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Post-COVID, Northeast Students Choosing Local Institutions for Higher Studies: NESO

The outfit has prepared a charter of demands concerning the issues of people in the Northeast, such as time zone, education, employment, Act East Policy, etc.
Students from Northeast

In what appears to be a carefully crafted charter of demands by the North East Students' Organisation (NESO), the ones related to education, employment, Act East Policy, time zone, etc., vie for importance no less than those already part of the familiar narrative – opposition to Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, repeal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, extension of Inner Line Permit and implementation of the Assam Accord 1985, with particular emphasis on Clause 6.

Interestingly, NESO office-bearers NewsClick talked to emphasised that the charter and agitations to realise the demands have "no connection whatsoever" with the Assembly elections in the first quarter of 2023 in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland and in December 2023 in Mizoram. 

"We raise and pursue demands in the interest of the people of the Northeast who actively participated in the struggle for Independence and have suffered and sacrificed a lot. Our exercise is peaceful, and we shall keep it peaceful," said veteran activist Dr Samujjal Bhattacharya, now advisor to NESO. 

Based in Guwahati, Bhattacharya is also chief advisor to the All Assam Students' Union. NESO is a conglomerate of eight student outfits in seven Northeast states.

As for education, the organisation wants the Centre and respective state governments to formulate a –spec Northeast-specific policy that considers the region's history and culture. The other allied demands are establishing more technical and vocational institutes, engineering colleges, and research centres and introducing more courses in colleges and universities. 

Further spread of higher education will justify, in due course, the setting up of more universities. Significantly, these demands have been highlighted when there is evidence of a shift in the thinking and preference of students and their guardians. As the fears of further spread of COVID receded and the situation improved with the vaccination drive, students and their parents preferred institutions closer to their homes for higher education. 

Region-based institutions for higher learning, which saw considerable improvement in the preceding three-four years, which included the Covid spell, were found credible alternatives, and the number of students from the region leaving for states in other parts of the country has been seeing declining trends, educationists have confirmed.

Visuals of the misery experienced by innumerable migrant workers across the country and the widespread disruption in economic activity also were factors that weighed with them. In the assessment of academics, the Centre's Act East policy also appears to have helped. The policy's ambit does not cover only trade and commerce. It also helps in increasing people-to-people contact. Several batches of students from neighbouring countries have joined institutions of learning, particularly in Assam and, to a lesser extent, in Meghalaya and other states in the region. 

The positives are evident, but it may be some more time before the gains can be quantified, say informed quarters. Taking note of the gains accruing from the Act East policy, NESO has demanded the setting up of the "administrative" Centre of the Act East policy in the region itself. 

Amid the changes for the better in education, NESO has had to contend with one irritant, and it promptly conveyed its displeasure to Union home minister Amit Shah. This relates to the Centre's move to introduce Hindi in the region's schools up to class X. NESO's secretary-general Sinam Prakash Singh, based in Imphal, told NewsClick that the organisation had in a letter on April 11 to Shah told them they were totally against the move; their opposition in this regard was as strong as that in the South. 

"We want initiatives to promote the region's languages, and the process should culminate in their inclusion in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution." 

India is a diverse and multi-lingual nation; the Hindi language is spoken by 40-43% of the natives, the letter reminded the home ministry. The deficiencies that need to be addressed urgently are filling up teachers' vacancies in school districts and toning up physical infrastructure, including libraries and laboratories. As far as students passing out of institutions of higher learning are concerned, campus recruitment, which can boost their morale, is yet to gather pace.

The charter demands that the Centre formulate a comprehensive policy for economic development compatible with the region's natural and human resources. The region's natural resources are ideal for applying agricultural science and focus, among other things, on biotechnology and forestry. In this approach, NESO sees scope for generating employment opportunities for the local population. Its related demand is to reserve all grade III and grade IV posts in Union government offices in the region for its people.

The demand for a separate time zone for the Northeast, which figures in NESO's charter, also has the backing of Assam's chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. The principal reason behind the demand is the loss of daylight hours and excessive electricity use. The distance between the country's east and west extremes is 2,933 km, which is equivalent to a time difference of two hours. Dong Valley in the Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Assam, is where the sun rises first in India- nearly two hours before dawn at Guhar Moti in Gujarat, the westernmost part of the country. 

By the time offices and schools open, many daylight hours are lost. A 2019 study by a research scholar at New York's Cornell University found that the sun sets more than 90 minutes later in India's western part every evening. The revived demand for a separate time zone is yet to generate a response from New Delhi. According to published reports and expert views, there is apprehension that a separate time zone may create division between the Northeast and the rest of the country. It may also lead to chaos in air and rail travel schedules.

Under the guidance of NESO, the students' outfits held a sit-in agitation on August 17 at respective state headquarters in support of their demands. Asked about the next plan for agitation, Upendra Debbarma, NESO vice-chairman based in Agartala, told NewsClick it is yet to be decided. 

Debbarma indicated the possibility of seeking time from the Prime Minister and home minister to apprise them of their concerns and apprehensions. A general conference of the apex organisation is likely to be held towards the end of November under the aegis of the Twipra Students' Federation. He firmly ruled out NESO being part of any political campaign on any issue during elections.

When asked how he would identify the outfit and whether there is any possibility of it being converted into a political party, Bhattacharya said, "It is 100% a non-political outfit; it is a students' organisation; it believes in the peaceful pursuit of its aims and objectives which have the welfare of the region's people as the pivot." 

Asked about the contentious CAA issue, he said, "It is a bad Act; we feel it is unconstitutional. We and AASU have gone to Supreme Court against it." 

As for the long-pending implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord 1985, Bhattacharya told NewsClick, "Remember Clause 6 is a national commitment; all parties accepted it."

For the record: The NESO constituents are: AASU, Naga Students' Federation, All Manipur Students' Union, Twipra Students' Federation, All Arunachal Pradesh Students' Union, Garo Students' Union, Mizo Zirlai Pawl and Khasi Students' Union

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