NEED FOR A PEOPLE’S MOVEMENT ON URBAN GOVERNANCE

By Toki Blah

            It would be the understatement of the century to say that the people of Shillong are the mostunhappy and insecure stakeholders regarding what is happening to their beloved city. This feeling cuts across all sections of society. We beef about traffic congestion; the inadequacy of our narrow hill roads to accommodate the ever increasing number of vehicles that throng them. Hundreds of new vehicles are registered everyday; thousands of tourist vehicles from outside the state choke our roads and bye-lanes. Moving from one destination to another within the city has become a wastage of precious time,   torture laced with anxiety, uncalled for expenses and hair tearing frustration. Government Departments like the PWD, Urban Affairs and Transport, tasked with providing ease of movement to a suffering public, continue to remain mute and helpless service providers. The Police and its traffic department is the only Govt entity visibly engaged in providing relief in an ever deteriorating situation. Unfortunately they fight a losing battle.  We feel helpless over the invasion and occupation of our footpaths by unruly hawkers and vendors. Movement in Shillong has turned from a leisurely pastime of a hill station into a horrible urban nightmare.  Sadly relief is nowhere in sight.

As if that were not enough, our cup of urban misery continues to overflow. Something horrible is happening to the city’s water supply system. Municipality water sources along the Riat Laban are drying up. A major water crisis is looming up. Enhancement of the Greater Shillong Water Supply Scheme (GSWSS) seems stuck at some point and the latest inspection by the Legislative Committee on the Environment, shows the Govt run JNV school at Mawphlang casually emptying  its entire toilet waste into the GSWSS reservoir. Thousands of people of Shillong have therefore been drinking faecal contaminated water every day! It’s disgusting! Its criminal! Yet the public reaction to this scandalous incident is an incredulous silence. It indicates the level of indifference that the governance of the state has sunk into.

Then again because of the inability of the Govt supply system to keep up with public demand, people are forced to buy water from private vendors. Purchase of water is no longer restricted to occasional weddings or funerals but is increasingly becoming an everyday affair for every household in the city. Selling water has become a roaring business. An indiscriminate and thoroughly unscientific exploitation of our underground water reserves is taking place. Its similar to rat hole mining of coal and the Supreme court has in its recent monumental judgement recognised people’s right over their land but also of the need to regulate how this right is exercised. The same with underground water. We can’t afford indiscriminate commercialisation of scarce community assets. The Govt should step in with regulations to prevent rampant commercial exploitation of our underground water resources.

The other day there was a discussion over the status of the Wah Umkhrah and the Umshyrpi. Shillong and greater Shillong form the catchment area of the two rivers. In the absence of any type of industrial effluents  flowing into the two streams, it is clear that  domestic waste from Shillong households alone is responsible for turning these pristine water bodies into the turbid stinking gutters they are today. This simply highlights three basic flaws in our urban governance system. First, there is no sustainable waste disposal concept for both solid and liquid waste. We don’t have a sewage system. The overflowing septic tanks are simply flushed into our nullahs and drains to end up in the two streams. Taken from this perspective, we the people of Shillong are the most unhygienic and uncouth citizens of this country! Second, we do not have, or to be more correct we refuse to have  a comprehensive civic institution that should have taken care of the entire city’s civic governance requirements. Shillong dorbars have their Synjuk but this Apex body has stubbornly  refused to address the civic needs of the city. The Synjuk prefers to spend its energy and time on hazy, indistinct and unproductive political exercises. Third all past attempts to clean up the Wah Umkhrah had been disjointed, stand alone, sporadic and uncoordinated efforts. Stakeholders have not been able to come together on a common platform with a single pre determined goal – to clean up the two rivers. Does this mean we should give up on the concept of good Urban Governance? I think not.

            Of social and political significance is the constant public outcry that the Government has to do something to address the increasing civic woes and ailments of the city.  Individuals, NGOs, Dorbars and civil society itself is anxious that something positive needs to be done by the Govt. Do something but what? Nobody has cared to explain. The irony is when Govt proposes to hold municipal elections everyone says no. So civic polls as one of the means to redress our civic ailments seems out of the question for the near foreseeable future. Now without going into the merits or demerits of the vexed need for Civic Polls, which incidentally could be the key to accessing JNNURM funding for improvement of Shillong Urban Infrastructure, there is also the need to attain the view of the common man on what he perceives of the vexed issues mentioned above. Is he satisfied with the civic services at his disposal? Is he contented with the current system of supply of drinking water, the way our waste is managed, the supply of electricity, the way traffic is managed in the city, the current status of the Wahumkhrah and the Umshyrpi, the lack of civic amenities like parks, playgrounds and markets, the invasion of our pavements by hawkers and vendors, the services rendered with respect to urban health and education? If not, what does he want? Where are the areas /sections that he feels are in need of improvement?  Does he believe that better cooperation and coordination between the Govt agencies and our traditional bodies is the key towards a better managed Shillong? In essence the need of the hour is to come out with a Vision Statement of what the common citizen  of Shillong  thinks of his city and how he perceives it 5, 10, 15 years hence.

A Facebook post titled “PLASTIC TSUNAMI HITS UMIAM LAKE – SHILLONG POST”  has gone viral amongst Shillong FB users. It shows the upper reaches of Umiam Lake covered from shore to shore with plastic garbage. It’s sickening to see how we have treated one of our most cherished landmarks. In no time the entire lake will be covered with the plastic waste from the Wah Umkhrah. The scenic beauty of the Umiam lake will be gone forever. Plastic waste will enter the generators at the power house and hundreds of crores worth of machinery will be damaged. Power generation will stop.  Is no one bothered?

Let us be candid and face the truth. MeECL continues to remain in the ICCU. Next to impossible to expect any reaction from this terminally ill patient despite the threat to Umiam Lake. The institution constitutionally mandated to manage our water bodies, the KHADC, has failed us. No relief can be expected from this body of Sleepy Joes. The Urban Department of the Government seems to think that if it continues to close its eyes and mind on the deterioration of the Wah Umkhrah and the Umshyrpi, the problem will automatically solve itself. The only body of elected representatives that has distinguished itself with its concern for a besieged Shillong society is the above mentioned Legislative Committee on the Environment. It has raised public concern and awareness on the ills of the GSWSS. It is hoped that the Committee will also take up the survival of Umiam Lake as well as the cleaning up of the Wah Umkhrah as its next priority.

The public however needs to be involved. We must mobilise those stakeholders who desire an environmentally sustainable, cleaner Shillong and we see this desire in our youth. The younger generation is anxious about the environment. They want safeguards. Can someone, like Pla Iew for instance, take the lead in mobilising our youth to save Shillong city?

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