Show me the money!

Business and economic planning in Meghalaya is arguably the most neglected area of governance by past and present policymakers. Now, there are a number of problems within the entire topic. There is immense wastage of energy and time, inefficiency, corruption on a sinful scale. The officers are drowned in oft-times pointless paperwork and become indifferent while the MLAs use the misery and poverty of people as an excuse to accentuate their supposed nobility and generosity, when they deliver umbrellas and blankets to the constituency. It is a cyclic nightmare. None of the people will escape poverty and the rich will continue to dominate elections.

No one wants to give serious thoughts to creating a Meghalaya which is self-sustainable and economically independent. Forget the pre-election rhetoric, the policies do not reflect it. To actually initiate such a task would require work, will power and actual thinking! A Meghalaya that stands on its own two feet is a Meghalaya where the citizens stand on their own two feet, and that my friends, is dangerous for the dominant power structure. An economically confident citizen is not going to simply follow what is ordered from above without questions. Such a citizen would have the means to critique Power. This is why an economically feeble state is such a danger to the democratic ideal. I am aware that there are a number of other threats. After all, even economically powerful states and countries have to deal with other dangers to their democratic apparatuses. Europe is a good example currently. However, as any good Wiki Marxist comes to realise: in the last instance, it is the economy.

Going back to the broad topic of economic planning, I would like to talk about a single but crucial issue that keeps coming up: capital, or the lack of it. I would like to build upon this with an example. There is a shop in Laitumkhrah which initially opened up as a retailer of specialty baked goods (in this case, cookies). Their products were priced along the lines of similar establishments in the major cities like Delhi. Needless to say, the shop didn’t flourish. After all, there are a number of other local purveyors of baked goods which have been selling their wares for half the price that the shop was offering. It was forced to shut down after a while. This would have been the end of the story – had the proprietors been Khasi/tribal. I know how that last sentence sounds but please read on. The same shop space later transitioned into a boutique (if I remember correctly) which also failed to attract customers. Finally in its last and latest avatar it came out as a cafe and since then it has become a popular eatery frequented by tourists and college goers.

Now as I said earlier had it been a Khasi/tribal business, in all probability it would have rolled down its shutters forever and a new tenant would have taken up the space. The lesson we must learn from this story of the trans-mutating store is this: when people have capital, they can afford to innovate. Or it can also be argued that a conducive environment allows for experimentation, but I want to look specifically at the issue of capital and its availability.

The cafe in my story is owned and operated by a Marwari businessman. The ability that the businessman had to continue paying rent in spite of bad sales indicates his financial capacity. A capacity that few tribal businesses can compete with. There are many sad instances that I have personally seen where the promise, excitement (and perhaps naivete) of a new undertaking quickly gives way to dejection and finally abandonment. Many Khasi parents are quick to further their children’s dream of being financially independent by shelling out the cash needed to set up a business. These are usually out of their own savings. Now, one must be very practical with money: can the business survive in the marketplace against constant competitors and toughened veterans? Would it be money well spent? Business literacy seems to be the need of the hour. The cafe in Laitumkhrah, for the Marwari businessman, is probably a diversification of money he has made from the ‘unglamourous’ and ‘uncool’ shop he keeps which sells dal and chini in Iewduh. It is based on risks which he can afford to take.

One must also keep in mind that the Marwari community like many successful trading communities has traditional institutions that aid it. Their community can ‘move’ money from project to project in an informal but highly efficient “banking system” which was honed over hundreds of years. This makes it extremely easy for them to access capital from anywhere, provided that the proposal is sound. How do tribal businesses compete with years of such experience (and money) if there is no helping hand from the government? Government intervention in economic affairs must surely extend into areas beyond infrastructural development! A policy of ‘positive discrimination’ would ensure that the current economic state of affairs does not spin wildly out of control. Measures like rent allowances (or control) for young start-ups, orders guaranteeing floor and shelf space for local produce are just some of the ways that a smart and progressive government would take.

If you look carefully you might notice that most protests in the state are, at the core, economic agitations. The ILP imbroglio, the predicament with the hawkers and many others are all economic issues. The government CANNOT absorb every single resident of the state into its service. It would be ludicrous for it to try. It must promote and regulate private enterprises. Especially the small and medium scale enterprises which are usually (I might be terribly wrong) tribal enterprises. Easy access to capital is one of the most important ways to ensure that these businesses are nurtured and reared properly. Right now, government policy with regards to banking sector practices more or less ensures that only the already wealthy tribal elites get their hands on capital. It is very hard for the people who need investment to get their hands on it. Instead of judging a proposal based on its merits and demerits, the only thing that seems to matter to banks is that one must have heavy-weight ”guarantors” for everything. What happens to those who don’t have any guarantors? The current manner of running financial institutions within the state is creating an inequality which we have never before seen in our tribal society. It will tear this society apart and I don’t think it is hyperbolic to imagine such things. The government has been impotent for too long in planning out poverty, in addressing unemployment, in mitigating income gaps. Ensuring the proper dispersal of capital investment into crucial areas would surely be a major step in righting the wrongs.