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Updated: August 28, 2010 18:32 IST

Braving the odds

SEEMA SANGHI
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Many skills at hand. Photo: Special Arrangement
Many skills at hand. Photo: Special Arrangement

Migrants from the North Eastern States are appreciated in other metros for their commitment to work. But the road to success is not all easy…

They wore short red pleated skirts, striped stud-buttoned shirts, big cowgirl-style hats and black boots up to their calves. Some had eyebrow piercings, others small tattoos on their arms. With polite manners and attendant to all the guests of the party, these Manipuri women comprised the catering service at my cousin's recent wedding in Hyderabad. It was quite affronting at first to see their ‘uniforms', especially in contrast to the more conservatively dressed women in their bejewelled saris and best ornaments. The waitresses reminded me of Thai women working in an American-themed restaurant/bar I'd seen in Bangkok. But when I asked others at the wedding what they thought of the servers and their outfits, no one else seemed to notice them. They were merely the ‘new item' in the perpetual race to have the most elaborate wedding.

“They like to have us greeting customers because maybe our skin is a little fairer than other Indians,” says Vung, 22 from Churachandpur, Manipur in North East (NE) India. She left her hometown three years ago after completing school. Since then she has been working in places like Subway and Pizza Corner. She currently works in a retail shop in Chennai. She also studies history at Madras University and lives with her sister in a flat near her work. “We share the rent so we can send more money home to our parents,” says Vung.

Search for jobs

Thousands of educated girls like Vung, from Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland come to work in call centres, the IT industry, retail and the hospitality industry in India's biggest cities. There are few educational or employment opportunities for them in their home states. Leaving behind a very unstable political and economic climate and dismal infrastructure, they also leave their families, sometimes travelling for days on the small tip from a relative or friend, that they will find work in the metros of India. Many Manipuri women work in the hospitality ad retail industry. They are conspicuous, not just because of their ‘East-Asian' appearance, but also because women do not traditionally do the jobs they do. “It was really difficult to get any women to work here. I needed them to work late and even if local girls were interested, their parents wouldn't allow them,” says Ciro Cattaneo, owner of Bella Ciao in Chennai. The only females willing to work were the Manipuri girls. “People might misunderstand us, but we are just doing our work and going home,” says waitress Ngai Muan Sang, 18. She says that she is called Jeslin as people find her name too difficult to pronounce. She's been working for the Italian restaurant for six months. “South Indians are very curious about us and are always asking if we are from Japan, Thailand or China. They don't know we are Indian,” Ngai says, adding that she often has to explain that Manipur is in India.

It is this lack of understanding of where they come from, their ‘otherness,' that allows these women to do the jobs that are traditionally not considered appropriate for local girls. “For some reason, parents here don't like their girls to work in restaurants or cafes,” says Samir Nanaviti, owner of the Mocha café, Indira Nagar, Chennai. All his female waiting staff hail from the North East . He says that it wasn't a policy to have all North Eastern female staff, but they were the only ones applying.

Although there is no official data, most North Eastern migrants move to Delhi, with an estimated 100,000 residing there, followed by Kolkata, Bangalore, and then Chennai.

In Delhi, about 85 per cent of the migrants are students. They take part-time jobs to support themselves. “They are very independent. They don't like to depend on their parents for everything like other Indian girls,” says Professor Savita Singh, Director of the School of Gender and Development Studies, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi. She sees the presence of North Eastern women in non-traditional female jobs as a reflection of society as a whole. “Our patriarchal system constantly exploits women. They work very hard, unpaid in their households. The North Eastern States have a different understanding of ‘household' where men and women are more equal.”

They also have a reputation of being slim built, at ease in Western outfits and comfortable in English. These attributes are sometimes used against them and many NE women are harassed and abused. The North East Support Centre & Helpline (NE Centre) was founded in New Delhi eighteen months ago by concerned NGOs to assist such girls in distress and in danger of physical and psychological harm. Lansinglu Rongmei, Advocate and President of the NE Centre says, “We get many phone calls from girls who have been abused but it's very difficult to deal with the local authorities. They don't seem to care about NE women.” Madhu Chandra, spokesperson of the NE centre, says 10,000 NE migrants are estimated to be arriving in Delhi each year. The majority are from Assam, followed by Manipur and Nagaland.

Pros and cons

Chin, 30, from Manipur and the assistant manager of human resources in a Delhi Mocha café, has been in Delhi for 15 years. She loves living in Delhi and says, “Good experiences and bad experiences come in a package. If it's your destiny, then you have to face it.” She believes that the South must be much safer than the North as she hasn't heard of any major assault cases like those in Delhi. However, as places like Bangalore and Chennai offer more employment opportunities, North Eastern migrants are becoming increasingly visible in the South. Akeh, 23 from Manipur, working in Mocha café, Bangalore, echoes Chin, “Sometimes there are rowdy, bad guys, trying to steal our things, but there are also good people here.” In between greeting guests at the shop, Vung says she has no plans to return to the North East . “I like it here, I want to stay longer even though I miss my parents. It's nice to stay and not waste time at home where there's not much work. ”

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