teaching students from his village, especially those who are in high school, about designing as requested by the villagers. Besides, if he gets an opportunity, he is also looking forward to getting associated with Mising Autonomous Council if they need him for training sessions.
Sikkim’s Sanjay Gurung, who returned from Mumbai, has done his post-graduation in film direction. Since the lockdown in March 2020, Sanjay has started a non-profit called Pandemic Family Sikkim. He has started to engage in consultation and outreach. The organisation has a Facebook page and they are quite vocal in addressing the issue of migrant workers from Sikkim. Pandemic Family Sikkim is building networks and reaching out to those who have returned to the state. According to him, approximately there are 9,000 returnees who are now in Sikkim and for about 500 people Pandemic Family Sikkim is planning to start small-scale enterprises like carpentry and other livelihood activities. However, since they have not received support from the government so far, they are facing challenges in terms of funding. He says that those who are working in formal sector might return to cities once things are back to normal, whereas those supporting their families are trying to find jobs in Sikkim as they may not be able to return to metro cities since they do not have sufficient income.
Sunny Tayeng, a young lawyer who returned to Arunachal Pradesh thinks that the returnees may not be able to go back to their workplaces in metro cities this year. Nangsan, a paramedic and returnee to Meghalaya, agrees with her. Nangsan wants to find any job available in Meghalaya till he returns to Delhi. Sunny says she is yet to understand how the Arunachal Pradesh government is going to respond to the livelihood issues of the returnees at this current situation when it is investing all its available resources to tackle the pandemic situation. She points out that during the pandemic, there may be a lack of job opportunities in the metro cities but there is lack of such opportunities in Arunachal Pradesh even in normal time. The only place to search for employment opportunities is Itanagar, the capital of the state, which has a few hotels and malls.
Pranjal Pegu,a returnee to Assam, quit his job in Delhi for safety purposes. He was working as a senior designer in a home furnishing export company. He plans to return to the same company when the situation becomes workable. At the same time, he is also interested to stay back in his home state if the government or any organisation provides an opportunity for him to conduct some training on skill development and other relevant areas where he can engage with the community.
C. Lalnunsanga, returnee to Mizoram from Bengaluru, has experience in running a café and wants to start his own venture, Waffle Factory, in the home state in future by taking some loans. He says that 2020 is not suitable as everything is uncertain and he plans on coming out with the venture next year. Presently, he is working in a beverage (lassi) factory for experience. He has no plans of going back to the city immediately.
Based on the conversations with the returnees from the eight states of Northeast India, the following observations are being made on the challenges faced by them, especially with regards to their livelihood activities.
Economic condition and level of education
Most of the returnees are from low-income family background and rural areas without adequate formal education. These returnees fall into the category where parents cannot afford to send them for higher education. Besides, lack of guidance and information adds to their challenges. This is the main reason they ended up working in restaurants, food courts, retail chains, malls, spas, beauty parlours, security sector and sometimes in dubious call centres or companies in order to support themselves, their parents and siblings back home. It is also observed that some of them have agricultural land while some others are landless. At the same time, those who have returned from metropolitan cities will not be able to do farming straightaway as they have not thought of or planned to go back to agriculture or farming. Most of them do not have savings for emergency situations like this because whatever amount they earned was sent home to their families. They are in urgent need of jobs or earnings.
Lack of employment opportunities
Loss of job is the biggest anxiety for these youth, which have also affected them psychologically. Since there is hardly any option back home for their livelihood activities, most of them are planning to go back once things get better in cities or when business establishments start to reopen. Some prefer to stay back home only if there is better option like government jobs while few returnees have already decided not to go back to cities in spite of the challenges they face in exploring new areas and start things from the scratch.
For those who have completed formal education and also professional courses and trainings there are no opportunities to work in their home states even if they want to stay back. Some of these sectors include hotel industry, film industry, fashion designing and technology and BPO firms. Even some government sponsored trainings provided in a few sectors including hospitality, para-medical, beautician, fashion designing do not have placements in the region and so they have to work in metropolitan cities.
A good number of returnees are from hotel management and hospitality background. They completed formal trainings and worked in high-end hotels in metro cities and outside India. Most of the Northeast states do not have placements for these youth if they plan to continue in these sectors. This might necessitate them to shift their engagements if they have to stay back home.
Lack of trainings and guidance
This is another factor that serves as a barrier from gaining better knowledge and access to suitable placement or occupation. Though they have talent, lack of professional skills is a big setback to work in hotels, malls, customer care services. Some may have short trainings but mostly done just to give them certificates without learning the actual skills.
