Debt, no jobs, run-down schools: On the eve of elections, what ails Mizoram?

“It has been 16 months. We have been waiting for the reimbursement of over Rs 1 lakh we spent on my brother’s hospitalisation,” said Lalrintluangi, a daily wager, who availed insurance under the Mizoram government’s state healthcare scheme in June 2022.     

In poll-bound Mizoram, thousands share the fate of Lalrintluangi. As per the state health department’s data shared with mediapersons on September 5, the state government owes Rs 63.88 crore to the public under its healthcare scheme.   

But it is not only the healthcare system that is ailing – burgeoning debt, and curtailed revenues of the state pushed its debt-GDP ratio to a towering 53.1 percent for FY23. Meanwhile, the lack of teachers in the state and the issue of “single-teacher” schools continue to jeopardise the quality of education.   

With the assembly polls on November 11, while political parties are vying for votes – here’s a snapshot of life in Mizoram, from education to employment.

Long wait for healthcare reimbursement

Lalrintluangi’s brother was diagnosed with scrub typhus, a disease caused by bacteria, and is still recovering from it, unable to make a living. “I take up daily wage jobs to make ends meet. If I don’t find a job, we won’t have food to eat…Till now, it is only a part of the bill that we have paid the hospital, we owe them more than half of the total bill of Rs 1,40,000.”    

The daily wager, a resident of Tanhril Vengthar in Aizawl, said the state government’s healthcare scheme did not provide much relief as it offers belated reimbursement, which too is delayed in most cases. “To add to our woes, it takes very long to get our money back. But we have no other option because it is our only hope.”  

Thangtei Colney, a retired school teacher and resident of Serchhip district, also has a similar story. Her husband, who is also a retired school teacher and suffers from a chronic kidney disease, travels five hours every week to the state’s capital Aizawl to avail dialysis facility.

Colney said despite Serchhip town being the district headquarter, it doesn’t have a dialysis facility, and over 14 months of her husband’s medical bills are due for reimbursement under the Mizoram State Healthcare Scheme.    

“My husband needs dialysis twice every week. We travel to Aizawl every week and only return home on weekends…In a week, we spend around Rs 6,000 and sometimes even over Rs 10,000,” she said. “It has been at least 14 months since we started billing, but till today we have not received a single amount.”

Dilapidated schools, single-teacher schools 

“We are currently holding classes in a dilapidated school building. The roof is leaking, and if it rains, water floods our office area,” said a 33-year-old government primary school teacher in Sialsuk village, on condition of anonymity. “There is no drinking water. Students and teachers carry enough water to last us through the day.” 

While she is employed under the central government’s Samagra scheme, the teacher said many posts in the school are vacant, and the salary is low for teachers employed under the state government’s flagship programme, Socio-Economic Development Policy or SEDP. “Some of us are employed under the Samagra scheme and we get our salary from the central government but it is always delayed by at least two months, sometimes even three or four months.”    

Many schools in the state are also run by single teachers.

“Many primary schools are being run with only a single teacher, who teaches all the subjects to 70-80 students of different classes. It is not humanly possible. Even middle schools do not have an adequate number of teachers. Mizoram government says that this situation is prevalent across the state. It is a big problem,” said activist and author Paritosh Chakma. He said the quality of education is especially suffering in rural areas due to a lack of adequate number of teachers. 

Chakma also pointed out the “substitute system” practised in local schools. “When non-locals are appointed in schools in remote areas, after submitting a joining report to the school authority, many of these teachers do not stay at the job location. They find a local youth as a substitute who they pay a certain amount out of their salary,” he said.   

In November 2021, Indigenous Rights Advocacy Centre, a Delhi-based human rights organisation, lodged a complaint with the NHRC about the absence of appointed teachers in several government primary schools in Mizoram’s Lunglei district. 

The organisation alleged that schools, particularly in Tlabung Sub-Division, were running with just one teacher for 50 to 80 students, from classes 1 to 4.  

