The Government of Nagaland is busy cajoling native and outsider alike to immerse themselves in the 10-day celebration of exotic cultural romanticism that goes by the name of the Hornbill Festival. In "The Land of Festivals", as the state is tagged in the official advertisements, this is the Festival of Festivals.

The annual Hornbill Festival kicked off December 1 at the Naga Heritage Village at Kisama, about 10 kms from the state capital Kohima, with the promise of ten days of music, food, fashion and culture against the backdrop of stunning natural beauty.

The reaction of Nagaland’s young people, as amplified by social media, is a mix of relief and discomfiture. Relief, that with national media outlets gushing over the cultural smorgasbordthe narrative about their state is uncharacteristically positive. Discomfiture – and some guilt, and not a little discontent – because they are painfully aware that beneath the exotica, the state's economy and politics are in total disarray.

The lack of a formal political opposition, purportedly for the sake of a "Unity government", has meant that there is little dialogue around vital issues. In this vacuum, the deafening silence of state legislators has ominous implications for the socio-political and religious life of Nagas. In popular perception, the legislators have been deemed morally and financially bankrupt. Chief Minister TR Zeliang is himself embroiled in a row over his allegedly dubious educational qualifications – the matter is currently sub judice.

Widespread discontent

In the run-up to the festival, as protests began to be heard from every section of society, the government machinery went into overdrive, concocting strategies to quell anticipated strikes. Though active protests have been damped, the discontent remains, and it pervades all sections of society.

For instance, unpaid salaries have been a recurring theme in the state over the years. And while the government feigns budgetary constraints, the people affected question this, pointing to the colossal expenses being incurred for the Hornbill Festival.

Teachers under a centrally-sponsored scheme for Inclusive Education for the Disabled at Secondary Stage have not been paid for 17 months. The All Nagaland School Teachers Association says teachers employed under the Rashtriya Madhyamik Siksha Abhijan have not got salaries for six months, the Hindi language programme instructors for five and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan staff for three months.

Employees of centrally sponsored schemes have been hurt by the failure of the Nagaland state government to come up with its 10% share of their payments. Teachers, field workers, health workers, work-charge employees and other service providers all have such legitimate grudges against the state government.

Even the scholarships to needy students have taken a hit. Nine months after the Centre released its share of the payments, the state government finally released scholarships to students on November 30 – only after an agitation and after the student community warned of sit-ins and other protests during Hornbill.

On the same day, the Times of India reported that over 150 Naga students were forced to leave the Divya Jyoti Institute of Engineering and Technology, Modinagar, because they hadn't received their scholarships on time. Citizens reacted with a consternation that was amplified by social media. There was even some suggestion that Hornbill should be boycotted. But with the launch of the festival, the media focus shifted to the cultural extravaganza, drowning out the voices of the suffering students.

Each year, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in its report on Nagaland highlights discrepancies in various social, economic, revenue and general sectors. In its latest report, the CAG points out that as of March 31, 2014, there were 214 incomplete projects spread over 24 departments, with an estimated cost of Rs 2268.64 crore. Out of these, 77 projects (estimated at Rs 1126.20 crore) were due to be completed by March 2014, but were yet incomplete as of October.

Routine situation

Such findings are the norm in these annual reports. Just as routinely, the reports are tabled, and shelved, without discussion or corrective action.

The protracted Indo-Naga conflicts have amplified the anxiety of the state's people. Society, though outwardly cohesive, is riven with a strong proclivity towards tribalism, which hinders a collective response to any issue.  Most of the leading tribal and student’s organisations, moreover, have lost the confidence of the people, particularly the young, who see the groups’ silence on key issues as a sign of connivance with the government. In another sign of the crumbling of local society’s pillars, the Church has been subjected to this critical scrutiny too.

But why worry? For these ten days, the state government will coax citizens and tourist alike into a cultural trance.  As a Morung Express editorial sums it up succinctly, “The Hornbill Festival by default reduces Naga people and culture to a state of exhibitionism and commodification – and in essence to a museum of living artifacts. What exactly are we celebrating?”

Moa Jamir works at the Morung Express.