Return of the native

Posted on: February 24, 2013

Manipuris who left the conflict-hit state for education and employment are returning home to set up businesses.
Homeward bound: Naoba Thangjam
Pic: Sonia Sarkar

Vikramjit Sharma is striking a business deal worth several lakhs over the phone. Sitting in his office in Moirangkhom Loklaobung in west Imphal, the 32-year-old co-owner of a software firm, GI Services, is also slowly finding his feet in a state that he left eight years ago.

“I had offers to set up software firms in Pune or Bangalore but I refused. I wanted to start something in Manipur,” says Sharma, who studied and worked in Bangalore before returning to Manipur two years ago.

Naoba Thangjam is expanding his business. The 25-year-old hotel management graduate left Manipur when he was eight but returned in 2009 to set up the state’s first three-star hotel in Imphal. The Classic is today a landmark in the city, and Thangjam is now planning a four-star hotel.

Kundo Yumnam (left) and Korou Khundrakpam

“I want to contribute to the growth of Manipur,” he stresses.

Thangjam and Sharma are among Manipuris who left the conflict-hit state for education and employment, but are now exploring business opportunities in their homeland. Not surprisingly, software firms, event management, advertising and graphic designing companies, retail chains and hotels have started coming up in Imphal Valley in the past three years.

“Earlier, we had just two industries — agro-based and handloom. But now other sectors have developed with young Manipuris exploring possibilities,” says Th. Dhabali Singh, president, Manipur Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

When they left Manipur, the state was in the throes of conflict. Four decades of insurgency had crippled businesses. Educational institutions too were often shut down for long periods.

“Children grew up witnessing bomb blasts, police encounters and blockades. Often, frustration pushed young Manipuris towards drugs. Parents wanted their children to move out so that they could lead a normal life,” says Professor S. Mangi Singh, political science, Manipur University.

Vikash Lourembam

Insurgency and blockades are still a part of Manipuri life, but many are keen to do their bit. “It’s about time we made things move,” says 28-year-old Harjeet Sinam, managing director, Kok Sam Lai Solutions, a software firm. Sinam studied computer science at Nagpur University and worked in Bangalore before he decided to return.

In a conversation over coffee at Imphal’s only coffee shop, the newly opened Rita Café, 28-year-old graphic designer Korou Kundrakpam stresses that troubled Manipur is drawing back its lost youth. Kundrakpam, who studied art and lived in Delhi for 16 years, returned because he wanted to experience the life he had turned his back on. “I thought I should face reality instead of running away from it,” says Kundrakpam, who runs Warakki Ways, which makes logos, designs and posters for companies.

The trigger for him was the 121-day economic blockade of 2011. Kundrakpam was then preparing to leave for Singapore for a course in painting but the crisis that Manipuris faced touched his heart. He decided not to go for the course and start a business in Imphal instead. With a capital investment of Rs 1 lakh, which he had saved up by selling his own paintings in Delhi, he started the graphic designing company.

He was joined by his friend Kundo Yumnam, a 30-year-old National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate, who too had lived away for 12 years. “I too wanted to come back but had no idea when and how to make a beginning. Then the two of us took the plunge together,” he says, adding that the company bags projects worth at least Rs 70,000 every month.

For some, the desire to return home followed the exodus of Northeasterners from the southern states in the aftermath of Assam’s ethnic violence last summer. Indira (name changed), who worked at a call centre in Bangalore, returned to Manipur in August and never went back.

“That was when I realised that no place in the world is as safe as your own motherland. Even if Manipur is riddled with conflict and corruption, it’s ours,” says Indira, who has now set up a retail store with her father.

The return of young entrepreneurs is slowly changing the face of Imphal. Working women are out on their scooties till 8.30pm, which was rare some years ago. People throng the city’s new departmental store for their groceries. Young men and women hang around in the two new restaurants that have come up in the past year.

Some other changes too are visible. Sixty private schools have come up in and around Imphal in the past two years. Manipur’s literacy rate, at 79.85 per cent, grew by 10 per cent during the past decade. And Manipuris hope that the young entrepreneurs will create jobs for the people, reducing the state’s current jobless figure of 7 lakh.

Big buzz: Imphal’s only departmental store, Vishal Mega Mart

“Most of my 180 employees have come back to Manipur after working in various places in India and even abroad. They are ready to work at lower salaries because they want to work here,” Thangjam says.

Initiatives are also being taken to develop Manipur as a tourist destination. The Manipur Tourism Forum, set up by young Manipuris, has been promoting trekking on the Leimaton range, boating in Lake Loktak, and white water rafting. In 2011-2012, 1,000 foreign tourists visited the state.

After Guwahati, we want Imphal to be on the commercial map of the Northeast,” says Vikash Lourembam, co-owner of GI Services, who worked in a healthcare company in California for four years.

But opening businesses in a state hit by corruption and insurgency is not easy. The entrepreneurs complain of a lack of basic infrastructure such as uninterrupted electricity and roads. “We had planned to start a call centre but couldn’t do so because of poor electricity supply,” says Joyremba Haobam, managing director, CubeTen, a software development firm, who also set up Imphal’s first NIIT in 2012.

Insurgents extorting money are another impediment. A young retailer in Imphal says militants called up and asked for money barely four days after the shop’s inauguration. “I had to negotiate with them, saying that I had to first run the shop well,” says this postgraduate in retail management.

Security forces also harass the entrepreneurs. “We are frisked while driving back home late night after work. Even if we want to make Imphal look like any other city, the forces repeatedly remind us that we live in a conflict state,” rues Roshan Samom, who runs the event management group Spotless Event, which organises music shows in Imphal.

Despite all this, Manipuris continue to dream. “We plan to get into real estate. Talks are on to build a complex that would house a discotheque, shopping malls and an IT park,” says Lourembam. “We want to sell dreams to the people of Manipur who never dared to dream before.”

Sharma’s dream is to be able to gift his one-year-old daughter a normal life in the city. “I will not let her run away as I did,” he says.


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  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
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