The complaint highlighted that 1,137 vacant teacher positions were yet to be filled in Mizoram and also mentioned that it was “unclear” since when they had remained vacant. 

“Upon reviewing the provided information, it is clear that the state government is in the process of filling these 1,137 vacant teacher positions. However, it remains unclear how long these positions have remained vacant. Given that the current complaint is nearly two years old, the delay in filling these positions is unjustifiable,” the complaint said.  

Subsequently, the Mizoram government’s school education department acknowledged the widespread issue of “single-teacher schools” in its reports issued on December 7, 2022, and June 21, 2023. The reports also emphasised the need for a holistic approach to tackle the problem.  

Unemployment, favouritism in govt jobs 

On completing college amid inadequate educational infrastructure, Mizoram’s youth are faced with a much bigger challenge: finding a job.  

At 11.9 percent, the youth unemployment rate in Mizoram is above the national average, as per the central government’s Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted between July 2022 to June 2023. The youth unemployment rate among men is 8.9 percent, while it is 16.4 percent among women.  

The youth we spoke to also alleged favouritism in government sector jobs.

“I have attempted for various positions in the government many times. I have given examinations over 15 times and appeared for interviews on four occasions,” said Rohlupuii, a post-graduate and resident of Aizawl. 

“I have seen how the more qualified are ignored, and the less qualified are given priority if they have good acquaintances in the political party. A substantial distinction exists between having acquaintances and not having close ties with political party members.”  

She added that particularly for “government department jobs, you can be sure they will only employ the favoured persons of the minister and the department officials”. 

A 30-year-old post graduate also alleged that recently, out of the five available positions in a state government department, three were given to “individuals favoured by the governing party”, while two were given to those favoured by the department officials. 

This reporter reached out to the government department officials. The report will be updated on receiving their response. 

Due to limited economic opportunities in the state, government jobs are the primary source of employment in the state. “This is a consequence of our struggling economy. Everyone aims for government jobs because they offer financial stability. But there is a significant problem of nepotism in contractual and departmental positions,” said Lalrosangi, a 30-year-old, pointing to the recent assembly house recruitment. 

Lalrosangi, a resident of Aizawl, was referring to a recruitment drive at the Mizoram Legislative secretariat, in which out of 11 appointments, nine were allegedly close relatives of the speaker of the House, Lalrinliana Sailo, and the commissioner and secretary of the Mizoram legislative assembly, Lalhmahruaia Zote. The allegations stirred a mass protest by student bodies, and the posts were cancelled.  

Mizoram has one of India’s highest debt-to-GDP ratios, as per the RBI’s recent report on state finances. The state’s increasing borrowings has pushed its debt-GDP ratio to 53.1 percent for FY23. In the last financial year, Mizoram’s fiscal deficit rose to seven percent of the GSDP, surpassing the target established in the Mizoram Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (Amendment) Act, 2020. 

About 5.3 percent of the state’s population is experiencing multidimensional poverty, as per the National Multidimensional Poverty Index 2023.

Alcohol – a major source of revenue, now banned 

A senior official at a public sector bankon condition of anonymity, said that populist spending and an alcohol ban in Mizoram by Zoramthanga’s Mizo National Front government had drained the state’s coffers.   

“There was no respite from populist spending even after the MNF formed a new government following the fall of the Congress government in December 2018,” the official said, citing Congress’ New Land Use Policy, MNF’s Socio-Economic Development Policy as “primarily populist”. Under both the programmes, the state government pledges substantial financial support to people. 

“The main difference is that the Congress government generated good income from liquor sales, whereas, the MNF government has totally prohibited liquor sales and dried up the revenues from one of the most important revenue sources of the state,” the official said. 

Calling liquor sales “one of the main revenue sources” of the state, he said that now, the government’s populist agendas were being fulfilled through debt, “which should have been used for infrastructure development”. “If you stopped a revenue source without opening new ones and continued the spending spree, there would be a deterioration in the debt-to-GDP ratio,” he explained. 

