Over 10,000 people from north-eastern States have come to the city in the last eight years

“Do you know a litre of petrol is selling at Rs.180, a cooking gas cylinder for Rs.1,500, while a kilogram of rice is priced at Rs.60 to Rs.70? Indefinite economic blockades are not new to Manipur,” says Augustine Gangmer, who works at a retail showroom in Adyar.

In Chennai for two years now, the 29-year-old, who hails from Tarunj, a village near Imphal, Manipur, does not like being called a ‘north-easterner'. “We have 32 dialects in our State alone. We are all very different.”

Chennai, for him, was no different from other cosmopolitan cities such as Bangalore or Delhi. “Why does every one presume we would speak Hindi. We don't. Here most people understand English. That works for us. There are no jobs back home. Most of us start getting out as soon as we are done with class X,” he says.

Over 10,000 people from the north eastern States have come to the city in the last eight years, according to estimates of organisations working with migrants from these States. Migrants from Manipur top the list comprise nearly half the number, followed by those from Mizoram and Nagaland. “It started with just about 100 to 200 in 2003. Now, about 30 to 50 migrate from these States every month,” says Thang Valte, former chairman, Zomi Christian Fellowship, an association that looks into the welfare of the Manipuris here.

Many of these first-generation migrants cite the failure of businesses and family occupations as reasons for seeking jobs in other States, apart from unemployment.

“The major produce comprised bamboo and cane which are difficult to transport. Due to insurgency and corruption, the cultivation that was entirely dependent on neighbourhoods collapsed,” says Nora Sam from Manipur, who works in Skywalk mall. “In Mizoram, it is very difficult to find work as everyone is involved in agriculture and there is not much else available. If the income in Mizoram is between Rs.300 and Rs.400 per month, here it is between Rs.5,000 and 6,000,” says a Mizo pastor in Villivakkam.

Largely employed in the retail sector, grooming parlours and new age salons, and the BPO industry, these migrants call the city their home for now. Chennai is preferred because its booming fashion industry demands many professionals and ropes them in even if they do not have prior experience, unlike other metros.

“The Guwahati Express, started about a decade back, was what brought them to mainstream, for they no longer needed to go to Kolkata anymore to reach other cities. What many of them seek is a ‘9 to 5 job' in an air-conditioned office as they cannot withstand the heat,” says Dipankar Ghose of Neo Liberal Ethos Centre that organises cross cultural activities among people of different States. Many have also come to pursue correspondence courses in Biblical studies here.

“The retail and the fashion industries pay us more here but the BPOs pay us much less compared to other cities, mainly because you need a degree here even for a call centre job,” says Augustine. “The Korean companies in the automotive sector also prefer taking us in their servicing cells," says Lijo Kozrol, from Nagaland, who works in Sriperumbudur.

Employers, however, say that the tendency among the job seekers from north-east is to shift jobs frequently, which affects career growth. “Many of them do not focus much on savings and promotion. A tiff with the employer and they leave the job,” says Sneha Arun, a personality development manager with the fashion industry who has been training migrants from the north-east for eight years now.

She observes that the average duration of a migrant employee at a parlour is eight months which causes losses for employers who invest in their training. Hence, some bigger parlours now have mentors to motivate and train them in understanding salary break ups.

While the sales personnel in retailing earn about Rs.5,000 a month, as do beauticians, the pedicurists in most salons are barely paid Rs.2,500. “We do not save much and send home money only during festivals,” says Gori Prail, from Mizoram. Once in year, do they get to home, for fifteen days. “But for the many like me whose siblings are also in the city, we save the Rs. 5,000 we get for not availing the leave and go home once in two years,” says Jeremi, from Manipur who works in a restaurant here.

Many of them do feel that their westernised clothing and lifestyle do mark them out for specific notice in certain parts of the city. Many people work late into the night and have been victims of crime. Seigou Kuki from Manipur says he was knocked unconscious on the Rajiv Gandhi Salai, and his wallet was stolen. His inability to converse in Tamil stopped him from lodging a complaint with the police.

Yet, the city seems to be comparatively safer for women. “The environment in Chennai is preferred by many women. I will not say it is completely safe but it is relatively safer in comparison to other metros,” says Liani Tlau, from Mizoram who works with an international human rights organisation.

The conditions are also ripe for exploitation; a “job racket” has emerged in recent years, says Additional Director General of Police (Coastal Security Group) P.C. Lallawm Sanga, who hails from Mizoram.

“Many work offers are blatant cases of cheating. Gullible youngsters are brought here in groups of 30 to 40. They are paid only half the promised salary. They slowly discover that life is not as they expected it to be,” he says.

Mr. Sanga, who is also the founder-president of the Chennai Mizo Welfare Association, says since it is mostly a labour dispute, the police cannot intervene. “More efforts have to be made to prevent them from coming here under exploitative conditions in the first place.”

The Association maintains a membership list to find out if anyone is in need of any help. “Everyone tries to help each other out within the community,” says Ms. Tlau.

“Besides maintaining a registry of people, and keeping a track of their activities, we frequently visit their houses to help them with their problems. Anyone found to be using drugs is sent back home with an escort,” says Mr. Valte. Rehabilitation houses here cost more than twice they do there, he adds.

Different churches in Vepery, Avadi and the Hindustan Bible Institute provide a social net for these communities depending on the State they come from, especially in celebrations of festivals like ‘Kut (harvest festival),' and encouraging church service.

As long as you are in the college, the community does not make you feel left out. But the future is a concern, says Ngahsi T.H. from Nagaland, a student of political science at the Madras Christian College (MCC). Colleges like Loyola and MCC have recorded a steady increase in the number of students from the no rth-eastern States. While a few years ago, “it was mainly students from Mizoram alone, now we have them from all the States, even Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh,” says a senior member of the North Eastern Christian Fellowship.

Explaining the rationale behind the growing preference for Chennai among students, Rothangliana, who is currently doing an M. Phil in Loyola College, said “Many parents no longer prefer to send their children to Kolkata or Delhi as there are a lot of north-eastern students in these cities already. They think that we will get too involved with friends and social life, which will end up affecting our studies.”

From students to employees, a sense of hope animates them all on the question of returning home someday. The migrants say that the fact that many of their Mizo friends have gone back and found jobs there, has instilled a sense of hope in them too.

“We have had struggles over shared histories, and wars. Life was once fraught with violence; I have heard one Naga used to get killed for every Zomi who dies. Things are different here. We are here to eke out a proper living but we still have faith. Guns rule there now, but we will go there when it becomes safe,” says Mr. Valte.

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