WITH RELATIVE PEACE BEING USHERED INTO NAGALAND, YOUNG NAGAS ARE NOW RETURNING HOME TO BECOME FIRST-TIME BUSINESS OWNERS.
When Sarah Pongen, 30, moved back to her hometown Dimapur, Nagaland, four years ago, she came back with an exit plan. She’d cut her studies short in Australia to return home and help out with her father’s business. After living abroad and in Delhi, Dimapur, a city of about 300 000, was by comparison, a sleepy town.
She also felt like a stranger in her own place. Like many her age whose parents could afford to send their children away for better education, Pongen had, since the greater part of her childhood, lived outside, returning only for annual holidays.
She decided to stay for a year, then leave. But the more time she spent here, the more she realised the city desperately needed some change. For one, it lacked a place where the city’s youth could hang out.
“Previously the culture was such that people rarely went out, and if they did go out, they would go to people’s houses,” says Pongen. This meant that the few places people could go to – a handful of dhabas and Naga eateries – were often shut by four pm.
So, instead of leaving, she decided to do something about it. Two years ago, along with a business partner, Pongen opened Jumping Bean café.
In the last decade, a widely observed ceasefire between different Naga national groups and the Indian government has given rise to a new mindset, particularly amongst the youth. The armed pro-independence movement started in the 1940s, at a time when Naga tribes were beginning to move out of their villages to urban centres like Dimapur. The political conflict stymied progress, leaving little energy for education and the softer aspects of culture. Factional clashes between the armed groups left the younger generation disillusioned and students started to migrate to Indian metropolitan cities for education. But with a relative calm now being established, young people are returning to their native land.
In the city of Dimapur, where low-rise buildings give way to bamboo-thatched houses just a few kilometres from the city centre, modern establishments like Jumping Bean have cropped up in the last couple of years. Such places are a testament to something of a cultural revolution in the city, where returning Nagas are bringing with them the skills and urbane worldview they’ve absorbed from outside. Seeing the gaps in the market, enterprising youths are embarking on start-ups ranging from recreational outlets to product-based ventures to other forms of cultural enrichment.
Today, Pongen, a bubbly girl with long black hair, dressed in purple tights and sneakers, is reclining in one of the armchairs at Jumping Bean, located in the city’s tiny commercial centre near a curious landmark, a mini Eiffel Tower.
“I think I have become quite comfortable out here. I’ve managed to find ways to entertain myself. Even if there isn’t a lot of things to do as compared to being in a [big] city,” says Pongen.
Jumping Bean, a cosy but spacious place, has posters of rock bands hanging on the walls, a small retail section with homegrown merchandise (CDs from local bands) as well as Manga comics, a menu boasting Western fare and a stage which sees live music performances every second Friday of the month. It’s the trendy kind of café one would readily find in an Indian metropolitan city.
The café’s efforts to support local musicians by providing a performance space and the chance to earn caught the attention of the state government’s Music Task Force – enacted to professionalise a fledgling music industry. The task force provided the café with its sound system and Pongen says the donation was “a gift for helping the other artists in Nagaland.”
In recent years, the role of youth in positively shaping the state’s future and economy has been a focus for the state government. The “Year of Entrepreneurs” scheme, which ended on March 31st, awarded grants to promising business initiatives. A senior government official says at least a few crores have gone into the scheme, which is likely to be extended for another year.
Since Jumping Bean opened, Pongen says, gaming parlours, restaurants and other cafés spearheaded by young Nagas ensued soon after. Some entrepreneurs are also branching out into ventures that represent self-reliance, such as “Aiko” packaged drinking water.
Inoto Kinimi, who started Aiko water, turned down an offer four years ago to work in America with the organisation Ernst & Young, and instead returned to Dimapur. “My mom kind of emotionally blackmailed me,” the husky-voiced 29-year-old says grinning. “She was like, ‘I think it’s better you come home since nobody is there to take care of the family business.’ ”
“It was still my choice,” he says. “But I was a little confused. I had to start everything from scratch.”
Just six months ago, Kinimi – who three years earlier started a karaoke lounge with the financial support of his parents – launched Aiko with a business partner. Wanting to position it as a higher-end product, Kinimi enlisted the creative skills of Design Stash, young artists who had moved back home from Mumbai less than a year before, to design the fun, pink label.
The Aiko plant, while modestly sized is an impressive set-up; Kinimi has even imported machine parts from Canada. The plant processes and bottles about 9 000 bottles of drinking water daily, which are then distributed to both Dimapur and the Nagaland capital Kohima as well as Imphal, Manipur. Further down the line, Kinimi plans to add a fruit juice range made from locally grown fruit including passion fruit and pineapple.
Kinimi speaks of business opportunities in Dimapur in pragmatic terms; a traditional frontier town, its greater connectivity with other states makes it both Nagaland’s trading hub and largest urban centre. In the last two decades, the city has boomed with people moving from smaller districts to settle here; with more consumers, the local economy is starting to pick up.
But for business owners Kinimi and Pongen, running a business in Nagaland has its drawbacks. Apart from the annual government tax, they, like all business owners, are similarly required to pay a yearly sum as well as miscellaneous taxes to nationalistic factions.
“We call them a parallel government because they have their own system,” says Kinimi. The collectors, or “mamas” as he and his friends call them, will visit the Aiko plant sporadically, but frequently enough that it can be almost weekly.
