Meghalaya’s cup of woes: No control over private land

Patricia Mukhim

The easiest thing to do is play the blame game and the Government is our favourite bashing board, often deservedly but at times because we think government is the only stakeholder in the system, quite forgetting that as citizens we have responsibilities too in setting things right. By castigating the Government for all the ills in the system we believe we have done our duties and can sit back and watch the fun. After all we have found a scapegoat. But let me tell you dear readers that the more you understand the system the better you realise that Government is for the most part hamstrung by societal laws.

Many have expressed scepticism about the recent meeting chaired by Dr Jemino Mawthoh on October 2, to yet again discuss the possibility of cleaning up the Wah Umkhrah. It is easy to be sceptical when one is not in the thick of things but the meeting held at the office of Power Grid Corporation threw up several challenges, many of which would require collective decision-making not just by Government but by communities and civil societies too. Dr Mawthoh in his opening remarks stated that the meeting would decide whether we can still save the Wahl Umkhrah or decide once and for all to declare it a public drain.

The Wah Umkhrah issue is a conundrum to say the least. It originates near the Power Grid establishment in Nongrah. It is learnt that the area in which Power Grid stands today was and still is a veritable catchment area and should never have been built on. How a catchment area which is supposed to be a community asset was sold to a Corporation is another story that dogs the Khasi community and will continue to be the bane of this society. Similar catchments around the same area owned by a particular clan have been parcelled off or tuned into private properties where the owners have become water merchants. Imagine a tribal community which waxes eloquent about Ri Raij or community land suddenly realising that the community also consists of land owning clans over whom the traditional institutions such as the Syiems and Myntris or Rangbah Shnong have no control whatsoever other than pleading before them to not destroy the aquifers through construction activities.

The Wah Umkhrah passes through several localities – Nongrah, Lapalang, Umpling, Umkaliar Nongmynsong, Demseiniong, Pynthor, Jaiaw, and Mawlai onwards until it meets the Umiam River. The word Um-iam means the crying river and the Umiam must indeed be crying over its fate of having to carry the load of garbage and faecal matter from the entire population of Greater Shillong. But then who cares? Our garbage management systems are decrepit. Listening to the Rangbah Shnong (headman) of Nongrah – a very articulate and progressive person, we learned just how resistant people are towards paying for civic management.  He had to adopt so many inventive strategies to get people to pay for garbage collection. This must be a common problem faced by many Rangbah Shnongs. Residents somehow feel that it is the state and local authorities that should keep their villages clean and do it pro-bono. Somehow we are used to free-loading and believe all civic services should be free. Hence the resistance to extending the boundaries of the Shillong Municipality!  People don’t realise that governance at any level requires human resource that must be paid and that the state can no longer subsidise all services.

And then there are governance issues as well. Under the different schemes of the Government and Asian Development Bank tie-up for civic management, blue and green bins have been distributed to households. The blue one is for non-biodegradable waste and the green for organic waste. But when people dutifully segregate the waste at home and take that to the collection point, the garbage collectors mix up both dry and wet garbage and that the garbage that finds its way to Marten. So evidently there is a problem at the end point. It means that garbage emptied at Marten is all mixed and one wonders what the treatment plant there is actually doing.  Trying to enter the place to investigate is fraught with dangers of ingesting toxic fumes and more. Hence one has to rely on information from the waste disposers. And they just laugh off such silly questions.  The Wahl Umkhrah therefore suffers from clear lack of enforcement by waste managers. There is as yet no penalty for polluters unless they are seen by the police. But the police are no ubiquitous. Those who don’t pay for civic services must be disposing off their waste somewhere. And our guess is that such waste finds its way into the Wah Umkhrah.

Then there is the problem of sewage which, despite several directives to households located by the edge of the river, is still being emptied into the Wah Umkhrah. The Government’s efforts some 20 years ago cleanse the area of encroachers comprising elite tribals and non-tribal claimants, met with a rebuttal from the Gauhati High Court. Would the Meghalaya High Court be more amenable in delivering justice on this front? It’s unthinkable that a water front which is part of revenue land has so insidiously been turned into private property. The irony is that at least two Ministers in the present Government own properties along the Umkhrah River Front. It’s always been like that for Meghalaya. Vested interests have always won the day even while society shies away from taking them on.

The reason why Meghalaya is a decrepit city today is also because there is no Land Use and Sale Policy. An official from the State Pollution Control Board said there should be regulations as to how much land is suitable for a residential building. An 800 sq ft plot for instance is not enough for a building and a sanitary latrine which includes a septic tank and soak pit. But there are many individuals in this city who construct their homes on such tiny plots and release their sewage into the Wahl Umkhrah or into the public drains, much to the chagrin of the entire locality as the foul smell that emanates every time the residents release their septic tanks spreads far and wide.

The garbage dump at Marten has reached saturation point and the possibilities of getting a sanitary land fill away from the city seems bleak. Environmental scientists have demonstrated that big landfills are not sustainable and instead every Shnong should actually find its own landfill for converting garbage into manure. The overload of plastic waste across the state is what could turn things awry for us. I was at Mumbai recently and found that plastic carry bags are no longer in use. Plastic bottles and other plastic utilities too will soon be phased out since such waste finds its way into the sea and is the cause of floods everywhere. Meghalaya needs to take this decision and not make it a half-hearted one of defining the microns. It does not work. All plastic carry bags should be banned. Period.

When it comes to cleaning the Wah Umkhrah there can be no success without convergence. The stakeholders must include the Dorbar Shnong, the KHADC, State Government, NGOs and pressure groups, the public institutions (banks, public sector undertakings, shop owners etc) the Police Department, State Pollution Control Board etc. We have to learn to work in tandem rather than at cross purposes, and that means that we have to surmount our egos As long as ego dominates the Wahl Umkhrah will continue to suffer.

One of the points raised by an environment scientist from NEHU is that the Umkhrah is fed by rain water and also spring water. It was found that our springs are drying up and we have not even tried to rejuvenate them. Perhaps we are unsure how to do it. Rain water harvesting could be one means of rejuvenating ground/spring water.

It is time the State Government takes the bull by the horns. We need strict regulations on quarrying and sand mining both of which have killed many of our vibrant rivers. We can no longer have, “free for all” governance on the pretext that, “land belongs to us and hence we can do whatever we wish with it even if it becomes a public nuisance.” This is where the NGT comes in and more PILs need to be filed on gross violation of environmental norms.

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