I have always battled with the stereotype of ‘Northeast India’, a term that makes me terribly uncomfortable, a term that has caused irreparable damage to the identity of the states that make up this concept. However, we keep referring to it because of the shared problems rather than its collective strength. The beginning of March propelled this term to the national headlines yet again for the wrong reasons.
The Dimapur lynching has shocked most people and it is through these unfortunate incidents that the region is represented if at all. I refrained from writing about it because the incident can and should be studied in the context of a long history of xenophobia and racial profiling, and the space provided in most publications is too inadequate for a fair assessment.
In the first week of March, I travelled to Manipur as part of a high-powered government of India committee to carry out an assessment of the ground situation and suggest actionable recommendations for a way forward. It would be naïve to imagine that the government will act upon our recommendations, but this is perhaps the only way forward; the problems are so gigantic that it needs institutional support to set things straight.
Manipur is no stranger to me but some of the findings startled me as well. For example, for the last 27 years, the post of the ‘principal’ in any of the government colleges has not been filled up. There is no regular Director looking after this department either. No librarians or chowkidar for more than 20 years. Mind you, there are 73 such institutions in the state. The average salary for lecturers in aided colleges is between Rs 3000 to Rs 8000 a month and for private colleges, a paltry Rs 1000 to Rs 2000 a month. There are not enough classrooms or other basic infrastructures. The staff has been on a ‘ceasework’ since 18th Dec 2014 but who cares? The statistics are staggering; 40,000 students are enrolled in these institutions, and, every year, 14,000 students are passing out without being ‘educated’ and with no employability. We are not even getting into the situation in the hills where virtually nothing exists (and the entire blame is not on the valley). The Chief Minister with a wry smile says, ‘Yes, what do we do, there are too many pending cases, and, therefore, we cannot go for fresh appointments’. He seems pleasantly ignorant of the fact that thousands of young people in Manipur stare at an uncertain future only because a system that is meant to function without great resource or effort has completely collapsed.
Not just education but almost every arm of the administration appears crippled. Yet, in the last two years, the roads are wider, new buildings are coming up, new vehicles are plying on the road and there is some semblance of an evening life that never existed. But is this too cosmetic a change?
But there is also a brighter side to the story. We met young people who voluntarily returned after studying outside and want to be the change that we all have been demanding or hoping for. They know the precarious tightrope of a government job but they are willing to give it a try. Entrepreneurs and civil society are doggedly pushing for a brave new Manipur believing that this is a chance they cannot let go of. The inevitable road from Manipur is towards Myanmar and it is time, people say, the Prime Minister must ‘Act East’ and not just ‘Look East’.