Labour reforms, unemployment, culture and the Nagaland vision
Dimapur, Aug. 7 (EMN): In having served the people of Nagaland in various high profile assignments for more than a decade, Abhishek Singh is a well-known face and name in the hill state. From his stint as Mokokchung district’s deputy commissioner to principal secretary to Nagaland’s chief minister, besides being a secretary of the central government’s Agriculture Scientists Recruitment Board, Singh’s administrative acumen and policymaking inputs continue to find validation in the governance mechanics.
While originally from Uttar Pradesh, Singh’s association with the Nagas started in 1996 when he was assigned as a Indian Administrative Services officer (IAS) trainee. He has come to call Nagaland his home having seen the state at its best—from the trendsetting Naga Idol initiative in the early 2000s to putting in the big word for the ban on single-use plastic. He has also seen some of its worst too, including the administrative and political tensions that regularly jolted the hill state then.
Here, Abhishek Singh talks about what it means to be serving a state and people that fiercely guards its cultural heritage and indigenous capital. Likewise, he expresses affinity for the marginalised—labourers and daily wage earners in the unorganised sector—and what might be done through policymaking for their welfare. Similarly, he feels a need for intensive economic reforms, as much as he feels strongly about youth unemployment and for the land and community which he now calls home.
What was the situation in Nagaland and the image you had of it when you joined as an IAS trainee in 1996?
I first came to Nagaland in 1996, as an officer trainee of the Indian Administrative Service, when I was posted as assistant commissioner of Mokokchung. When I look back and reflect upon the 23 years gone by, I realise so much has changed, and life now is so much different than what it used to be.
Those were the difficult times specially the period just before signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in 1997. Law and order situation was bad: Dr LV Reddy, deputy commissioner of Kohima, being killed on 28th March 1995. Prior to that on 26th August 1994, Shri. Ved Prakash, superintendent of Mokokchung police was killed in Mokokchung.
Then there was the tragic incident of 27th December 1994 in which 11 people lost their lives in clashes between insurgents and 16 Maratha Light Infantry. This period was marked by frequent ambushes and clashes between NSCN and Indian Army and Assam Rifles as also clashes between various factions of the NSCN.
Obviously, my parents, family members and friends were very concerned and worried. I was even suggested by many well-wishers to get married to an IAS officer and get my cadre changed. But at that point of time, I was more interested in getting to see the place and then decide what I wanted to do.
The decision to join IAS and training at Mussoorie Academy was all about committing to working anywhere in the country for the people. I was fortunate to have extremely good bosses: My DC during training was Temjen Toy, the present chief secretary (of Nagaland). I had friends and colleagues like Sentiyanger, Amardeep Bhatia, and Dharmendra Prakash who made life easier.
Very soon, I started enjoying my posting, Mokokchung and life in general. Things have changed in the last 22 years, especially since the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in 1997. Gradually the clashes with the armed forces came down and thereafter the inter-factional clashes also reduced.
My tenure as DC Mokokchung was the most memorable of all my postings. Mokokchung was like true home to me and I got so much love and affection from people that I shall be forever grateful. There was not a single factional clash in my entire tenure. My team at Mokokchung District Art & Culture Council organised the Naga Idol music contest.
When we fast forward to the present day, we see a state with a youthful and aspiring population. Though today, we find many youths who have turned pessimistic and negative due to lack of sufficient job opportunities, poor infrastructure, nepotism, and corruption.
Many have entrepreneurial instincts and organisations like (capacity building NGOs) Entrepreneur Associates, YouthNet, People’s Channel and many others are making a name. The government has a great opportunity to supplement their efforts and transform the youth from being negative and cynical to change makers. The moment for doing so is right here and it needs to be done by building a coalition of people with positive mind set and willpower to make things happen.
You have been in charge of Personnel & Administrative Reforms. Are there any mechanisms for the government to actually vet out non-Indians who might have used fake documentations to secure positions?
The government does have a robust system of verification of antecedents for all appointments to ensure that only Indian citizens are eligible to apply for government jobs.
All those elected through regular selections systems – NPSC/departmental selection boards go through police verification which does a check of their address through the district administration and police.
Further, all details of government employees have been entered on the PMIS portal of Personnel & Administrative Reforms department and the same has been made available in public domain so that people of the state are also aware of who the government servants are and where they are deployed.
If there are any cases of suspicious appointments, the same can be brought to the notice of the government for necessary action. P& AR department had also decided to seed all PMIS data with Aadhaar numbers to weed out ghost employees, if any, as also tackle complaints of double appointments.
Do you see tangible variables that suggest non-Naga persons in leadership positions in policy making is now viewed more accommodativeness among the Naga people?
I do not know what non-Naga persons in leadership positions means, if the question is of IAS officers from outside Nagaland holding important positions, then I would like to clarify that IAS officers do not regional identities.
