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.

Roadtrip: Shillong – Tyrsad – Pomblang

The road to Tyrsad is horrible. Potholes lie in wait for you the moment you get clear of Mawphlang. I suppose proper roads are only for the tourists who frequent the much-hyped Sacred Grove, located on the outskirts of Mawphlang village. The valley in which Tyrsad is situated is wide, long and very picturesque. It looks like a fairly rich growing ground as well. I see lots of fat sacks along the roadside filled with potatoes or something of a similar shape. This rustic beauty, the sight of hard working people and the smell of cow dung in the morning make me forgive the back-breaking journey.

The moment we reach Tyrsad, my companions get down for a quick peg of whisky at one of the many roadside joints. I wonder how many people knew of the tiny rooms beyond the main eating area where customers could enjoy a drink with their meals. A small boy, maybe the owner’s son, brings us our order – he looks like he’s got a head for business. This is all hush-hush of course; ostensibly they are solely a restaurant catering to tired drivers and hungry travellers. It is too expensive to acquire a legal license and too much harassment. There are many places like these along the highways; you just have to look for the signs.

We get back into the car and start out again. We’re going downhill, to Mawsynram. At Weiloi village, you see it! Lum Symper – erstwhile mountain-god, now customary picnic-spot. You understand in a way why the ancient forerunners would have held it up in such spiritual regard. It towers over the surrounding plateau, your eye always on it.

We have to travel down the back of a mountain which slopes, sometimes too rapidly for our liking, towards the plains of Bangladesh. The bottom of the ravines are hundreds of feet below us and morbidly we wonder if they would even bother fetching our corpses or simply let them decompose out in the open. I used to be scared of cliffs, I’d imagine earthquakes and landslides pushing me over the edge but when you’re sharing such stories together with people, somehow it is easier to admire the sublime scenery rather than the tragedy of an accident.

I’ve always liked linguistics. It’s hard not to when your grandfather was a linguist, you grow up into it. The sounds of those names we encountered on the way, names of places like Phlangwanbroi, Trongpleng, Kenbah Malai fascinate me because they force me outside the standard Sohra dialect, which we use in Shillong, they make me re-see the world, re-assess versions of culture. Kenbah Malai – what does that mean? (“malai” is most probably borrowed from the Bangla). Perhaps the very incidence of this name shows our assimilation of many cultures into ours; which we now take for granted, perhaps we don’t honour them enough nowadays.

At Mawpen, we are told that a big meeting is underway. A Revival Service which, I believe was called by the Presbyterians. This explains why the villages all looked deserted. I didn’t want to offend my friends so I withheld vocalising my grievances. It should have been fine though, since all the while we’d been debating about tribal identity and culture. We never halted at Mawsynram. My friends asked for direction and we sped off further downhill. I hadn’t asked what we were going there for. I like long drives. After yet another hour, we finally reached our destination.

What can I say about the place? Pomblang looks like any other village along the Mawsynram-Balat road. If you didn’t have work there, or had family there, you’d most probably drive on by. It’s a nice enough place with kwai (areca nut) and orange orchards sprouting their wares, all around, in the warm weather. We ask for a particular person’s house and meet his grandmother, his aunts and their numerous children. Inside their home, prominently displayed on the wall, I see a programme- leaflet of upcoming church services. There is also a picture of Jesus next to that of a political candidate. I mutter to myself – Messiah.

I remember a friend once telling me that travelling – on an empty stomach – to West Khasi Hills on a Sunday was risking starvation. He’s absolutely right. I’m extremely hypoglycaemic as I sit down in their living room. My lovely hosts seem to sense this and bring us each a bowl of jadoh (meat cooked with rice) almost immediately. They’re all smiles and I can’t understand what they’re saying in the local tongue but it’s really nice to hear. It gets me thinking about the pre-eminence of the Sohra dialect, about the economics and politics behind its stature. I don’t want that those village kids should ever lose their mother tongue, the language of their village just because they have to come to Shillong to eke out a living. In the city, we talk about outsiders coming and stealing away what is precious to us but maybe we need to be more careful with such thoughts because at times we’re the outsiders.

