Guwahati:Shantikam Hazarika says he was on the fast track. The graduate of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedadabad could actually picture himself in the managing director’s seat of Oil India Ltd (OIL). In 1979, he was despatched to Norway for three months of training.
He returned to Dhuliajan before the new year, just in time for the first fatality of thousands more to come in the infamous Assam agitation, a movement partly defined by a people’s desire for control over and higher royalties from their natural resources—including oil.
“Tej deem, tel nideeu!” (we’ll give you blood, but not our oil) protesters chanted through the streets in between slurs on then-prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Only fleetingly, Hazarika faced a quandary between the soil that had given him life and the oil that gave him livelihood. His sympathies lay with the former, but he assured his bosses it wouldn’t affect his professional performance.
Impossible, he recalls they said, eventually sending him on a punishment transfer to Bhubaneswar. Two years passed and Hazarika returned home to help set up the Assam Institute of Management (AIM) and serve as its director. By then, the Assam Accord had been signed, and hopes brimmed for a return to normalcy and a flood of investment.
Two decades later, Hazarika sits in his office at the institute he’s created and matter-of-factly laments what has actually happened: “This state is doomed. I’ll be 60 in a few months and I don’t think I’ll make an impact.”
Those who know him—and in tight-knit, insular Assam, that is a lot of people—disagree, crediting Hazarika with offering youth the first signs of hope they have seen in a long time. That’s significant as sectors from airlines to retail to business process outsourcing (BPO) look to regions such as this one to provide manpower in a growing economy. And so Hazarika has become the man many turn to to help make their escape from bandhs, bombings, from home.
His tentacles extend far beyond the dingy halls of the institute to encompass the entire country, as he lures recruiters, friends and fellow IIM graduates in the position of hiring, assuring them of a large pool of employable high performers in the Northeast. To keep himself honest, he hustles to ready students before their interviews and challenges them to think for themselves, outside of the box, like the leaders they could be.
For many people eyeing development and recruitment in the Northeast, from companies to non-governmental organizations, Hazarika has become a first point of contact, a translator, negotiator, navigator. The barriers to operating in this conflict-plagued region go far beyond language and cultural differences, entrenched corruption and weak infrastructure. The Assamese possess an entirely different mindset, Hazarika maintains.
“Here, we don’t teach people to stand on their own two feet,” he says, rueful again. “I call it the dependency culture. It is the biggest stumbling block to development out here,” he adds.
Earlier in the day, Hazarika cruised down a newly constructed national highway, planned for more than a decade, but hastily paved in time for the 2007 National Games held in Guwahati. The scene on either side of him mixes old and new: temples and brick-making factories, tennis courts and a sleek-looking athletes village. Around are the hills that form the bowl that is Guwahati, lushness occasionally interrupted by brown patches of presumable development.
“It’s difficult to make things happen out here. Business development is taking place,” Hazarika says. “But most of it has not been well planned.”
Upon arrival at his office just after 10am, the visitors were already waiting, phone messages stacked up—the previous day AIM had announced its admission list. Nearly 160 had applied and about 50 received an offer in the first round. From a former chief minister’s phone call to a slight man arguing his daughter’s case in person, it seemed everyone was making a plea on behalf of the rejected. Hazarika, though, commented on those overwhelmingly absent: applicants themselves.
“This man is coming for his daughter,” Hazarika says, after the father had left. “I would have been more impressed if she came. They are 29, 30 years old and still relying on their fathers and uncles to help do something for them. This is a big Assamese trait.”
Hazarika was born the same year as India—1947. Just as partition required reflection and redefinition, the agitation through the 1980s and its after-effects today have forced the same once again of denizens from a state connected to the rest of India through geography described as a “chicken’s neck”. In reality, it might be far more tenuous.
Before he came home, Hazarika studied and worked across India and was struck by a different work ethic, one rooted in entrepreneurship and survival. He graduated from the Birla Institute of Technology & Science in Pilani and then received his MBA with the sixth IIM-A class of 1971; a class reunion photo shows him standing next to ICICI Bank Ltd chief executive K.V. Kamath.
