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The Modi Visit: An Analysis

Patricia Mukhim

Meghalaya defies all stereotypes. The tribes practice a matrilineal culture but women are nowhere to be seen at the helm of affairs. Not a single political party is headed by a woman. When women do get elected to the legislature it’s almost as if they have hit the glass ceiling. It is in this light that one looks at the Modi visit. The programme for the inauguration of the Shillong-Nongstoin and Nongstoin-Rongjeng highway was an all male party. I captured some pictures of that brief function and the scene was familiar. It was an all male affair and it did not even seem as if there was anything wrong just as it happens at every panel discussion or any other function where the organizers are gender-blind. I thought that the BJP in Meghalaya had some star functionaries who also happen to be female. I had met one such articulate young college lecturer at a radio discussion programme. But she was invisible at the Modi Rally. Only one lady was seen carrying a tray with the accoutrements that would adorn Modi’s person. And of course only ladies carry trays, serve tea and also anchor programmes because that is expected of them. Come on BJP Mahila Morcha why do you get busy only when the Chairperson, National Commission for Women is around? Why are women relegated to women only activities? This is  a shame more so since its happening in matrilineal Meghalaya. What’s the point of the “Beti bachao, beit parhao” slogan when the person who has coined it does not even wonder where all the women have disappeared from the welcome party right from the Upper Shillong helipad?   

Then we come to more substantive issues. Mr Modi may not be part of a dynasty but his body language is distant and unfriendly. He is good with addressing crowds from a distance but not when it comes to a one on one with party colleagues. He seemed dismissive and conscious of his position. I am not sure if our democracy forces leaders to distance themselves from the people. For reasons best known to the BJP, its leadership here had announced that certain personalities would be sharing the dais with the Prime Minister in a sort of launch pad to their new political journey in a new uniform; some of course are prodigals who return with the turn of the tide. Now that did not materialize and we are told by informed insiders that the much-touted dais-sharing agenda with the PM never got the concurrence of the PMO. Now this is confusing! Was Mr Modi in Shillong as the Prime Minister or as a BJP honcho? If the former than the PMO clearance is imperative but if he was here to enthuse party workers then is the visit official or personal? Things seem a little muddied here. Or am I clueless about protocol?  

The SPG assumed a larger than life role here and would not allow even media persons into the venue. One can understand not allowing every Tom and Dick but why prevent media persons who have been security-scanned and cleared, from doing their jobs? The local BJP too seems nonplussed. Certainly the organisational capacity of the Party was tested to its limits. At this rate will the Party be able to manage its booths the way it does in other states? Does it have foot soldiers that are committed to the cause and work, not because they expect something from the Party but because they believe in its ideology and its Pradhan Sewak – Narendra Modi. That is one thing the BJP boasts of – its karyakarta – who slog to bring people to the polling booths on the D-day. Political parties with no foot soldiers usually struggle to win elections. And that is the problem with the Congress and regional parties! Those who support the party do so because they are looking for payback time. No one will work out of pure commitment. I wonder if this will change in 2018.

Then Mr Modi launched a tirade against the ruling Congress-led Government, calling it a government of scams, scams and more scams and serving the interests of the mining mafia. The fact of the matter, Mr Modi is that no government can come to power in Meghalaya or survive without the active monetary infusion from the mining mafia. Earlier, chief ministers have even been dethroned for withholding permission for setting up cement plants in Jaintia Hills. The new incumbent quickly gave clearance to 19 cement plants in Meghalaya. That’s the way we do politics here. And incidentally, the BJP leaders here have been saying that they will ensure that the mining ban by the NGT is lifted if they are elected. That’s a very attractive carrot dangling before the voters with a vested interest in mining.

Yes coal mining is such an important agenda for all political parties that the present Chief Minister is pushing for the activity to be undertaken by Meghalaya Mining Development Corporation (MMDC). We have heard little about the activities of the MMDC in all these years. And one wonders if they have the wherewithal to carry out scientific mining as per the requirements of the NGT. One also is unsure if the mine owners will be happy with entrusting the mining to an agency as they will not be able to manipulate things, the way they have been doing all these years. Also what is the equity share between the MMDC, the mine owners and the Government? The NGT is very specific that the environmental destruction that had been allowed to carry on for decades is arrested. It has a mandate to ensure that mine closure is also done scientifically and such land reclaimed for afforestation.  Will the MMDC which is but an arm of the state have the ethical environmental conscience that the NGT is trying to push for? Indeed these are troubling questions that we don’t seem to have answers to. And as of now, surreptitious coal mining is carrying on beyond the reach and visibility of the monitors appointed by the NGT. It is difficult to believe that coal extracted before the NGT suddenly clamped down on mining continues to be transported day in and day out. Who are we fooling anyway?

As of now, elections in Meghalaya will hinge a lot on the stance taken by political parties on the coal mining agenda. Coal has funded elections in the past and this will be the first election post the NGT ban. It will be interesting to watch how the 2018 elections pan out without the filthy lucre from the coal mines. Interestingly, Justice Swatanter Kumar who heads the NGT justified the ban on the plea that Article 21 of the Constitution gives predominance to right to life than any other interests including economic interests. He is said to have stated thus: “In the largest democracy of the world, we cannot permit economic interests to be preferred over to right to life and live in a healthy environment just because the activity should be allowed to carry on. ” Justice Swatanter Kumar was referring to the unscientific coal mining in the state by a primitive surface mining method  – the “rat hole” mining that entails clearing ground vegetation and digging pits ranging from five to 100 sq.m. to reach the coal seams. Labourers including young children are engaged to go deep into these holes to extract the coal using primitive tools such as pickaxes, shovels and buckets. In Garo Hills at least 15 people were killed when a mine collapsed and the bodies were buried inside the mines. This was the last straw and it raised a furore among human rights activists across the country. These aspects should be kept in mind before re-launching into a second bout of coal mining by pretending that there is no history to this ghastly activity which is highly extractive and damaging to the environment.

   

Lets also not forget that the rivers, streams and groundwater that were polluted by acid mine drainage have slowly regained their lives after the ban. Do we want to kill these rivers and streams yet again?

We would like to know whether the BJP has an action plan on sustainable mining and whether it has implemented that action plan in any of the states where it is holding power. If the BJP in Meghalaya is only going to promise to lift the ban on coal mining through smart litigation and not by taking concrete steps to prevent the past cruel onslaughts on the environment, then how different is it from the Congress, the NPP or the UDP-HSPDP and PDF? That none of these parties are even talking about this issue shows a deep nexus they all have with the coal and cement mining mafia.

Mr Modi’s next visit might try to answer some of these troubling questions in Meghalaya. He did say that this is a state blessed with natural resources. He also spoke about making Meghalaya a tourist destination par excellence. Well. Mr Modi you can either have a Meghalaya that is open to tourism because of its natural beauty or you can have a Meghalaya where mining will eventually destroy the biosphere that is the source of our sustenance. You cannot have both!                  

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