Nagaland’s unorganised sector: A goldmine full of stones
Dimapur, Feb. 17 (EMN): Just like any other 15-year old, Bhairu* is a teenager with a natural dash for the playful, and an adolescent streak that loves to regularly ambush his friends with pranks.
Like any other boys his age, the mob-haired lad wears his old denim jeans low, while his faded t-shirt drapes around him as would a trusted comrade. He and his shirt look like they already have been through some vicious storms together.
There is something more to him that isn’t quite obvious though: At barely 15 years old, the young Assamese is the only bread earner of his family—one of the believed-thousands of migrant laborers who either reside in or float in and out of the hilly tribal state of Nagaland. This is a population of mostly migrants who dream of a comfortable life by working at, among other trades, building construction sites that are a constant fixture of dusty Dimapur city, the commercial center of the state.
The underage migrant laborer stopped studying to provide for his mother and sister.
His father is no more. Now the only ‘adult’ of his family, Bhairu’s only option was to find work. And find work he did in nearby Dimapur city.
Travelling from Assam to Nagaland whenever called to work by his ‘thikadaar’—the rough vernacular noun for ‘overseer’ of laborers—he has become the chief bread earner of his family. He became an unskilled construction worker, a purposeful renegade, and an unintended adult as he tagged along with motley crews of migrant workers from diverse communities and states. Bread is his capitalist goal.
According to Census 2011, Dimapur district has an approximate population of 378,811, the most populous district of Nagaland. Considered the nerve center of the state’s commercial network capital and supply conduit, the city continues to expand, at least in infrastructure and labor capital.
In 2016, the Nagaland State Government declared the year 2016 as the ‘Year of the Construction Workers.’ In May the same year, the then parliamentary secretary for Labour, Employment & Skill Development & Border Affairs Mhonlumo Kikon—now advisor for IT—had told university students that construction work accounted for about 15% of Nagaland’s economy in terms of the flow of finance in the market, with a potential to employ more than one lakh workers.
The objective to declaring 2016 the ‘Year of Construction Workers’ was to train and create employment opportunities for youths in the trade of construction and allied sectors. What was not reported, though, but rather speculated by observers was that the legislator’s statement carried a suggestion that the workforce in the construction industry was dominated by laborers from outside the state, and even by illegal immigrants. It was rare to see Naga faces in the trade then, and is still unusual to see Naga youths laboring at building constructions.
In hindsight, the rationale could be that the government began injecting skill imperatives and capacity-augmenting measures. This could encourage local youths of the state to learn skills for them to be able to harness employment opportunities in the sector.
Labor data and demographic statistics, particularly about the unorganised sector in Nagaland, is far and few. There has yet to be credible data from the government establishments concerning said sector.
In July 2019, the Labour Commissioner’s office in Dimapur district had stated unavailability of data concerning the demographics of laborers or their population in the unorganised sector. The district’s Assistant Labour Commissioner W Temwang Konyak had said during an interview that the state’s government establishments had no data from surveys or planning research to explain categories of laborers, their sectors and their economic demographics.
‘He dropped out of school,’ said 40-year old Haizul, interpreting for the boy. The impromptu interpreter is the chief mason at a building construction site on the outskirts of Dimapur where Bhairul works as a “jugali,” vernacular for ‘unskilled laborer.’
Haizul is a ‘misteri,’ also vernacular for a worker who is skilled particularly in masonry or carpentry. As the mason and this reporter talk, the boy is joined by two more fresh-faced boys—Suluba* and Atul*, both barely 17 years old. They, like Bhairu, are construction workers.
Interestingly, Suluba is a Naga boy. He is a somewhat rare sight among the estimated several thousands of non-Naga migrant laborers in the state. His parents stay in nearby Showba village, a few kilometers from Dimapur proper. Like Bhairu, and like Atul—both from neighboring Assam—Suluba dropped out of school to start earning for his family.
The livelihood of laborers, particularly non-Naga workers in Nagaland, is bittersweet—sweet because the state’s unorganised sector has a reputation for being a virtual goldmine for daily wage opportunities; there is always work for those who dare; bitter because wages are low, high number of laborers in competition, and work is long and hard.
According to an informal source, there are no stipulated wage rates. Generally though, a ‘misteri’ is paid around INR 600 a day, and a ‘jugali’ around INR 400, while a ‘thikadaar’—an ‘overseer’ for laborers—earns in unspecified commissions by arranging workforce, negotiating wages and overseeing the construction work in general.