Slowly I realise, in the ensuing conversation, that the man whose house we’re in, is actually in jail and that my friends, who themselves had spent a month in the slammer, had gone all that way to tell his family that he was doing well, and to brief them about certain things they needed to do to speed up his release. I didn’t know what to feel at this point. What are our reactions when we know of or meet such people? Fear, loathing? Or do we dismiss them entirely? Throughout my formative years, I’d always thought that these people were hooligans and troublemakers. It may be true but is it really so simple or easy to pick up a gun?

Mere troublemaking and extortion were not what lured so many young people into the folds of armed outfits. They believed in something, maybe it was a wrong belief but they followed it through. If you never met one or talked to one, you’d most likely imagine them to be complete monsters. Personally I respect their courage but there is no doubt, in my mind, that they’ve been used. Many coming out of poor villages like this pawned, sold out and moved around by various forces beyond their control. I suppose that’s why these villagers are wary of strangers.

Look East

Look East but not if this highway brings middlemen and murder;

Look East but not for the sake of nation or Delhi;

Look East but not if this highway takes from you, your health;

Look East but not for the sake of anything but your village;

Look East but not if this highway brings dust and drunk driving;

Look East but not for the sake of companies or tycoons;

Look East but not if this highway takes from you, your rice fields;

If these should happen: look west, look south, look north,

Look anywhere but east.

Dieu Francais

Shella, a new God has come to town
Sitting proud, on the other side of the bank;
A God which has lodged itself into the mountain side
Which has inserted its tentacles into the villagers’ hearts;
A God whose raiments are hard hats, heavy boots and uniforms:
A standard international God.
A new magic has enraptured the minds of the locals:
CSR development magic, which offers a place at the table
For the old elite custodians and tribal priests;
Unlike the old gods who mostly preferred being alone.
This new God’s temple is a conveyor belt that stretches into Bangladesh;
Like all gods it needs offerings before blessing us:
Its mouth is a furnace, its entrails digest Indian ore
Turn it into indulgences, for glocal acolytes.
Shella, can you imagine a future without this God?
Has it come to deliver you or disappear like the others?
Will its name last a thousand years?
Will you be saved, Shella?

On Legal Migration

(Appeared in Shillong Times, Aug 22, 2014)

Our homegrown bigotry is so deep, so pervasive that we sometimes need reminding just how ingrained and tough-rooted it really is. Our situation is, of course, unique. We are simultaneously: minority and majority. We derive the ‘benefits’ of both in equal measure. We make use of minority safeguards, which are constitutionally recognized, and which are indeed vital to the survival (and empowerment) of the small. Yet our attitudes towards other races/communities, especially the poor, is as casteist as of the most orthodox acolytes of the largest castes. Though we have, in a manner of speaking, achieved (debatable of course!) what other tribals all over the country are seeking to achieve: ruling for themselves; we continue to oppress in turn, the minorities within our own minority community.

Our situation makes it very hard to paint things in black and white. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to seek out the grey areas, the shades that are not so simple to discern. Hatred has blinded us to anything other than a commonplace brutality and a (so-called) necessary violence to maintain our supremacy over other peoples. Though we might control the political reins, it is still not enough and we continue to impose our chauvinism and fists on the ones who cower; they MUST cower before us else they get burnt alive. It is a rather tragic and comedic part in which slave at times becomes master, master in turn slave. Of course, we cannot brand our entire community with such an iron. It is also one with much heart, openness and flexibility, though many a time one is hard-pressed to find these.

Our oldest enemies or adversaries seem to be the people of the Sylhet Plains. But is it so easy to say this? Often at times we disregard our rather close and cozy relationships with these people. Why then do we hate them today with such venom? Quite often the geopolitics of our own backyards are filtered to us through the lens of so-called experts. We do not ask the class interests, the personal biases and political agendas of these people. The intricacies are rolled over and a simplistic, urbane narrative is presented to us as truth. We fear the assimilations, and possible, obliterations of our own distinctive identities as a “hill people”. Who says we are “hill people”? Maybe we were a “ravine people”, a “slope people” or “people living in the foothills”? We are “hill people” and therefore diametrically opposed to “plainspeople”; but what about the areas in between hills and plains? For a long period of time, this was where the life of our people was built upon and thrived in. Yet the experts and ‘babus’ tell us otherwise based on shoddy and questionable assumptions, most of which is drawn from Colonial gibberish.

