‘The girl from F&B’ in Siddhartha Deb’s book The beautiful and the damned: Life in new India describes the hopes and disappointments of Esther, who hails from Manipur and works at a high-end Delhi restaurant. Scores of Esthers work in beauty parlours, man front desks of hotels, take orders in restaurants and look after customers as shop assistants, availing of the boom in India’s services industry to find work and build a life away from home.
Through this week, a mix of technology-fuelled rumours of a backlash to the violence in Assam drove away these people, migrants from the northeast states, from several cities, including Bangalore, Pune, and Nashik. Hundreds lined up at railway stations in Bangalore to catch trains back home. The railways obliged, running special trains to transport them back.
The fear psychosis and the exodus left businesses that depend on contract labour from the northeast — restaurants, retail chains, security agencies, technology companies — scrambling to adjust. “It is difficult to find overnight replacements, be it in any field. We are asking existing employees to put in more hours of work until replacements come in with proper training,” said Darshan Bal, vice-president, Karnataka Security Services Association, a 9,000-strong security agency. Security agencies employ about 100,000 people in Bangalore, 15-20 per cent from the Northeast.
“We spend about Rs 3,000 on training a guard for about 15 days, before deploying them at work. It would cost us huge money to find the right talent from among locals and train them for security jobs,” said Bal. Those fleeing feel an equal loss, but are unwilling to stay back.
A new phenomenon
According to the 2011 census, for the first time since 1921, urban India added more to its numbers than rural India, hinting at distress migration. Experts, however, say migration from the northeast is a relatively new phenomenon. Prabhu Mahapatra, who works in the department of history, Delhi University, says the northeast has always been at the receiving end of migration. “Some of the biggest and earliest migration in recent history was towards the northeast. About five to ten million people from Bihar and Jharkhand migrated to the northeast in the late nineteenth century, to tea gardens. This continued for nearly a century, till independence. Today, these migrants are called adivasis,” he said.
“For some time, migration of students from the northeast has been happening, but labour migration is a recent development. Remittances from migrants cannot have assumed a very large size in such a short time,” he added. As Deb points out in his book, Esther’s search would be part of India’s growth story, especially since opportunities back home are limited.
Assam, racked by riots between Bodos and Muslims in recent weeks, recorded 8.4 per cent growth in gross state domestic product in 2011-12, higher than the 6.5 per cent national average, according to data from the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.
And, it was the third-fastest growing state in the northeast. However, this does mean the state is well-off, in terms of economic growth, as the growth was recorded on a small base.
It contributed merely 1.4 per cent to the national gross domestic product. Assam also had the third-lowest per capita income, just above Bihar and Tripura. Its per capita income stood at Rs 33,633 a year, nearly half the national average.
Job market experts agree lack of opportunities would ensure those fleeing, returned. “It will be difficult to say whether the current issue is a temporary or a permanent one; we have to wait at least for a week.
The northeast does not have much industrial activity, so people don’t have a choice other than migrating.
In 1994-96, for most voiced-based business process outsourcing offices, employees were recruited from this part of the country, since they had good command of English, partly owing to the influence of Christianity in most of these areas. That is why there is a major Northeastern population in Bangalore,” said E Balaji, managing director and chief executive, Ma Foi Randstand.
Those fleeing realise the truth in this. Dhaniram Das, a resident of Kamrup district in Assam, migrated to Bangalore in search of a job eight years ago and now earns about Rs 15,000 a month in a security agency.
Das does not want to leave his lucrative job and return home. He says the most he would earn in Assam would be Rs 3,000 a month.
Working along with him in Bangalore are 20 people from his village. “I am scared and not to able to focus properly,” said an anguished Das.
For now, the exodus is continuing. Despite the government’s assurances, about 3,000 Northeast citizens have left Mumbai, Pune and Nashik for their respective states. Students and workers continue to be fear-stricken in many parts of the country.
“Our parents back home are calling us to return immediately, or else they would come here. We don’t want to risk their life, as well as ours, here. So, we are going back,” a group of north-eastern students said at the railway station in Bangalore. “I have been camping at the railway station since last night, as I did not get a train. I hope to catch one today. All my friends are with me, and we feel secure here,” said Dakshin Singh, a resident of Manipur.
With inputs from Sreelatha Menon and Dilasha Seth in Delhi, Sanjay Jog in Mumbai and T E Narasimhan in Chennai.