Inevitable drudgeries of Nagaland’s unorganised labour sector (Part-2)
Dimapur, Aug. 6 (EMN): ‘Business is good, business is bad—it depends on how much you are willing to put in,’ Parmeshwar Das explained as he placed a plate of ‘roti’ and fried curry on the table. He wouldn’t talk much about issues such as, for instance welfare schemes, amenities, or the myriad “tax” he—and thousands of businesses and private individuals across Nagaland—has to pay to myriad insurgent groups.
Das is a 60-something-year old smiling, wizened, and rounded man from Bihar. Sporting an Obelix-like grey moustache that pops whenever he smiles, he doesn’t speak much but smiles a lot—apparently one of the secrets for his success as the owner of a small ‘chai’ shop he runs at Signal Basti, one of Dimapur town’s busiest trading colonies.
Short statured with a prosperous shock of grey hair, he has seen Nagaland at its worst as he has at its best. He speaks a mixture of “Nagamese,” which is a coarse local Creole that encapsulates the basics of Hindi and improvised Naga versions of Hindi—with a touch of English where the vocabulary fails.
‘I came to Nagaland in 1982, right after marriage,’ he explained in skittish Nagamese. ‘I have five children. One is in Delhi and others are in Bihar.’ All his children were born and brought up in Nagaland, he said.
Das’ small ‘chai’ shop also doubles up as a dinner kiosk in the evening for daily wage earners, and rickshaw pullers. The sexagenarian has been living in Nagaland for more than 30 years now running the tea shop. So far, he has no complaints that he came to this Northeast state leaving Bihar behind.
‘There is work everywhere in every land and country. If you know what to do and keep at it, there is always work,’ Das said as he busied around sifting potatoes to fry. According to him, there is a ‘lot’ of people from communities of Bengal and Bihar who have found work in the state.
Will it be somewhere around 5,000? ‘More than that,’ he replied. Then 10,000? ‘No, much more than that,’ he declared.
Even government agencies in Nagaland do not have data about how many people from other states, especially those working in the unorganised sector, there are in the state. However, a widely accepted agreement is that the informal sector is made up of a large majority of people from outside Nagaland.
According to a July 15 2019 report in the Business Today, the lack of reliable statistics about the size, distribution or contribution to the economy from the unorganised sector is contributing to making it a ‘poorly understood and a grossly neglected area.’
According to the report, the Economic Survey of 2018-19, which was released on July 4 2019, says “almost 93%” of the total workforce is ‘informal’. However, the Niti Aayog’s Strategy for New India released in November 2018 says that “by some estimates, India’s informal sector employs approximately 85% of all workers.” Business Today also expressed doubt about the source of some of the information.
Officials from the Nagaland Home department and administrative establishments in Kohima were contacted with a request for data, if any, concerning the unorganised sector and its workforce. A reply from them was being awaited at the time this report was being written.
As reported in Eastern Mirror’s previous reports in this story series, neither the Labour establishments nor administrations of trade hub Dimapur city, and Nagaland’s capital, Kohima district, have verifiable data about the number of labourers and workers in the state’s unorganised sector.
Ranjit Kumar Mandal is an auto rickshaw driver by profession. He speaks immaculate Nagamese. According to him, there are upwards to ‘lakhs’ of people who have migrated to the state from Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, ‘Oriya,’ and even Tamil Nadu. Also, the state has a perceptibly considerable population of academic tutors and teachers from Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
‘The government won’t know (about how many people from other states live in Nagaland). Only we will know because they are from our community. Even among the auto rickshaw drivers (In Dimapur), there must be at least 2, 000 people from my state,’ Mandal said.
But there is much more, he says: ‘If we take into account labourers and daily wage earners from other states in Nagaland, there will be ‘lakhs.’ Even in Dimapur, there are labourers working in warehouses, fields; there are vegetable sellers, and even cowherds in the villages.’
Mandal pegged the number at around 10, 000 people from other states who live in Dimapur alone. ‘Easily, there will be more people from Bengal though,’ he added. ‘Altogether there will be lakhs of people from (mainland) India.’
According to the motor vehicles department of the state’s government, there are more than 17, 000 registered auto rickshaws in Nagaland. However, a large majority of it will be in Dimapur—the small yellow-and-black vehicle can travel only on level roads and plain areas. Dimapur, bordering Assam, is the only “plain” district of the state’s 12 administrative units. While there are a few auto rickshaws in proper urban centres of Wokha district, the vehicle is generally synonymous with Dimapur.
Besides auto rickshaws, there are other public transport services and commercial carriers, majority of which are driven by non-indigenous persons. The transport department lists the registered commercial vehicles (as on March 31, 2015): 56, 950 trucks and lorries and 17, 065 auto rickshaws.
According to Mandal, the number of labourers and daily wage earners from other states will be much higher if only there were population surveys and workforce assessments in the villages.
There are manual labourers and “adivasi” (Tribal, but in the sense of people whose cultural demographic fits mainland Indian communities) from far-flung states, even from as far as Tamil Nadu, eking out their livelihood here. They include casual agriculture workers and cattle tenders in villages across the state working as daily wage earners.
Home away from home
‘I have been living in Nagaland for more than a decade now,’ the father of three explained. Queried about the reason why he chose to leave his home state to work and live here, the auto rickshaw driver minced no words: ‘In Bihar, if you want to find work, you will find only in seasons (monsoon) And even if you find work, it won’t fulfil your needs because of the high cost of living.’
What one person earns in a day there does not meet expenses for food supplies and even daily vegetable requirements, he said.
‘It is difficult because once the (agriculture) season is gone for the year,’ he said, ‘there is no more work for people especially those in the rural areas.’
The auto rickshaw driver believes that the north-eastern state offers some respite from the daily economic tensions that come with making a living and tending to a family.
‘But in Nagaland, somehow what you earn here meets your daily expenses. Here, even if there is some struggle, you can somehow make ends meet,’ he said.
‘Maybe one day I’ll return to Bihar. But for now, I will stay here and take care of my family.’
This article is written by Al Ngullie. It is one of a series of reports published in Eastern Mirror as part of the National Foundation of India Fellowship, New Delhi.