“Being a politically disturbed area, people here were scared to step out of their homes after sundown. As such, a regular job seemed impossible, driving many youngsters out of the state to search for jobs.”
In 2001, more than six thousand people from the North East (NE) migrated to Bengaluru, and almost 67,000 more migrated to Delhi, according to the Census data. Since then, the numbers have been increasing, reports confirm.
A region with its history of socio-politico-economic problems leading to lack of education and employment opportunities, NE is fast losing its industrious demography which can be counter-productive to its growth. This realisation irked a Delhi-based lawyer to give up her dream job in pursuit of a holistic solution for a cause she believed in.
A prominent name in the region now, lawyer Hekani Jakhalu realised early that the root of the migration phenomenon stems from the lack of interest shown by employment generating industries in the area.
“Hence, for survival, the youth is being pushed out of the NE states to venture out for a livelihood,” she shared with The Better India (TBI).
“When I was in Delhi, I would regularly encounter people from the NE working in various areas in the city. Be it parlours, restaurants, malls or other jobs; the city was full of them. I always wondered if it was a choice or were they obligated. Many had even come from small villages, making the city experience highly expensive and culturally different. The question of what pushed them to migrate began to bother me” added Hekani.
The seed of discomfort was thus sown, awaiting the right time to germinate.
And, the catalyst arrived through a chance encounter with the then Chief Minister, Neiphiu Rio who inspired her to start YouthNet, in 2006, to provide employment and entrepreneurial scope to the youth of Nagaland.
The Homecoming of Change
Born and raised in Dimapur, Nagaland, Hekani’s formative years were spent with her parents till she moved to Bengaluru to complete her Senior Secondary from Bishop Cotton Girls’ School. She then went to Delhi to acquire her Bachelors in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, followed by LLB from Delhi University.
“I was born in a simple middle-class family where education was taken very seriously. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to study at various prominent institutes of the country and pursuing law became a prominent dream. But, after LLB, the opportunity to study LLM at the University of San Francisco, US arrived. It wasn’t very easy financially, so I had to take a student loan,” she said.
Once Hekani completed her Masters, she took up a faculty post in Washington and then interned at the UN. She decided to return home as a partner at a Delhi-based civil and corporate law firm.
“Being a lawyer has always been a dream. So, I joined the company and worked there for almost two years. But, in hindsight, in my heart, I wanted to do more especially for my region. And the turning point arrived when I met the CM of Nagaland to [make] pitch [on behalf of] my firm. As the conversation grew, we began to discuss the various issues ailing the state, including unemployment and youth migration. It did something to me. After I left the meeting, the thought continued to churn in my mind. I wanted to do something, but the direction was still unknown,” she shared.
But after spending a couple of months researching about the problems, she met the CM again and told him that she was quitting her job to dedicate herself to solve the problem of unemployment in the state.
“Much to my surprise, he understood my passion and told me that he would give his full-hearted support in whatever I began. Bolstered by his encouragement, I came back home to Nagaland,” said Hekani.
Hekani had lost touch with the ground realities of the region after having stayed away for so long. She decided to reach out to her friends to help her understand the pulse of the rugged, mountainous region. Speaking to TBI, she remarked that with all the thoughts of quitting her dream profession and worries of the student loan over her head, the idea of starting an NGO did not occur to her until she was back home.
But, once the thought had taken root, her family and friends lent their support to help her establish YouthNet on February 1, 2006.
As the work began, the team had to face the challenge of mass apprehension in the state. “Being in a politically disturbed area, people were apprehensive and scared to step out of their homes after sundown. Thus, a regular job seemed an impossibility, driving many out of the state to search for jobs,” she pointed out.
YouthNet began to address these issues by creating safe and flexible employment spaces within the region.
“You can talk volumes about changing the world, but you can’t do so without food in your stomach. So our ultimate goal was to empower the youth to earn their bread and butter, and be independent without having to leave their homes,” remarked Hekani
In the next few years, the organization branched out across the state and beyond to impact more than 1 lakh youngsters. From simple job centre where locals would be recruited in hospitality and retail sectors, to RTI awareness campaigns to weed out corruption contributing to the unemployment scenario, YouthNet worked on multiple objectives. The organisation also emphasised skill development, youth consultation, and entrepreneurship programmes.
Boost to Entrepreneurship in Nagaland
In 2013, YouthNet partnered with the State Government to begin a 5-year-long programme called the ‘Impact 5000 by 18’. The agenda focused on entrepreneurship awareness campaigns, career guidance sessions, and opportunities to acquire seed money to initiate or bolster state-based ventures.
“Unlike the rest of the country, where startups are primarily technology-based, here in Nagaland where basic infrastructure like internet and electricity is scarce, our entrepreneurs focus on other areas like organic agriculture products, packaging, upskilling, and transporting food products, among others,” she added.
Fortunately, their efforts bore results when the programme managed to outdo its previous target of 5,000 entrepreneurs by helping almost 30,000 instead!
This success paved the way for Made in Nagaland—a one-stop shop for all Nagaland-made products—launched in 2018.
A venture, which is gaining momentum in the rest of the NE region, already houses products from 100 entrepreneurs!
“We plan to expand Made in Nagaland further into Made in Northeast, by roping in other NE states as well. It’s a collective effort of the organization and the government, as governments need to strengthen the core of their regions to make this a success. Presently, Made in Meghalaya is all set to soar,” she informed.
What began as a response to her true calling has now transformed into a giant magnet of change that hopes to elevate the North Eastern Region (NER) from its current state and position its strength on the national and global map.
“Most people often encourage you to dream big. But if you truly want to achieve it, then you can’t keep your eyes closed. Look around you, understand your environment and act upon your aspirations right now! One thing that I have learnt with experience is that dreams don’t magically come true. They need initiative!” is what the modern superwoman had to say. Her vision for the future of NER is truly inspirational.
To know more, you can get in touch with YouthNet, on firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)