We are used to seeing young people from outside Sikkim coming here and working their fingers to the bone. They come here from our neighbouring states – Bihar, West Bengal, etc. Some of them look too young to be working. They should be in school. Most of them look very unhappy. A few smarter ones eventually end up becoming boss and rise through the ranks to become a “petty contractor” and then a full-fledged contractor. They end up earning well, thus becoming a role model for other young labourers. But the majority of them just remain labourers. I wonder what drives these young people to move on in their lives.
Go to Nepal – the average Nepalese youth has the dream of going to a foreign country as a worker. Some of them even get cheated by their agents and never get to go anywhere. Most of them take a huge loan from local money lenders to pay their agent and their wages for the first few years go into paying off the loan.
Sikkim, surrounded by these tough realities, has developed a different approach to life. The average Sikkimese youth thinks that indulging in manual labour is below his or her dignity. There is a reason to think so. These workers are often seen being bossed over by their supervisors. They do not seem to earn well. Their living conditions are deplorable – four/five people sharing a one room apartment. Safety measures for construction labourers are non-existent. They are seen hanging from tall buildings while working with no harness belt whatsoever. Others are covered in dust from cement, bricks, etc. and they proceed to eat their meals at work in such dirty surrounding. Most of these workers wear unattractive clothes and almost always look unhappy. No wonder the local young men and women loathe the prospect of taking up that as livelihood option.
On the other hand they see office going Sikkimese people – well dressed, looking happy (at least outwardly), moving up the social ladder quickly, pompous and so on. Sikkim has the highest percentage of population holding a government job. What is even more significant is the fact that Sikkim has the highest number of success stories of people enjoying social mobility by way of government jobs. A generation ago, Sikkim witnessed multiple cases of people pulling off an extraordinary professional rise from clerk to secretary, supervisor to top-ranking engineer, peon to teacher, primary school teacher to principal, teacher to administrator, etc. Things have changed now but competition and promotion are still not tough enough to daunt the average Sikkimese.
Even other alternatives to the prospect of a better life do not seem daunting – be it a contractor’s job, politics, business, entrepreneurship etc. However, these options involve risk taking and the ability to forge and nurture a balance with a whole lot of stakeholders. Tension can be consuming and many do not even try these options.
Our young people have seen these above options – namely: blue collar professions (construction labourers), white collar professions (government jobs) and a third one involving risk. Their sensibilities are shaped by their exposure to this occupational classification and the irresistibility of the middle option, government service, has won the Sikkimese heart. It will take a grand revolution to change the average Sikkimese mind and divert it away from this career option. There are other underlying reasons apart from the ones cited above.
One – parental pressure is far too overriding. No matter how much a young man or woman wants to pursue a career outside of a government job, over 95 percent of Sikkimese parents would say, “Why don’t you try a government job? Look at so and so’s child, how well he/she is doing…!”
Two – social pressure adds to the pull. “What do you do?” is a standard question in our society and the most satisfying answer is “I am an officer (gazetted officer as they say, or police officer, engineer, doctor, etc.) in a government department”.
Much water has flown under the bridge. Things have changed. The conventional career option (read government employment) is shrinking faster than one can imagine. The prospects therefore loom darker and desperation becomes more and more intense. I am not under-defining the intricacies of life by just trying to link life struggles with career options. We are living in a world that is changing at the fastest rate in human history. Our young people have both the privilege of availing themselves of the dividends and the daunting responsibility of grappling with the downside of this extraordinary age.
The nature of our interaction with the younger generation is of utmost importance. Typically, there is a dichotomy of either being too judgemental and condemning them downright or being blindly sympathetic and pampering them overtly, thus making them over-dependent. It’s about time that Sikkim allows its young people to become youth enjoying the full freedom to grow naturally, wisely, passionately and fully. Not that everything is dark and gloomy. The Sikkimese youth have a lot of success stories to be proud of. However, an enormous potentiality still remains untapped. The general focus of social commentators seems too confined to over-emphasize tension and undermine potentialities. Inspirational narratives are conspicuous by their absence. What they really need is a social support system to help them explore the largeness of life. They desperately need to be encouraged to align themselves with emergent aspirations espoused globally. If they remain chained by our conventional sensibilities, who will expand the horizons of Sikkim?
“Our young people have seen basically three career options – namely: blue collar professions (construction labourers, farming), white collar professions (government jobs) and a third one that include entrepreneurship, contract job, politics or business. This third option involves a huge risk. Their sensibilities are shaped by their exposure to this occupational classification and the irresistibility of the middle option namely government service, has won the Sikkimese heart. It will take a grand revolution to change the average Sikkimese mind and divert it away from this career option.”