Planning for People

Every year, in March, I have to listen to the same pseudo-technical verbosity at State and Central levels being reported across various media outlets. The Budget Session, it is clear from all the attention and scrutiny it receives, is by far the single most important Parliamentary session there is, and rightly so. Economic activities are the life-blood of society. Here in Meghalaya sadly, the only sheets we know are bed-sheets (which we buy with money which isn’t ours). The grim reality of the state balance sheets has not roused us from our slumber. A quick survey of letters sent in to the editor of Shillong Times shows us that for good or bad, people do have various political opinions and certain positions that they hold up. I might not agree with most of the views but it is ‘healthy’ nonetheless to observe the flux and flow. It is striking though that economic opinions that make their way to the Shillong Times are too infrequent and callow when they appear. For sure, it is easy to drown in the verbal mire of economics and finance and perhaps this is why letters addressing these issues are so scarce. Economics has become, like Law, a specialist discipline. It should not be.

The people of Meghalaya have been their own political masters for a fair amount of time now. We have captured political power but economic power is still a far-cry. We barely produce anything on our own. Our capacity for production is only half-heartedly bolstered. Most of our essential commodities come from outside – rice, sugar, salt, oil – and we are effectively just a colony of consumption. Various reasons are touted for this problem: everything from mismanagement and corruption to the ineptitude and supposed laziness of “tribals”. There is no one correct answer but there must be resolution. The governments that have ruled Meghalaya thus far have been simply allocating money to various projects and departments, they have not been thinking about a living economy. Of course, we need capital investment but we need to have visions first and a commitment to work with the people towards those ends. The point of this entire financial hullabaloo is to try and make people’s lives better. It is that simple. There is no point trying to hide behind jargon – fiscal this and GDP that – when there is no clear goal.

The Budget Session must be quite tiring judging by the looks of the sleepy faces and drowsy heads. Why is that so? There is no doubt that there are a lot of numbers to be crunched and aside from a few passing observations mentioned in the newspapers by some legislators it seems that most have no idea what is going on. It is unquestionably boring and no one can visualise what any of the figures actually mean on the ground. This has to be changed if we are to proceed ahead. The economy and economics need to be simplified more (and their reach widened) because contrary to what many economists believe it is not rocket science. We will be doomed if we rely only on technocrats who do not know anything outside their offices. Unless more of us gain insight into the world of economics we will find it very difficult to mount any sort of counter argument.

To get some idea about the terrible state our economy is in we should look at a sector. Infrastructural development is probably the dirtiest business in the world. There is much money to be made and if you ally yourself with a political party, you can be a certified contractor chamcha. That is why there are so many contractors today, because government policy is inclined in that direction. The need for good and safe infra is not in question. It is an absolute necessity. However, planning in this regard continues to be implemented with no accountability. If the estimated costs for completion of a project are say 5 crores and actual costs come to about 4 crores, you can be assured that 70 lakhs will end up in the wallet of the contractor. The government stops caring when the building is up. It doesn’t give a damn about fair wages and the rights of the labourers nor has it shown an interest in minimum wage revision and other important topics. They can show in their books that the job was completed and wash their hands of anything else.

The point of governmental spending should not be to create a class of elites but to redistribute resources among the people. Taxation (wealth, income) is supposed to help address this problem by levying taxes on richer people and giving that to the many in the lower strata. This is why the wealthy want tax breaks. In Meghalaya, a dangerous situation is coming to a head. We have no means of controlling the hoarding of wealth and assets within the tribal milieu. What is happening (and I blame governments squarely for this) is that a few families and business houses are becoming too powerful and it puts our collective safety in jeopardy. The Land Act, Benami Act protects tribals from ‘outsiders’ but what protects tribals from other tribals? This is a very disconcerting question but it needs answering. Every major party in the state today is a serpent’s nest of vested business interests. Every political party operating currently exists to make their members richer and more powerful. They don’t care about the life and death of your small business nor will they protect local industry from outside competition. Our public debts are mounting and there is no easy way to bring it down. The gates are open and our local enterprises are left to fend off the giant commercial sharks, in a leaky boat, with a broken oar.

I recently heard an anecdote about the ex CM of Meghalaya, (late) B B Lyngdoh. A person informed me that Mr Lyngdoh would always convene a meeting with the local retailers, merchants and service providers of Iewduh every few months in order to understand the trends in the marketplace and to solicit their views about what needed to be done for a healthy economy. These were not just the big-wigs of the bazaar but included tailors, grocers and others. Such proactive inclusiveness cannot be imagined today in Mukul’s Meghalaya. It further highlights humility and a dedication towards public service which I have not seen in most of our sitting legislators. There was less money in the economy in those days no doubt but there was also less corruption. Maybe I am being naive but it sounds more like an economy of the lower rung, building up from below. Contrast this to our current economy of booze drenched party planners and in-bred contractor khandans and you can gauge for yourself how far we have fallen.

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