Going by a letter written by a former Principal Secretary of Agriculture that appeared in these columns on how Meghalaya lost the golden opportunity to set up the Central Agricultural University (CAU) much before Manipur was considered as the alternate venue, we learn how decisions are taken on crucial issues that impact the state in the long run. So when the Union Government in its wisdom offered a Central Agricultural University to Meghalaya way back in 1985, the political leaders at the time must have sought the opinion of the senior bureaucrats. According to Mr H Chinkenthang former Principal Secretary, Government of Meghalaya, the views of Personnel, Planning and Finance departments were sought for and the blighted consensus arrived at then by a bureaucracy that is supposed to advice the political executives looking at a long term vision, was as petty and xenophobic as it could get. The decision that a Central Agricultural University cannot be set up because Meghalaya at the time did not have indigenously grown agricultural scientists and technicians and bringing them from outside would lead to influx reeks of xenophobic mindset. The political executives are supposed to take decisions based on their own wisdom and the long term good of the people but that did not happen. Now we repent at leisure. And Manipur stole a march over us because its leaders were far more visionary and were not given to such bigoted ideas.
For several decades, it was the Khasi Students’ Union that decided for us that we did not need a railhead at Byrnihat, again because of influx. This decision was taken without doing a cost-benefit analysis of the whole project. It was done at the behest of the large number of transporters who would have lost out with the coming of the railways. We all know that the freight cost by railways is much cheaper than road transport, hence our essential commodities would have cost much cheaper than they do today. But that was not to be. The state succumbed repeatedly to this pressure from the students’ union because governments were too fragile to take hard decisions and politicians were more concerned about staying afloat in their chairs than about the future of the state and its people. Many of the ills we suffer today are because of these short term decisions that were never debated by the people of Meghalaya because we had all outsourced all our problems to interest and pressure groups. I am sure that if such a proposal as the one for CAU were to come from the central government today, the Chief Minister who knows as much if not more than his bureaucrats would not have shot down the project on such a frivolous ground as “influx of scientists.”
This brings me to the point on crisis of governance. I was reading a book by Jarred Diamond, “Upheaval – How nations cope with crisis and change.” Diamond does an analysis of the word crisis. He says crisis is a sudden realization or a sudden acting on pressures that has been building for a long time. Like humans, the state can also become schizophrenic as it did when it was offered to set up the CAU in 1985 and refused to. Now while humans can take the help of psychiatrists and counseling psychologists, the state has no such resort. It trundles on from day to day even as one crisis piles on top of another with no solution in sight. The solutions obviously must come at a cost which the state is not willing to pay. Let me cite one example. The people of Shillong have wisely analysed that the cause for massive traffic jams today are because some of the leading educational institutions, all of which are located within a stone’s throw of each other are unwilling to use school bus services for their students on different pretexts. Several Deputy Commissioners have tried to engage with the heads of these institutions but to no avail. They continue to resist any suggestion for using school buses. Mostly their flippant alibi is that they have no parking space. So the matter ends there. There is no exploring of new ideas. Governments give in too easily, mainly because the children of the elite study in these schools and any disruption in the status quo could disrupt the fragile relations between those in the bureaucracy and politics and the heads of these institutions. So the problem replicates itself with more cars converging into our roads during school hours. And we continue to watch in helpless anger until the last straw on the camel back slips and we take the law into our hands. Then the law will label that as an act of lawlessness.
Another crisis concerns that of local governance vis-à-vis solid waste collection and disposal. The city of Shillong is divided into the Sixth Schedule zone, the Shillong Municipality zone, the Cantonment zone. The Shillong Municipality collects an annual tax from its denizens for executing certain work which is essentially to collect and dispose of garbage, provide clean water and electricity et al. The areas beyond the Municipality do not have a system in place because although they fall under the jurisdiction of the Sixth Schedule, the District Council does not have the human resource or the capital to double up as a suburban civic body. Every time the issue of cleaning up the city and its main rivers the Umkhrah and Umshyrpi comes up we hit a roadblock because the two rivers cannot be divided into jurisdictions. They both originate in places beyond the Municipal’s jurisdiction and then flow through areas within the Shillong Municipality where they are heavily polluted. So how do we build that convergence? How do we reach that turning point in our history?
The Shillong Municipal Board is not an elected body hence the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is accountable to the Urban Affairs Minister and not to Ward Commissioners who would have taken up the responsibility of fixing up things down to the last mile. And why don’t we have elected Ward Commissioners? Because we are paranoid that some non-tribal would be elected from some of the wards and the Dorbar Shnong would lose traction. As usual no government has had the spine to see that elections are held, not for the purpose of wielding political power but to deliver civic governance. The complete failure of civic governance is there for all to see. You have hawkers setting up shop wherever they want to and without as much as a permission from anyone. We are witnessing the collapse of governance at the cutting edge because if garbage is piling up everywhere; if septic tanks empty themselves into rivers; if viewpoints across the state become markets where garbage is left to rot and no one takes responsibility then we don’t have basic governance. How can we expect government to deliver on bigger issues?
We are at a point when society needs coping methods. But how does society interface with the state? What are the societal institutions that have been created over the decades? At one time the Dorbar Shnong was supposed to be that social institution, (albeit male-centric) where politics was kept at bay and all, no matter how poor had an equal voice. This has now changed. Despite the march of time women are still not allowed to contest elections to the Dorbar Shnong. But this institution has also been appropriated by the political system since the MLA implements the MLA schemes through the Dorbar Shnong. Over time the poor are alienated from the Dorbar and have lost a valuable platform to air their grievances against the state. We have not developed a robust civil society to engage on an equal footing with the state, hence the state continues to implement development schemes that exacerbate out anxieties instead of alleviating them.
Let’s also not pretend that the tribes today are as cohesive as before. We are divided by social classes and the sense of community is therefore a fallacy. There is urgent need to build social institutions that can continuously give feedback to the state and which transcend partisan politics. Failing this we will sink into a deep morass of governance failure at the grassroots instead of rising to the occasion and building coping mechanisms to deal with the crisis.