In search of a better life

The Hindu - Oct 21, 2012

Sriram Bala talks to people from the Northeast who have settled down in the South, and discovers that even Mary Kom wants to.

“This city is my second home,” says 24-year-old H. Benjamin Site. Having lived in Chennai for over six years, he has begun to see it as his second home. He had an education in the prestigious College of Engineering, Guindy, and is now an engineer with the National Thermal Power Corporation.

Benjamin is from Manipur, and part of a new breed of Northeasterners wanting to succeed. In the backdrop of the hysteria created by the exodus of Northeasterners from the South, it is crucial to understand the issues that confront them when they are far away from home here, and the advantages they have while staying here.

“The exodus was something that could have been avoided. I came here all alone when I was 16 and I have been safe all along in the city,” says Benjamin. Over those couple of days in the third week of August, thousands of Northeasterners had fled Southern cities such as Bangalore and Chennai in fear, in the wake of ethnic conflict in Assam which displaced more than four lakh people. Rumour mills were running round the clock, with malicious messages and social media content that warned them to leave these cities in order to avoid backlashes. Five thousand people fled Bangalore and thousands more from other Southern cities including Chennai and Hyderabad. This created a huge outrage across the country.

“The issue is seeking education. Manipur has only one NIT (National Institute of Technology); it has no infrastructure and barely any placement. Education helps you land good jobs. I earn about Rs.5-7 lakhs because I was educated in the South,” says Benjamin as I begin discussing the reasons for Northeast migration into other States across the country. “Basically, people are in search of job opportunities; they have to have a peaceful life too,” he says, choking up for a second. Fear is inbuilt in those from the Northeast. The military struggles across the region have left people with lack of peace and trust. “Peace is very elusive. That’s why you see so many people migrating because they want to be peaceful,” says Benjamin, and adds, “there are very few role models too.”

No discrimination
Among the role models, the top on the list is Mary Kom. The Olympic bronze medalist and five-time World Boxing Champion is an icon all over India. “People migrate for education, employment and freedom for women,” says Kom. “I had to face so many obstacles here for being a woman. Without the support of my family and husband, I would never have become an Olympic champion. Women migrating to the South, away from the Northeast, get more freedom,” says Kom in a serious tone. She is glad that she is a role model for the Northeasterners and wants them to work hard and emulate her in their respective fields. She says from personal experience that the people of the South have been very nice. “I want to settle down in Bangalore sometime in the future. I love that city, the people are very nice and I have never been discriminated against anywhere in the South including Kerala and Andhra Pradesh (unlike in the North, where this happens occasionally). They have been supportive whenever I was there,” says Kom with a sense of conviction that comes from deep within her.

Support and grace is something the South is well known for. As I interact with numerous people across the social spectrum, I bump into Dr. G. Basumetry, the president of the Chennai Assam Association Chapter. He greets me with a vanakkam . “I find people in the Southern regions very supportive. I have been here for more than 10 years and feel very safe,” he says. The Assam Association provides assistance to migrants from the Northeast irrespective of any criteria in the city. Besides providing initial accommodation, they organise various festivals and functions in the city throughout the year to sustain bonding in the community. “One of the major challenges people face is the language. We provide initial support in dealing with the issues with language. Even I have learnt the language so well that I can argue with my neighbours!” he says laughing. “We have also built the Assam House.” The Assam Association has built a new facility to cater to the needs of the Assamese and the Northeastern community in the city, thousands of students who are in the city for their education and for young adults who are working mostly in the IT sector. Moreover, initial accommodation is provided to uneducated labourers who come in search of jobs in the city.

The immigration pattern of Northeasterners, over the last decades, into other states in the South lends itself to intriguing analysis. “As a 16-year-old, I came with a friend and there was barely anyone from the Northeast,” says Benjamin. “Now there are so many of them, almost a 40 percent increase.”

Security and respect
“However, the trend has been changing. More people are coming for education and skill-based jobs in the IT sector though the majority still comes for unskilled labour,” says Aleshiio Chakre (24), an assistant manager at IDBI Bank who travels often between Chennai and Bangalore. I probed him further and asked, “Why the South? Why not Delhi or Kolkata or Lucknow? Aren’t opportunities available there?” What I heard was surprising and alarming in equal measure. “People are more comfortable with the South since the people here are more mature and embrace us better. In the north, there is discrimination. Ask the women and they will say they are safe here,” says Chakre.

“It’s true. Chennai is safe compared to cities in the North. The auto drivers may argue about the fares but they take you safely to where you need to go!” says Chinghoi (20), an engineering student at IIT Madras. One Assamese girl working in a beauty parlour in Jubilee hills, Hyderabad, says, “Security and respect for us are what keeps me here.”

One of the main issues that Northeasterners face in the southern cities is the sense of being left out. The word “chinky” or Chinese look-alike is often used by people across the country. In the south, it is more a sense of curiosity and an embarrassing sense of ignorance. “Once they realise that we are also Indian, people begin to be nice,” says Bhayya. Safety at nights is an issue. “Auto drivers look at us like we are strangers,” says Benjamin. “But this could happen in any city.”

A large percentage of Northeasterners in the South, unfortunately, is uneducated. Labourers flock to the southern cities for a livelihood. Most restaurants in the city have waiters from the Northeast. Many are security guards, construction workers, contract workers and assistants to shop owners. “A major issue for people like me is the language. Bad working conditions are everywhere in the country, but people here at least respect you,” says Raju Bhayya (41). He has been working as a security guard at an internet portal company in Chennai and Bangalore for almost 10 years now. All along he has had a reasonably good time in both the cities. “The warmth of people in Bangalore and Chennai makes you feel at home,” he says with a smile.

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