Imphal: It’s been at least 14 years since T.H. Brajamani had registered himself as a job seeker with an employment exchange at Imphal, but till now he hasn’t received a single offer. Government-run emploment exchanges provide assistance to educated young people to secure jobs.
Brajamani, who read geography at Imphal’s Thoubal College and graduated 20 years ago, now pulls a hired rickshaw for a living, his face partly wrapped in a red-and-blue gamocha, a cotton hand-woven cloth, which saves the embarrassment of being recognized by known people.
“I wouldn’t ever leave home without the gamocha,” says Brajamani, in broken English. “Nothing could be more embarrassing than pulling a rickshaw for someone who graduated from Thoubal College, but there wasn’t anything else I could do to support my family of four people.”
It’s a common sight in Imphal, says A.K. Komb, general secretary of All Manipur Rickshaw Drivers’ and Pullers’ Welfare Association. “Hundreds of rickshaw pullers in Imphal cover their faces out of embarrassment. I, too, feel embarrassed at times; my wife surely does all the time.”
At least 600,000 educated young people in Manipur are unemployed, says Okram Ibobi Singh, the state’s chief minister. That’s about a quarter of Manipur’s 2.5 million people, according to him.
There are 90,000-100,000 government jobs in the state, and they are all taken, according to a state government official, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “Manipur has received very little private investment, and there’s almost no job in the private sector either,” he says.
Recently, when the state government hired some 1,000 men to form an armed “village defence force” to fight insurgents, it received applications from “some 17,000 people who were either graduates or postgraduates”, whereas the state was looking to hire people who hadn’t even completed school, says Singh. “Such is the demand for government jobs here—even for high-risk jobs.”
In the light of the high level of unemployment in investment-starved Manipur, Brajamani, who earns Rs200-250 a day, should be counted among the more fortunate people in the state, according to social scientists at Imphal.
In Manipur, average income from farming and fishing is significantly lower at Rs2,000-2,500 a month, says L. Biswanath, a professor of social sciences at Manipur University.
Agriculture continues to be the mainstay of Manipur’s economy and at least 60% of the state’s population is dependent on it, says C.H. Priyaranjan, professor of economics at Imphal University.
By covering their faces, people such as Brajamani run the risk of being punished by the security forces, which are fighting insurgents in the state for decades. “Every now and then, the police seize the gamocha from us under some law passed by the state,” says a rickshaw puller, who refused to disclose his identity. “But because the police appreciate our predicament, they do not normally stop us from covering our faces.”
The department of anthropology at Manipur University had recently conducted a study and it showed that at least 25% of Imphal’s 30,000-odd rickshaw pullers had completed school, says M.C. Arun, a professor of the university.
“Our understanding is that there are at least a million unemployed people in Manipur,” says Amar Yumnam, a professor of economics at Imphal University. “But such is the state government’s indifference towards the problem that it hasn’t even collated any credible data on unemployment.”
And insurgents are exploiting “the disgruntlement among the youth” to spread their movement, says Arun.
Central funds offered for uplift of the state’s economy and infrastructure have not been used efficiently, allege social scientists. “There is only one flyover in the state. Roads across Manipur are in a terrible state,” says Arun. “But those connecting disturbed areas are well maintained to ensure easy access by the armed forces.”
It seems the state, like its people, needs a gamocha to hide its woes. But there may be too many to keep under wraps.