“I have got a good network,” Hazarika says, the first self-complimentary thing he’s said in the interview. Modesty might, too, be an Assamese trait.
Despite the plummet his career trajectory took as a result, Hazarika lauds the agitation for its intentions, not the greed-motivated United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) of late. Initially, the Assamese protested the mass migration of Bangladeshis, Biharis and others. This evolved into a movement demanding more investment and attention from the Centre.
“Agitation has changed the mindset,” he says. “People started becoming vocal, reading, speaking out.”
After his transfer, Hazarika says he realized his dream of becoming MD was over and that the next 20 years would be “highly frustrating”. OIL said it could not comment because its human resources (HR) director was travelling.
“Instead of trying to be somebody, why not do something?” Hazarika asked.
The Assam government had been trying to fashion a management institute and tapped Hazarika, who had sat on the state electricity board, to found it. The institute operates as a society with a governing board formed by the Assam government. Some professors also double as consultants drafting reports for the public and private sectors; a recent one, for example, examined the death of cinema halls in upper Assam and was used to support a tax decrease on entertainment.
AIM’s annual report shows it generated just over Rs140 lakh last year, mainly from government aid and tuition fees. In July 2009, a new, larger campus is scheduled to open, doubling seats to 120.
On the dry-erase board behind his desk, Hazarika—married to a teacher with a dance school and father of two sons, one in the Army, another in the Air Force—has scrawled some of his admittedly borrowed philosophies on life, business, leadership.
“The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to say nothing,” says one.
Most of the youth at the institute were born after the agitation began, in some cases even after the accord was signed in 1985. Whether their futures should rest in the state or outside has been a contentious question for some time now, similar to the “brain drain” debate with which India as a nation grapples. Hazarika minces no words.
“I’d like to do something for this state. I don’t have any expectations of this generation,” he says. “It is such a negative world they are growing up in. BPOs, hospitals, stewards, the thing is, where are these opportunities in the Northeast? If they don’t go out, they will be the social nuisances… Once you go outside the state, your desire to do something intensifies.”
The sentiment applies to Indrani Mahanta, a 24-year-old recent graduate looking for a job in HR. Last summer, Hazarika used his contacts to help her land a summer internship at Essar Oil Ltd in Mumbai. “As I have specialized in HR, there are no such jobs in Assam. If you want to enter the corporate role, one must go out from the Northeast,” says Mahanta, a botany major in college. “We are doing MBAs for jobs.”
Assam’s unemployment rate, among educated urbanites, tops 14%, nearly double the comparable figure for the rest of India.
While Mahanta lauded Hazarika’s help and teaching, the young woman says she wishes other faculty were more up-to-date on current business trends and the Indian business climate of today, focusing more on practical application than theoretical knowledge.
Agreeing this should happen through students’ exposure, Hazarika might place calls to members of his network and ask if two summer interns can be accommodated or perhaps if a recruiter can’t make it East, can a student passing through Mumbai please stop by instead. He advises a professional mentoring group of colleges and institutes across the seven sister states on how to gain access to potential recruiters to hold joint placements. On a recent morning, the slacks-and-chappals clad Hazarika attended an awards ceremony for an initiative to employ disabled workers in tea and spice packaging and then dropped a visiting official from the Delhi arm of the Association for India’s Development, a volunteer organization, at a school for tribal and disadvantaged people.
“This is all related to corporate issues. Their main motive is to make students aware of corporate and social sector, how corporations are affecting the overall transformation of society,” says Pratul Kalita, a faculty member at the institute. “Mr Hazarika, as the founder-director of the institute, these are basically his ideas. He comes up with a lot of ideas,” Kalita adds.
As Hazarika described support for the Northeast as India’s latest tamasha, filled with empty promises made at summits and conferences, a knock at his door yielded a young woman who wanted to pursue her MBA. But she was torn because she had gotten a job at HSBC Bank in Kolkata.
“You have a job in hand and you don’t want to take it?” Hazarika says.
“But it’s BPO,” she says.
“So what?” he says. “Prove yourself there. Come see me in four years.”
The woman looked hesitant.
“You’ve got to learn to stand on your own two feet,” Hazarika says. “Go.”
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by e-mail to email@example.com