For daily wage earners here, the pursuit isn’t much for welfare opportunities but a battle to ensure that there is a meal on the table when they return by train back to their states—or an expensive auto rickshaw ride to their villages. As difficult as it is for casual workers to make a decent livelihood, or seek recourse for social welfare concerns they encounter in their profession, these are not matters they must concern with as long as they are paid their daily wages.
‘Life is difficult. We have no land…no other income,’ said Haizul, half-interpreting for Bhairu and Atul, the two boys from Assam. ‘We have no option but this.’
Except for Haizul, and the Naga boy-laborer Suluba, the other two lads cannot converse in ‘Nagamese.’ Nagamese is a crude language employed by Naga persons to communicate with non-locals.
The two young workers’ inability to speak the dialect suggests that they are relatively new to the state—Bhairu began working about 4 months ago while Atul has about a year’s experience working at building construction sites in Dimapur city.
Currently, they reside in a small one-room shack that has walls woven out of split bamboo, built near a site where they are setting foundation for a concrete house. Next to their kitchen-bedroom shack is a parking lot where shiny Hyundais and Suzuki cars stand in attention.
They will return home to Assam after completing the building construction—and be back in Nagaland for the next job at another site or whenever their overseer calls them for a new job.
‘We buy our own food but the lodging is free,’ Haizul explained matter-of-factly as he shifted on his bed, which was a contraption of wooden planks with just a thin sheet on it. ‘As long as we get paid, there are no problems.’
They cannot afford to complain about life considering that at least they have a roof over their heads and a daily wage the building’s owner pays them.
‘What do we do? We have no pension…no (welfare) schemes,’ said Haizul. Nagaland is where he has been making a livelihood for about 30 years, he said. ‘We have no savings. We live hand-to-mouth,’ he explained in chaste Nagamese.
When asked whether or not he had registered with the central government’s pension scheme— Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-dhan (PM-YM)—he had this to say: ‘Nobody told us. Nobody. I haven’t heard of it.’
He is not alone: Out of an estimated more than seven lakh workers in the agriculture and general unorganised sector in Nagaland, only approximately 1, 035 people have registered so far for the pension scheme. The details were furnished by the district’s Labour commissioner’s establishment.
In March 2019, the government of Nagaland had inaugurated the PM-SYM, a pension scheme formulated by the central government for workers in the unorganised sector in the country.
Haizul was given an explanation about the pension scheme: It will provide a fixed pension of INR 3000 after workers in the unorganised sector attain the age of 60 years on the condition that the workers contribute “an affordable” amount monthly during their working years. The contribution starts from 18 years of age with INR 55 per month and goes up to the age of 40 years at around INR 200 per month.
‘(The contribution) is a lot of money to be giving till at 60 years of age,’ one of the labourers said. ‘What money is left after contribution to the pension?’
For the four labourers, facing their economic drudgery is for their families at home. Except for Suluba’s family—his parents live in the outskirts of the commercial center. The homes of the other three are in Assam. They have to send money to their families.
Haizul’s wife, two daughters, and his mother live in Assam’s Morigaon district, approximately 202 kilometres from Dimapur proper.
Atul has a brother and a sister and parents at home. He studied till class-VIII. He cannot speak Nagamese. The 17-year-old must send money home from his daily wages.
For Suluba, school was not something that he wanted to pursue. Considering his situation, he felt it was more practical for him to help his father and mother bring in their daily meals than pursue academics.
It was “boring,” he said when queried about why he left school.
Besides, his parents do not work. He is the only child of the family. He is the least experienced of the little group—he started working at construction sites only this year. So far, he has worked at three sites, he said beaming with pride.
Suluba is an unusual exception considering that labourers in the state’s unorganised sector are predominantly non-Naga persons who make up almost the entire casual services sector: Unskilled agriculture hands, contract tillers, vegetable sellers, collies and porters, auto-rickshaws and cycle-rickshaws pullers, domestic ware peddlers, construction workers, toilet cleaners and rag pickers, scavengers and recyclers, paan shopkeepers, scrap metal dealers, mechanics, domestic helpers and waiters, and almost all other low-income, manual jobs.
This article is written by Al Ngullie. It is one of a series of reports published in Eastern Mirror as part of the National Foundation of India fellowship, New Delhi.