Building synergies for civic governance

Patricia Mukhim

Civic governance has passed through bad patches across the country and in our state of Meghalaya too. If civic governance was functioning to the optimum we would not see rivers laden with garbage or litter everywhere including in the heart of the city. The Municipal garbage collectors would not be overworked if we had a responsible citizenry that would have found littering as serious a crime as any other. The problem with civic governance is that the municipalities are seen as the only responsible agents for keeping the city clean. The argument of the average citizen is, “I have paid my taxes so I have the right to expect a clean city.” There has been no attempt so far by the State Government to actively involve citizens in keeping the city clean. There have been unsuccessful attempts to involve the local dorbar shnong but the efforts were short-lived as there is no institutional mechanism to sustain the engagement. On their part the dorbar shnong have functioned as local governance bodies without the wherewithal – no funds, no salaries for those that carry out very onerous responsibilities and no accountability mechanisms.

Attempts to clean up the city reveal serious fault lines across different stakeholders. For instance, Police Bazar has a Headman who is also a businessman. Police Bazar is essentially a commercial area. If there are small repairs to be made then why should that become the onus of the Shillong Municipality? Isn’t there a way by which the residents of the area and the shop-owners could show a better sense of participation in the upkeep of the city by being magnanimous and contributing some amount for the repair work just to demonstrate that they have a connection with the place of their residence and the city that provides and has been providing them their livelihoods? Isn’t there a civil society even among traders? And when it comes to cleaning up, can there not be a better participation by the residents around the place? Can the residents not form a strong group that can keep a strict eye on hawkers that defile and litter the place?

It’s time to face a few facts. In a democracy, government alone cannot deliver governance. There is a specific role that civil society has to play and must play if we wish to see CHANGE. Civil society is an important aspect of democracy because it brings in the synergy and the social capital that enhances the ability of the government to deliver. When civil society becomes robust it provides an environment that can be used to enhance community cohesion and decision-making.  Information is vital to civic participation. People should know what their roles and responsibilities are. Every day there is litter on the street. Shops are unwilling to keep even the ten sq ft of space outside their establishments clean. The drains are clogged and they watch in apathy. And then we all collectively blame the government? Does the government litter that it has to pick up all the garbage on a daily basis twice a day? And can citizens wash their hands off their responsibility merely because they have paid their taxes to the Municipality?

As of now what most citizens feel is that there have to be some sanitary inspectors with the power to levy fines. But the Municipalities cannot afford that. They are not able to pay their present employees such as sweepers regularly. So how about forming an association of traders around Police Bazar and them employing young people to ensure that litterers are caught and taken to the nearest Police Station? Those young vanguards will also ensure that every shop owner cleans up their frontage and no drains are clogged. This similar model can be replicated at Laitumkhrah, Iewduh and other commercial centres like Rynjah, Nongthymmai etc. This might be a good model for a SMART City that people seem to aspire to.

In Sikkim we have tourist policemen – a concept that received some traction in Meghalaya too but has been jettisoned because everyone waited for the state to employ those. But where is the tourism revenue generated by tour operators and all those shop owners at Umiam Viewpoint going? All those shop-owners should be made to pay a monthly fee for the upkeep of two tourist inspectors that will (a) ensure that vehicles entering Meghalaya don’t carry disposable plastics inside them and (b) that when they alight at the Umiam Viewpoint they don’t litter at all and that they use the litter bins. These tourist inspectors will also ensure that the bins are picked up regularly and emptied. This is called civil society-market-state synergy and it is the only thing that works.

The emphasis on fostering state-civil society synergy for improving human well-being and sustainable development is recognized by scholars worldwide. The energies of the society are needed to complement state efforts to promote good governance and improvement in human well-being. This is called participatory governance.  There is enough literature to show that sustainable development is only possible when the state and civil society power relations are built around the singular vision of delivering governance for the collective good of society. So far in Meghalaya we have worked in an environment of suspicion of the state (meaning the government); or berating state efforts and criticizing every move of the government without offering alternatives.  This strategy or the lack of it has failed us big time. Government is made up of people who don’t have all the wisdom in the world. They too benefit from their engagement with people outside of the government system.

Speaking about agencies outside the government system it must be reiterated that the Dorbar Shnong does have a prominent role in ensuring (a) basic cleanliness (b) law and order (c) ability to enforce rules and (d) administrative duties and regulations related to civic management in areas beyond the municipality.  This last responsibility of the Dorbar shnong is becoming unsustainable in the absence of any funding to them to carry out their action plans. The rivers and streams flowing along the different localities under respective Dorbar Shnong have become dumping ground for garbage. The Dorbar issues a diktat which the residents don’t seem to respect. What happens in such situations? What action can be taken against repeated defaulters? What mandate does the shnong have to take penal action? I believe it is high time that the Dorbar Shnong, the Government, the District Councils and civil society sat together to formulate action plans that are practicable and implementable.

Most often what comes in the way of a successful partnership and synergy building exercise between all the above is, “Institutional Ego.” Each of the stakeholders feel they have been there, done that and there is nothing new under the sun. My appeal to all is that it is time to leave Ego aside and make a last bid to build new synergy and a new model of co-operation. We all have something to learn from one another. Like the Japanese saying goes, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”  So think of what can be done when all work together with a single mission!

As of now, there are many groups of young people, women’s organisations, schools, college and university students and teachers that have come together under the banner of, “Operation Clean-Up.” The mission of Operation Clean-Up is to try and restore the two prominent rivers of Shillong the Umkhrah and Umshyrpi to their earlier glory. It may sound Utopian but when civil society comes together nothing is impossible. The beauty about this group of voluntary workers is that they come from a cross section of society and from all communities to make a happy blend of synergies needed to keep our rivers and city clean. What we need is to build synergies with the Dorbar Shnong and the KHADC since the State Government is already on board.

In conclusion, Shillong city has several institutions such as the Defence forces, banks and other corporate. While the Indian Air Force has been part of one clean-up others have shown no inclination to join the Clean-up movement. What would it take for them to join forces? After all, you cannot live in a city and pretend you live in an ivory tower !