In view of the challenges faced by returnees to the Northeastern states due to the COVID-19 lockdown and with regards to their livelihood activities and the observations mentioned above, it is pertinent to make some recommendations to the concerned governments, organisations and general public, some of which are listed below.
To the central government
- Invest in educational infrastructure and employment opportunities with special focus on the Northeast region. Both the Union government and state governments must prioritise it with specific allocations of budget since lack of employment opportunities is the major push factor for the youth to move to metropolitan cities of India.
- Professionalise skill development and training programmes. Assess, evaluate and review all the existing skill development training programmes including start-ups provided by the government and enhance it into value-added skill development. Take strict verification and monitoring for private institutions or companies located in the metro cities, which are implementing these programmes. The Union labour and employment ministry should monitor it to ensure that the trainings provide value and quality.
- Encourage local entrepreneurship and self-employment, sustaining it with a proper roadmap developed in consultation with the local people so as to promote local produce and products.
- Initiate special recruitment drives for the people from Northeast in the Railway Police Force (RPF) where they are underrepresented. Such recruitments may be done in line with the Delhi Police model.
- Give special consideration to reservation for women. This will help reduce unemployment problem and also combat human trafficking. Many Northeast people are being trafficked to metro cities and increasing crimes on running trains impel the Railways for recruitment of more women from the Northeast. This will give the RPF a cosmopolitan outlook with staff from all over India including the Northeast, which is mostly unrepresented currently.
To the governments of Northeast states
- Partner with genuine placement agencies and ensure safety and security of the youth while employing them in metro cities. Take adequate measures while signing memorandums of understanding for the same.
- Impart different categories of trainings – short term, medium term and long term – based on the nature of jobs and educational background of the trainees with special opportunities being provided to those from low-income family background and rural areas. Learning from the pandemic situation, online classes could be a good way of imparting trainings/ education within the Northeastern states – without requiring travel/ accommodation and budget for attendance.
- Conduct all the trainings and recruitment in Northeast states even if placement is outside the state. This may start in a small scale in some of the Northeast states like Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.
- Set up or install Internet services to ensure that those in rural areas get easy access to online facilities for jobs and other related activities.
- Provide loans or micro grants to the youth, especially those from the low-income background, to start their own ventures.
To the general public and non-governmental bodies
- Exchange programmes within the Northeastern states. Promote and share the best practices and successful stories, and products based on local knowledge in different areas. Identify local partners whose expertise can be utilised for the same. Organise these exchange programmes also during state events or festivals like the Sangai festival in Manipur, Hornbill festival in Nagaland, and Bihu festival in Assam.
- Create awareness about the facilities that can be availed from government sponsored schemes via different media and regular workshops and orientations.
- Rope in IT based companies and BPO firms that can provide placements to work online so that these Northeast returnees do not have to move back to cities but can work from their respective places taking advantage of the available technology. Post COVID-19, the percentage of employees working from home is projected to increase tremendously in IT sector.
- Set up crisis centres in order to provide counselling to those who need psychological or emotional support since many youths are going through different kinds of pandemic-related stress and other mental health issues.
Disclaimer: This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
 Conference call with with Pooja Tamang and Sunny Tayeng on 13 May 2020
 Phone call with Suratjoy Daolaguphu on 23 June 2020
 Phone call with Annu Pati on 30 June 2020
 Phone call with Shakti Rani on 30 June 2020
 Conference call with Sweetie Angkang, Norbert Sunn, and Sofia Zeliang on 19 June 2020
 Phone call with Thamchay Doma Pulger on 25 June 2020
 Conference call with Malsawmtluangi Ralte(Mimi) and Zarzoliana Francis on12 June 2020. Francis is not a returnee but was a stranded in Rajasthan when he went to pick up some returnees from Mizoram
 Conference call with Wangkheimayum Devlaxmi alias Panthoi and Ningsan on 16 June 2020. Panthoi came back to India from UAE before the lockdown and was in Kolkata for sometime
 Phone call with Sujuk Chakma on 24 June 2020
 Phone call with Roko on 29 June 2020
 Phone call with Thomas Chapao on 18 June 2020
 Phone call with Shanat Kai on 29 June 2020
 Conference call with Sanjay Gurung and Mingma (she helped in translation from Nepali to English) on 22 June 2020
 Same as no. i
 Same as no. ix
 Phone call with Pranjal Pegu on 29 June 2020
 Phone call with C. Lalnunsanga on 26 July 2020