By Jiwan Rai
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 and so on. Some of them look too young to be working. They should be in school. Most of them look unhappy. A few smarter ones eventually end up becoming a boss and rise 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 majority of them just remain labourers. I wonder what drives these young people to move on in their lives.
In Nepal, an 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 moneylenders to pay their agents 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. An average Sikkimese youth thinks that indulging in manual labour is below his/her dignity. There are reasons to think so. These workers are often seen bossed over by their supervisors. They do not seem to earn well. Their living conditions often seem deplorable with 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 look covered in dust coming from cement, brick dust, etc. and they eat their meals at work in such dirty surroundings. Most of these workers wear unattractive clothes and almost always look unhappy. No wonder that the local young men and women loathe the prospect of taking this up as a livelihood option.
On the other hand they see office going Sikkimese people – well dressed, looking happy, moving up the social ladder quickly, pompous and so on. Sikkim has the highest percentage of population holding 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 extraordinary professional rise from clerk to secretary, supervisor to top-ranking engineer, peon to teacher, primary school teacher to principal, teacher to administrator and so on. Things have changed now but competition and promotion are not tough enough to daunt an average Sikkimese youth.
Even other alternatives to the prospect of better life do not seem daunting – be it a contractor’s job, politics, business and entrepreneurship. However these options involve risk-taking and the ability to forge and nurture balance with the whole lot of stakeholders. Tension can be consuming and many do not even try these options.
Our young people have seen these options namely the blue collar profession (construction labourer), white collar profession (government jobs) and a third one involving risks. 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.
First, parental pressure is far too overriding. No matter how much a young man or woman wants to pursue a career outside a government job, over 95% of Sikkimese parents would object.
Second, social pressure is irritating enough. ‘What do you do?’ is a standard question in our society and the most satisfying answer is ‘I am an officer 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 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 judgemental and condemn them downright or being blindly sympathetic and pamper them overtly thus making them over-dependent. It’s about time that Sikkim allows young people to become young people enjoying full freedom to grow naturally, wisely, passionately and fully. Of course, not that everything is dark and gloomy. The Sikkimese youth have a lot of success stories to be proud of. However, enormous potentiality still remains untapped. General focus of social commentators seems too confined to over stress 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 horizon of Sikkim?