Why we go there – Unsung migrant workers from the Northeast


When we think of big cities and how the Northeast states are represented there, the strongest image is that of the student. Carefree, optimistic, experimenting and at times reckless, fashionistas and musicians, the picture is very pretty. It gets dashed once in a while when we hear and read about incidents that have malice in them, and the insecurity spreads home where worried families have sleepless anxious nights. It is a valid reaction, because there is no place for discrimination, but at the same time, the cities of India are also the platform for many good things. We would be foolish to not acknowledge the fact that the good things outnumber the bad. We would also be naive to ignore the fact that many from our states are also there actively being part of economies and industries large and small, small dots that form the lungs of these heavy breathing and lumbering and growing urban leviathans. The migrant worker from the Northeast states is alive and thriving and this is the untold positive story that should be told more often.

Compared to the Northeastern student, the migrant worker is faceless, voiceless and yet more of a contributor to the greater scheme. The picture is grimier, away from the clubs, the festivals and the colleges – closer to middle class reality. Rather than being the patron, the migrant worker is backstage, behind the bar or in the kitchen. Whether it is a Naga cook in a small Delhi restaurant or a Mizo call center employee in a Bangalore tech park, these are the characters who have kept the wheels running. They don't have too many headlines and neither are they the poster-child of any group – yet they have persisted, thrived and contributed with their skills in a fertile economic environment never seen back in their villages and towns.


Let's call her Rebecca. She works as a stylist in an upmarket salon in Bangalore. She misses her hometown in Ukhrul district but won't be going back home any time soon. Nostalgia is not as strong as opportunity, and Rebecca found hers in Bangalore. Her patrons do not know about her hometown, and probably have limited knowledge of her culture, but they know her talent and ensure that she pays her rent, her bills, they ensure that she sends money back home and can go for the occasional shopping trip. Rebecca is a success story, she is independent and her talent is her gift, not her tribe or reservation status. But she will never come on the news, because she is every day – she is a plan that works out. She is good news. There are thousands of Rebeccas in India, and life has changed for them once they set foot in the cities, and there will be thousands more. Prosperity lies not in home, when home is a stagnant economy and employment is nepotism and corruption ridden. This is why she left.

Let's call him Jack. Delhi weather gets to him, and the pollution too. It certainly is not like his hometown Shillong, where the grass is green and the air is crisp. Jack will be going back, but not for more than a couple of weeks. Delhi gave him what Shillong couldn't, opportunity. Middle class and Shillong was a bad combination for him, as creative as he was – only the grayness of the public sector awaited him. A chance meeting with a cousin let from one thing to another and Jack found himself at the interview round in an advertising start-up in the capital. They asked him what he could do best and what he enjoyed the most, and after years of waiting for this question to be asked, Jack showed them. He found a place where his individuality was given a chance. Jack would never come in the news too, his story is boring and there were no victims involved. But his story is real, and many other stories like this. Home offered a sealed fate, and something that he didn't want. So he found it somewhere else. This is why he left.

Let's call him Bhim. Bhim sells momos in a cart in many cities in India. Bhim comes from Darjeeling, Bhim comes from Guwahati, Bhim could come from Imphal also. He could be selling rolls instead of momos. Only one thing was constant in Bhim's life – poverty from birth and the lack of a reservation status. He left for the city, and the city gave him rebirth. Now he earns enough to feed his family, and his new home has embraced him.

The Bhims, the Jacks and the Rebeccas form an integral part of the urban diaspora. The eight states of the Northeast through hard working migrant workers have contributed in many sectors, from hospitality to beauty and healthcare, from IT to design and fashion. They are not higher management in most cases but they form the backbone. These unsung cogs of the machinery are at every level of the economic ladder and their success is to be celebrated – rarely are they talked about.

The 8 states need positive stories and there are thousands of these positive stories blinking through the night in our metros. They are stories of hard labour and struggle, and of determination and everyday triumphs. They are also stories that will open our eyes and help improve our own institutions and attitudes back home, for now we know why they leave.

(by Silvester Phanbuh)

The views reflected in this piece are that of the author and need not necessarily be that of TNT-The Northeast Today

Featured image: eclecticnortheast.in