‘Inadequate’ emphasis on agriculture, industry 

Over the years, more entrepreneurs have sprung up in the state. A 2021 report in India Today ranked Mizoram first as the most improved “small state” in economy, entrepreneurship and health.  

However, only six Mizoram-based startups were recognised by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade till November 2022, as per commerce and industry minister of state Som Parkas’s reply to a question in the Parliament during the 2022 winter session. In the Ease of Doing Business index for 2019, the state was among the lowest ranked – positioned 25th among 28 states.    

Lalrinnunga Jahau, a businessman in Aizawl said, “In terms of entrepreneurship, the seeds of change were sown in 2016 with the launch of the Entrepreneurship Development Scheme.” 

He emphasised that the sector requires continued contributions from the youth, government, and state ministries.  

Jahau said, “With the upcoming election, we hope that the new government will focus on improving areas such as the Ease of Doing Business, in which Mizoram currently ranks 25th among the 28 states – a notably low position. The state should also improve areas such as import-export procedures and venture capitalism, where Mizoram still lags.” 

An Economics professor at a government college in Mizoram, who wanted to remain anonymous, pointed out that the state has heavily relied on the services sector – from transport, communication and hospitality and real estate – as the primary driving force for nearly a decade, while lagging behind in agriculture and industries. 

As per the Economic Survey of Mizoram 2021-22, the services sector contributes 48.06 percent to the state’s Gross State Value Added. The industries sector contributed 26 percent, while the agriculture and allied sector made up 25.93 percent of the total GSVA.

The sustainability of such heavy reliance on the service sector is “questionable”, the professor said. “There’s a pressing need to focus on promoting the agricultural sector for long-term economic stability…Initiating industrial growth is challenging, so concentrating on improving the agricultural sector by enhancing aspects such as marketing, storage, minimum support price, and transportation can be a viable approach.”    

He added that the push to agriculture would also create more employment opportunities.  

The professor alleged that the state government has been “inadequate” in fiscal management. “The state is inadequate in its fiscal management…To ensure financial prudence, the state must prioritise sectors and be willing to curtail spending in certain areas.” 

Financial expert and author, Lalnuntluanga Colney also attributed the state’s high debt-to-GDP ratio to the absence of a manufacturing industry and the government’s “reckless decisions”. 

“Government services are a significant contributor to the state’s GDP. The MNF government has been making financially reckless decisions, such as creating new police battalions, converting several private schools to government schools, creating new districts, and implementing insurance policy scheme on the back of an ADB loan,” said Colney, adding that most of these decisions were “driven by populist agendas without much regard to fiscal balance”.  

He emphasised that the state government should build infrastructure such as hydropower projects, promote technical and skill development, and education. 

“The state government can promote technical education by establishing engineering colleges that can, in turn, foster the growth of the IT sector here. Skill-based education should be encouraged in fields like nursing and lab technology. Establishing special economic zones with subsidised land and power can attract businesses. Call centres can take advantage of Mizoram’s high literacy rates and English-speaking population,” said the financial expert.  

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Influx of displaced people, little support from centre 

Colney said the state’s resources have been “stretched” also because of an influx of refugees from Myanmar and those displaced due to the on-going conflict in Manipur.   

“Mizoram’s resources have been stretched in terms of welcoming refugees from Myanmar and internally displaced persons from Manipur. Churches and local NGOs have provided them with basic shelter, which include tin roofs, thatched walls, and rations of rice and dal. But additional support is needed.” 

Mizoram has harboured refugees from Myanmar since the coup in February 2021, many have also migrated to the state from Bangladesh, and thousands of internally displaced persons have come in from Manipur to escape violence.

The state has appealed to the central government for funds for rehabilitation of the refugees and migrants, but not much has actualised. In September, the centre said it would send aid in the form of food and medicine, instead of cash, for the displaced persons from Manipur. An official at the home department confirmed this aid is yet to be received. 

This article has been republished from newslaundry. Read the original article here.

Also Read | Congress blames MNF for Mizoram’s ‘healthcare crisis’

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