Once we are posted in a particular state cadre, we work for the people of the state and we owe our allegiance to the Constitution of India. Many IAS officers belonging to Nagaland state are serving with honour and dignity in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, and Karnataka etc. In all these States, they are known as IAS officers and the same is true of Nagaland. IAS, IPS and IFS officers posted in Nagaland with home States outside Nagaland are regarded as Naga as anyone else by the people of the state.
You have been assigned Urban Development before. Does it include welfare policies especially for non-Naga indigenous persons and people from other states? If yes, what are the schemes?
There are several schemes in Urban Development department for the welfare of people. The Smart City Project is being implemented in Kohima which will help improve urban infrastructure of Kohima – which will be for the benefit of all sections of people. The AMRUT scheme is being implemented in Kohima and Dimapur which also seeks to augment urban infrastructure and has no bias with regard to serving people: The footpaths, drains and drinking water is for all.
The PMAY Housing scheme is for all urban poor although the scheme guidelines do require people to own land which at times is a challenge for migrants as they are not entitled to own land in the state.
The Swachh Bharat Mission for providing toilets is for all sections of people. Then we have the Urban Livelihood project which provides various forms of assistance including loans to all urban poor. There is also a scheme for the urban homeless and the shelters being built there will be for use for all homeless people. Though we have very few homeless people in the state, most will be in Dimapur and especially poor migrants.
What do you feel about the unorganized labour and services sector in Nagaland and their socio-economic conditions?
There is a need to address this sector as most of the labourers—‘mutia majdoors,’ masons, plumbers, carpenters, rickshaw pullers, cobblers, vegetable vendors are poor migrants from Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and Assam who live in very pitiable and unhygienic conditions. They are here because these jobs exist and we do not have local youths willing to take up these jobs.
Unfortunately, the value of dignity of labour is all but lost in Naga society. Our youths are carving only for high paying, non-productive government jobs which has a very high economic cost on the government. Precious resources of the government are spent in paying salaries without any tangible output.
Further, many government jobs are given without following a fair recruitment procedures. So, those who get it do not value (the job) and fail to even attend to their work regularly. So, most of the available jobs in the services sector are taken by migrants who work 24×7 but do not even get basic amenities like housing, sanitation and healthcare etc.
There is a need for the society to seriously introspect on these issues and just thinking that regulatory mechanisms like Inner Line Permit will solve the problem of migration is not going to help. We need to shun the craze for government jobs and take up these so-called ‘lowly jobs’ if we want to limit migration of labour.
Have you ever felt the pressure to do a bit more, run the extra mile as you administrate a largely ethnic demographic?
I always feel that there is a lot to be done but not because of the reasons of ethnic demographics. Nagaland has been a late entrant to administrative systems and governance, unlike rest of India. Most of north India had the land administration and general administrations established first by the Mughals and then by the British. The land records, maps, rules, manuals and procedures are dated for several centuries. Unlike it, most of Nagaland had been un-administered. Even after coming under modern governance, there is a resistance to adopting modern practices for a desire to retain customary laws and practices.
However, this poses a problem as the population increases and pressure on land and resources also increase. Customary laws are not codified. It’s very difficult to arbitrate and adjudicate. We are already seeing disputes in most big villages where the village councils are no longer as revered as they used to be; there are conflicts in clans and Khels; non-survey of land is a big development bottleneck and more. It’s high time the society realises the need for reforms.
These issues are very sensitive and they are best proposed from within the state rather than being thrust upon by the government of India or by anyone who is not from the state.
According to you, what are the ways to ensure that the state’s ethnic integrity and cultural capital is preserved, while also being culturally accommodative?
The state has to realise the value that anyone adds to the society. We must realise that if we become too closed and parochial, we may miss out on the big opportunities. One of the first persons who came to the state and made the biggest impact on our people and society was Father Clarke way back in 1872. We welcomed him and we were blessed by the word of the Lord through him.
Times today are different. The state is in need of investments. We need jobs for our youths. We hardly have any industry. The best place for our youth to get education, healthcare and jobs is mainland India. Our country is one of the fastest growing economies of the world. The world is looking up to India. We need to make the most of the opportunity that is here for us.
While preserving the cultural heritage and ethnicity is paramount, we also need to find out ways and means to do so. Once we have the resources, we can preserve our heritage, our languages, our customs, and our art forms better.
Without resources and without any projects for preserving cultural heritage we have the risk of forgetting the knowledge that our elders have. This requires a delicate balance.
People from other states are here because of jobs that exist and for which have no takers from among us. The world today is a melting pot of people of different cultures and origins joining hands for a better future. People from other states are here to make a living and earn their livelihoods. We need to value dignity of labour–as a Naga and as a Christian.
And to my mind, that’s the true sign of any progressive society. I wish and pray that we realise this and work together for a brighter tomorrow for all of us.
(The opinions expressed in this interview are purely personal perspectives of the official.)
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.