India Interior

The return of the native

Ninglun Hanghal | Updated on July 24, 2020

Covid disrupts lives of young women from North-East who’ve had to leave their jobs and go back home

Roselyn, 19, who worked at a restaurant in Chennai, was among the first batch that boarded the Shramik special train from Chennai on May 10. She reached her destination, Jiribam — the only railway station in Manipur — on May 13. From there, she and her co-passengers travelled 200 km in government-arranged buses to reach the State capital, Imphal. Roselyn had to undertake another 65 km journey to reach her hometown, Lamka, the next day.

Due to the lockdown, Roselyn’s workplace is closed indefinitely. “I got ₹5,000, half my month’s salary. Although the restaurant was shut down, I was not told to quit — in fact, my manager told me to come back after the lockdown,” she says.

Leena, a trainee beautician on the same train, was also forced to return home as her parlour had downed its shutters. It was difficult to continue staying in the Chennai suburb where she shared a room with fellow beauticians. “We didn’t know when it will open again,” she says.

Roselyn and Leena are among about 20,000 mostly young workers and students, who have returned to Manipur in the past two months from big cities across the country. There are thousands of others who have returned to other north-eastern States as well.

In mid-May, a group of 18 nurses working in private hospitals in Kolkata hired a bus and left the city. It took them two nights and three days to reach Imphal. One of them said on condition of anonymity that the hospital she worked with was sealed and declared a containment area. She recalls, “We were locked in our shared flat for a month, our rations were getting over and there was no salary.” Moreover, the other residents in the colony were not comfortable with their presence due to the stigma attached to Covid-19 patients and healthcare workers.

Short-lived joy

For 22-year-old Somi, a fresh nursing graduate, the joy of getting her first job was short-lived. The lockdown changed the situation for paramedics. “It was my first job at a private hospital in Kolkata, but we were not provided with PPE kits nor was there any segregation of patients. It was a difficult decision to make, but it was getting too risky,” says Somi, who was eager to return to her home in the hill district of Kamjong. As a fresher, she earned ₹12,000 a month.

Another nurse, Aneri, says that it was made clear to them that the management will not take responsibility for their health. “This meant if we get infected there would be no facility provided for us. Also, PPE is one thing...what about food and essential needs if the lockdown continued?” asks Aneri.

Anxiety and uncertainty pushed them to return home. But there is no certainty at home either. Will their jobs await them when the lockdown is fully lifted? What plans do they have in mind once things get back to normal?

Roselyn is undecided about returning to Chennai. Somi would prefer to work in her home State, provided she gets a job. Aneri is caught in two minds. “I don’t know right now, if I don’t get a job in Manipur, yes, I will have to think of looking for it outside,” she says.

Currently, Somi is helping children with their studies at her village since schools are closed. Roselyn is assisting her parents with their cultivation and weaving the puan on their traditional loom.

Unaware of schemes

Leena and Roslyn are not aware of the State government’s new skill mapping initiative calling for returnees to register themselves along with their skillsets on the new portal, Somi and Aneri say they have heard about some job vacancies in the State health department but have not been able to find the details.

Young women from Manipur and the other States in the North-East had ventured out for employment, securing jobs primarily in the hospitality sector, BPOs and shopping malls. Cities, they say, provide earning opportunities, but they also pose huge challenges, particularly for young women. Moreover, being not highly qualified and often unskilled, they mostly land up with low paying jobs.

According to a study on North-East women migrants by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, in 2014, 60 per cent of women who migrated to cities like Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata reported harassment and discrimination. Two-thirds of the respondents frequently faced unjust treatment in everyday life.

More discrimination

Beerjurekha Samom, a Delhi-based journalist, notes that while discrimination against people from the region was always an issue, the pandemic has made it worse. “Earlier, they were stereotyped as ‘chinky’ and referred to as ‘momos’. Now they are called ‘coronavirus’. It is tragic,” she says.

Madhuchandra, who started the Delhi-based North East Support Centre and Helpline, conducted a survey in 2011. It found that over 414,850 people from the northe-astern States migrated to mega cities between 2005 and 2010. The survey had two sets of respondents, 107 field interviews and 96 case studies of survivors. Of the cases reported, 58 per cent experienced violence against women (34 per cent molestation, 8 per cent human trafficking, 7 per cent beating, 4 per cent rape, and 2 per cent attempted rape). Other cases included non-payment of salaries, issues with landlords and others.

The last two decades have seen a large number of young women migrants. Duncan McDuie-Ra, Associate Dean of Research at the University of New South Wales, Australia, in his book, Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail, finds that earlier it was a small group of elites from the North-East who left their homes. Things changed after the year 2000. The tendency of migration picked up, violence and conflict being the main reasons. Today many people from less privileged groups and peaceful areas leave their home States, aspiring for jobs, better incomes and to be part of the evolving economy of the big cities.

Duncan observes that women enact roles that are required of them in their jobs — that are mostly in the hospitality sector or fashion industry. His research found that women get jobs easily, find “independence” in the city and mostly prefer to stay on.

Income is elusive

An income not only gives young women a sense of empowerment, but it also helps them support their siblings. Often, they are key contributors to the family’s sustenance. The pandemic, however, has thrown this subsistence income out of gear. Though their employers have told them to return, there is no assurance that a job will be waiting for them.

Meanwhile, after coming home the women face an uncertain future. As Somi puts it, “My parents do not want me to return to the same workplace.” Aneri, too, had convinced her parents that she needed to work as she was fresh out of training college and needed the experience. She says had it not been for the experience, she would never have been allowed to leave her home State.

For Roselyn, to go to Chennai and work was a breakthrough. It was the promise of an income that gave her the freedom to leave home. She has four siblings who are still young. No one in her family has formal employment. The job and a regular earning helped her overcome parental opposition. “In fact, my parents had not fully agreed to my going to Chennai,” recalls Roselyn. “Now, they are not going to allow me to go far away for work.” Her parents want her to stay home.

While Covid-19 has severely impacted their means of earning, it has simultaneously reinforced restrictions on young women. It has curbed their mobility and disempowered those who otherwise had some sense of independence since they earned an income, albeit away from their homes and villages.

The writer is a Laadli Media Fellow, 2020. The opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse these views.

Published on July 24, 2020

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