Today outsiders who do not even belong to this region, who do not have sensitivity towards the North East, who share no historical ties like us and the Bangladeshis, seek to tell us that the Sylhetis are foreigners and anti nationals, terrorists and land grabbers. This is the distinction they create to justify their own landgrabbing and militarization of the region. They call these people “foreigners” based on a border which some white man helped draw on a piece of paper! If we look at history, Delhi is a far more foreign place to us than the nearby plains. Indeed this mentality is foreign and recent. It is nationalism without past or context, a dumbed-down version which can be called to use at any time, for the convenience of our dearest political people. I do not mean to say there are no “illegal” immigrants but I want us to question the politics of “legal” migration more incisively.

“Illegals” have no rights, guns or resistance so they present an easy target; their only weapon is quantity, it seems. They are seen as something sub-human: a horde that travels to favourable lands, lays babies and overwhelms through reproductive might. We call them the ‘freeloaders’ (“poiei”) and celebrate them being beaten up and chased around like goats. Do we dare do the same with the “legal migrants” who come with armaments and take up entire mountains as campsite? Do we dare question why we have so many men with guns in our backyards? We do not; for we somehow have convinced ourselves they are here for our own protection. It is interesting to note – in 1972 the year Meghalaya was formed, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was amended to include this state within its purview. The irony is obvious. So too is the lack of trust in such a move. The same is true for “legals” who come to develop our apparent backwardness. They can occupy large acres of land seemingly leased but in reality it is as good as a sale deed. They are not “poiei” because they bring us small trinkets like the white men who ruled over us less than a hundred years ago. Tomorrow if a Bangladeshi industrialist comes to “develop”, will we see him/her as a “poiei”? I hardly think so. “Poiei” is for poor people, rich people deserve better names.

What we must demand today is something no pressure group has raised so far, to my knowledge. Not with sustained effort anyway. We must demand the retraction of the military apparatuses from our walks of life. Some might say that I am being an idealist, such people take the world as it is. But true Progressive vision starts with just that – a vision; something to aim for, to work towards. Why can’t we emulate the countries of the world which have disbanded or reduced the strength of their militaries? Are we still so filled with hate and fear? Is it not ourselves that we fear and hate? Let us acknowledge the truth of military occupation; that we are surrounded by armed force and that violence breeds violence. Is it not a tenet the Mahatma would stand for?

 

“Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time passing …

Oh, when will they ever learn?

Oh, when will they ever learn?   (Pete Seeger)

Taxi Ride

An elder gets into the cab, hauling her heavy bag into it. I move aside, making room for her. She rummages through it and brings out coins for the fare. I’m always drawn to such old people, who still have to worry about livelihood and cannot afford to rest in old-age leisure like many others.
-Mei, phin leit shaei?
-Polo, nga sah ha Polo
And we start conversing. She tells me about her being punished by the Governor’s gardener when she and her friends used to steal sohkhlur from there as children. How they would say sorry one day and be back at it the next. She chuckles.
She goes on about her father’s house which was made of thatch in Laban and how she misses it.
As we drive past Secretariat, she expresses her amazement that all those buildings could have come up in, what was once, thick forestland. She manages to draw a map of Shillong in every sentence and I try to envision all of it in my head.
In Keating Road, a beggar man comes up to our car and asks for “tea money”. She explains to him that she has no money either in proper Hindi. As he moves sadly away to the next car, she heaves a heavy sigh, looking back at him.
I pay for her and she is so grateful it startles me. I can not help tearing up as we separate and I thank her profusely, which must have startled her in turn.
She was just telling her story.

I have come to realise that such profound warmth and empathy for fellow sufferers is not alien to the poor and as I walked through the detritus of PB- that place with its SUV driving crooks and self-indulgent brats- I could not help but tremble as I thought of that old soul, walking down Jail Road, trying to navigate home.

I Have A Dream

There are these small silent people who sneak under our sights:
Old grocer women dragging bags around, depressed men in corners,
Children sifting through dung piles to salvage metals,
Hawkers trying to work, survive Khasi customers.
These are my people.
People left behind in the dust plumes and exhaust,
People who need “development” but will never have it,
There is a better way, a better world that only we hope for,
I want to to run alongside them in chasing that dream.