Both Kinimi and Pongen, while resigned to paying these extra taxes, say what can be trying is that the amount asked is normally based on a superficial assessment of how successful a business seems.
“They don’t really come and check to see whether you are making a profit,” says Pongen. “They say that ‘this café is quite popular, everyone knows about it, they must be getting a lot of money.’ So they just come and quote a blind figure and from there you’ll just have to negotiate.”
But another challenge, says Pongen, is while Dimapur has taken huge leaps, the kind of businesses coming up means it’s also “moving too fast for the people to catch up.” On some days not a single customer will visit Jumping Bean and Pongen attributes this to the fact that a culture of eating out has yet to catch on.
Over the Christmas period, the café is busiest as students return for holidays. “They go out frequently because they have been doing that outside of Nagaland. They’ve been exposed to that kind of culture, so then they come and help the business keep up,” says Pongen.
Many young business owners express wanting to share with those who’ve never left Nagaland, what can be experienced outside. Further, a sense of solidarity stemming from simply returning home informs these enterprises. For instance, Shellem Akai, 25, who with the financial help of his family raised the 33 lakh to get a nightclub up and running in Dimapur – he maintains that it’s the state’s first proper nightclub – believes that those who have lived in the outside world, as he did studying in Delhi, are responsible in “bringing up Nagaland.”
Akai says, his contribution is not just a place to go to, but also one that provides young Nagas with a nightclub experience on par with what one would have in a major metropolitan city.
Akai recognises that many are “not privileged like us [and] there are so many who want to do something but financially or maybe [with their] family background they can’t.”
Others who have returned, like Nise Meruno, 30, are indirectly challenging the assumption that one cannot succeed professionally through cultural avenues. “You should be able to create your own employment opportunities,” he says.
Meruno, who studied music in Singapore and worked as a piano teacher at the Delhi School of Music and the American Embassy School, returned to Dimapur for a concert in late 2008 and found himself on an extended holiday. In 2009, he took up a position as a vocals and piano teacher at a performing arts centre and trains those who want to make a career out of music. Through his work he also aims to “show people you can be a performer or music teacher and survive very well.”
The state boasts the highest number of music graduates and postgraduates, he says, and Meruno’s students follow exams set by London’s Trinity College of Music. One promising student was just 14 years old when they sat a music diploma examination, normally taken by college-goers.
In a city whose energy he likens to that of Delhi’s, Meruno says he’s noticed a shift in mindsets. “Young people [are] trying out different things [and] not just running after government jobs.”
Indeed, for many young Nagas as well as people of their parents’ generation, government jobs are still the most sought-after; both Pongen and Akai’s parents wanted them to secure such posts.
A R Wati, a senior government official with the Indian Administrative Services says, when he entered the workforce in the 1970s, government jobs were the only available line of work. “The kind of industrial expansion in other corporate sectors was not there at all in the entire Northeast, except [in] the tea plantations,” he recalls.
However, as there were very few posts to go around, being employed by the government was considered very prestigious, and competition was also fierce. “Singlemindedly that means we have been striving for one goal – to get into a good government job. We didn’t know all these diversifications,” Wati says.
But in the 1980s, the absence of a private sector coupled with a growing number of administrative districts saw a glut of newly created government jobs and overemployment, particularly at the low level positions. As a result, people with jobs at this level grew complacent; the sought-after government post came to signify a safety net and one that bred laziness.
“First of all there’s pension and stuff like that and secondly, a lot of people have seen that people who have government jobs don’t actually go to the office, they go only about twice in a month, but they get a steady income and so they are free to do whatever they want but they don’t need to work for it,” explains Pongen.
Al Ngullie, 29, a journalist with the English daily, the Morung Express, has lived in Dimapur all his life to witness the changes. Until the ceasefire, he says, people were so engrossed in the political movement and the everyday violence that the “enriching aspects of life” were neglected.
Being educated and living outside has, says Ngullie, not just encouraged Dimapur’s young entrepreneurs to take advantage of the peace situation, but to also “venture into territories which traditional Naga livelihoods wouldn’t normally have allowed them to.”
As the growing problem of unemployment takes root in the state and the youth negotiate a life after conflict, Ngullie and other observers see the likes of Dimapur’s returned youth as a source of hope for Nagaland.
“For many of the youth, we see them as beacons, they’re the pioneers and if Nagaland is going to be an industrial society one day we’re going to refer to people like Nise and Sarah,” says Ngullie. “These are our first generation entrepreneurs.”
It’s about 10 o’clock on a Monday night and the main street is dead quiet. The shops have shut hours ago and the only sound is of dogs howling in the distance. Down a dirt road, within the walls of a compound, Kinimi, who finished for the day several hours ago at the Aiko plant, is now kicking around a campfire with three friends talking about the comedian Russell Peters. Sultan, a skinny Alsatian is dozing by the fire. Pongen has just closed Jumping Bean for the night and will head home to unwind. Meruno, who wrapped up his last lesson at six, is likely to be entertaining a close group of friends, having cooked some Thai food or prepared a barbeque, in the garden of his newly built home. In these little pockets of Dimapur are those who imagine an economically independent Nagaland, for whom now the future remains ambivalent. The city’s businesses will reopen in the morning and Pongen, Kinimi, Meruno and many others will continue to do their bit to make this hope a reality.
Byline: Annette Ekin
Photographs: Tenzing Dakpa