By Toki Blah

            Just for the record we finally managed, by the skin of our teeth and an incredible amount of luck, to get Shillong included as the 100th and last entrant in the Smart City mission. Fact of the matter is, we can’t, by any stretch of the imagination call Shillong a planned city. Truth is we have with deliberate and purposeful neglect, chosen that Shillong remains as it is – a motley collection of villages and localities we call dorbar shnong, each looking after itself with no capacity nor inclination towards the collective well-being and development of the city as a whole. By historic coincidence we once happened to have been governed by a more civic minded set of administrators. They left  us with Wards lake, Lady Hydari Park, football fields and a race course, a beautiful golf course, a heritage Raj Bhavan, a one of its kind Legislative Assembly building, a working municipality and of course the much hyped moniker as The Scotland of the East. We then got Independence and Statehood and in just 70 years of self rule, managed with splendid determination, to dismantle and bring to its knees every existing civic amenity that Shillong inherited. Not to worry. With gay abandon and complete indifference, the destruction continues unabated!

In view of the recent Smart City status bestowed on our city, we need to find out just what this status really implies. From a Shillong perspective it seems mind boggling and of Augean Stable proportions. The basic characteristic of a smart City is the willingness to change and reform for the better. This reflects the aspirations of the city residents for a better urban lifestyle. It involves the ability to recognise, identify and accept fault lines in any prevailing civic administrative setup together with the readiness to redress such flaws. It also requires a public desire for comprehensive development of institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure.  Does Shillong exhibit any such desire or aspiration to change for the better?  Smart City status will also feature the ability to plan for existing unplanned areas. It will involve strategy, proposals and ideas for improving the infrastructure such as housing, water supply, electricity, transport and communication; the availability  of resources and capital to create liveable localities; to reduce congestion; to reduce pollution; to manage both solid and liquid waste in a sustainable manner; to ensure security and safety for the residents of the city. How can a city whose civic governance is the apple of discord between the District Council, MUDA and the city Dorbars, ever aspire for Smart City status? We can’t work together if our lives depended on it! Government and TIs (traditional institutions) have failed to come together for the betterment of the city. Can we allow this  absurdity to rule us forever? I sincerely believe it can be overcome provided we allow ourselves to be ruled by logic and reason rather than by sentiment and emotions.

            Its about time we examined the profile and characteristics of a traditional Dorbar Shnong. Its important because if there is any future plan to improve the civic governance of Shillong, the Dorbars of the city will play a major role in such thinking. Traditional Dorbars are democratic and participatory platforms from which our ancestors carried out the administration and governance of their respective isolated hilltop villages. The traditional focus areas of a village dorbar is on security and protection of the village, maintenance of peace and tranquillity and the administration of justice. There were no written codified laws to depend on. Instead social codes of conduct handed down by word of mouth served the purpose. Khasi Social tenets based on the principles of Da ka Nia ka Jutang (by logic and reason alone), Ka Tip Briew Ka Tip Blei (with equal obligation to both man and God), Ban Kamai ia ka Hok (to strive for justice), Ka akor ka burom (social etiquette and social prestige – the highest social goals) steered and guided the proceedings of our traditional durbars. These overarching social values would transcend issues of a personal nature or opportunistic vested interests. The work profile of the 21st century Urban Dorbar Shnong in Shillong has changed yet these universal value systems of the Khasis can still play a major role on how we manage our grass-root urban institutions of governance.

Shillong Dorbars are no longer isolated villages out on their own. They are contiguous with one another, linked to one another by roads, water pipes, electricity, TV cable wires and common aspirations of their residents; dependent on each other for easy access to schools, colleges, places of worship, hospitals, markets and shops; bound together for safety and security to the same police or fire station; and devoid of any internal source of revenue, most Dorbars under an MLA constituency come together for better bargaining power with the Govt. If Government resources to urban Dorbars have increased so have the responsibilities and expectations from the Dorbars. Two of the most challenging responsibilities before all urban Dorbars are (1) ensuring affordable and safe drinking water; (2) keeping the locality clean through satisfactory disposal of waste. The first responsibility is totally dependent on the existence of a reliable supply agency but both the   SMB and the PHE are increasingly exhibiting signs of resource depletion plus managerial exhaustion. This is bad news for all of us. The second demands a unified sustainable process of waste collection, transportation and disposal.  This is absent and the life span of the land fill at Marten is already kaput. The grim reality is, in another five years Shillong will run out of drinking water and also the ability to absorb the waste it produces. Then what do we do? Shillong, the city as we know it, will then collapse under its own weight. It will disintegrate and disappear. Political foresight, the will and a public desire to save our city is the need of the hour.

To save Shillong and for the city to survive, some fundamentals need to start immediately. The bureaucrats and technocrats of the Urban Affairs Department should discard any notion that they alone know what needs to be done. This attitude has not worked in the past nor will it in the future. The department has to step down from its ivory towers and accept the Dorbars as equal partners working towards the same goal. The Dorbars on their part need to recognise two basic truths (a) They need to come together and unite as one under a constitutionally recognised legal framework. None exist at the moment. (b) They need to cooperate with Govt rather than confront the establishment. The coming together and working together and participation of stakeholders is the key towards the survival of the city. The format, layout and platform for this to happen already exist. The technology to solve our urban worries exist and funds to bring in such know-how can be managed. The problem we face is not insurmountable. We simply lack the public awareness and the political insight to take the next logical step forward.

 We are not the only society to face the complex challenges of urbanisation. Far larger cities of the world have faced the same but conquered their difficulties through an urban management system and institution called a Municipality. A Municipality is a legal constitutional entity composed of elected members. In Shillong most Dorbars and people carry the apprehension that elected Ward Commissioners will supersede, eclipse and displace the Rangbah Shnong and the Dorbar itself. This fear is not misplaced and is the main reason for public opposition to Municipal elections. However it need not be so. Dorbars can take control of the Municipality and the Ward Commissioner made subservient to the Dorbar, where his role and responsibility pose no threat to our TIs. It simply requires an amendment in the Municipal Act to make the Dorbars major stakeholders in Municipality Affairs. The issue before us is not upholding and safeguarding the powers and functions of a Ward Commissioner. The issue is, within the prevailing context of Shillong, to recognise the dominant role of an urban Dorbar Shnong and to come up with a workable Municipality where the Traditional Dorbars can play a dominant role in urban management. The need is for something workable that the people can accept.  We need to come up with a people driven and bottom up approach to urban management in Meghalaya. It can be done. It simply demands a bit of imagination and putting our heads together to make it work. Is anyone listening?

Author is President of ICARE

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