Sagacity and foresight, not paranoia should drive policy

By Patricia Mukhim

The amended Meghalaya Residents’ Safety and Security Act ratified by the MDA Government recently is a knee-jerk reaction on the one hand and a capitulation to the demands of interest and pressure groups on the other. The Act, fraught with complexities and impacting tourism in the main had created an uproar across the nation that the Government had to come up with a benign clarification that people entering Meghalaya would not be harassed or be made to queue up at the entry and exit points. But Chief Minister Conrad Sangma’s statement was elucidating. He said the Act has the propensity of being misinterpreted and cause undue harassment. This statement is what merits discussion. All Acts are good on paper. It’s the reading and interpretation of the Act that is problematic. More so if people see the Act as a money-minting machine.
Curbing influx from Bangladesh is a subject that is emotionally surcharged. It also makes good political sense for many a politician in Meghalaya. Several have won elections based on this issue. In 1979, it was this paranoia of being swamped by illegal immigrants that led to what is still considered the worst episode of communal violence in Meghalaya’s chequered history. It took a many years before people realised that hatred of outsiders was bad economics since human interface is integral to doing business. And in the business of economics, community, creed and caste don’t count for much. Also by the turn of the millennium many of our youth had begun to migrate from Meghalaya to chart out educational and employment paths for themselves. Quite a good number are today employed in some of the leading companies and institutions in the metros of India. The human interface had broadened and worldviews had become broader and more inclusive. Insularity became the obsession of those who remained cocooned to their narrow ideals back home and who consequently only hardened their attitudes. This is a section that believes in protectionism to a ridiculous point. The Meghalaya Residents’ Safety and Security Act is one such knee-jerk reaction to the fear of influx post the NRC fiasco in Assam.
There’s no denying that influx from the neighbouring country is a monumental problem. It is; but there are better mechanisms to check that than to revert to retrograde steps that could instead result in the slowing down of our already sluggish economy. Take the case of construction in Meghalaya. It is difficult to find labourers that would work with equal fervour as the imported labourer does. Ask any contractor and the answer you will get is that it is impossible to hire local labour and complete any project on time. The labour charge is higher and the output relatively low; much lower than the imported labourer any day. That’s a stark reality.
Hence the cabinet nod to the amended MRSSA has naturally created a sense of foreboding for many. Obscurantism is incongruous with the 21st century. Deputy Chief Minister, Prestone Tynsong compounded the confusion when he said the Act would become effective immediately although it is an Ordinance which will be ratified by the Assembly in its winter session. Where are the rules and who is going to do what? The present Act ostensibly gives more teeth to the earlier one passed in 2016. While the old Act looked at tenants and their registration so that there are records of every person living in Meghalaya, the present Act is draconian. Section 4 (a) of the Act makes it mandatory for every visitor to Meghalaya to register himself/herself online or at the designated entry and exit points if he/she proposes to stay in Meghalaya for over 24 hours. The Act will not apply to state and central government employees and local authorities (?). The last one is undefined. It is laughable that the Government should say that the Act is actually meant to protect the visitor. That’s a poor excuse for a badly executed piece of legislation.
The question arises as to what happens to passengers bound for Silchar and Mizoram and transiting via Meghalaya and vice versa. What if a passenger alights at a place within Meghalaya before Silchar/Agartala/Aizawl etc? Does the state presently have the mechanism to minutely monitor this movement of people when even simple policing suffers from several infirmities? Every new law legislated requires the police to implement it; often without any training. No wonder even the law against burning crackers before 8 pm and after 10 pm went largely unheeded. It was literally cocking a snook at the police.
The present hurry to pass the MRSS Act is fuelled by the fact that a host of interest groups had given a deadline to the MDA Government to do so. In fact, if matters of state are left to pressure and interest groups they would want to sanitize Meghalaya completely and prevent any non-Meghalayan from entering the state. This now poses a question: What happens to the much advertised Meghalaya Tourism? Do we see as many people travelling to Nagaland, Mizoram or Arunachal Pradesh as we do Meghalaya? And we know the spoke in the wheels of tourism in the above three states is the Inner Line Permit (ILP). There is a certain sense of unease in Indians to have to take permission to visit a place within their own country. The MRSS Act passed last week has already raised the hackles of people who question the intent behind it. More importantly what happens to the dozens of tour operators who have invested in new destinations? Did they have a say in the crafting of the above Act? Surely their views and not just that section of paranoia driven citizenry need to be taken on board. We cannot have a state government that panders to every demand of a few groups without public consultations. Is this what the MDA Government is turning out to be? True there is fear of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) being passed and its subsequent fallouts. But whether the MRSSA will actually address those problems is debatable. On the contrary it could cause a downslide in our economy as it is likely to affect tourism – Meghalaya’s unique selling point.
Nearly every month new destinations are coming up in Meghalaya. Places like Laitlum village near Smit which are our own version of the Grand Canyon, have hordes of visitors every single day. Each vehicle pays Rs 50 at the entrance. That’s a fairly good earning per day for the village. And the villagers have themselves begun to understand the value of tourism and its potential for optimizing their income. What happens if the footfalls to these tourist destinations suddenly drop? And what about the hundreds of home-stays in the dozens of destinations that have come up in recent times in Meghalaya? Who will answer for the drop in tourists, for that will happen once this Act comes into operation!
Meghalaya is now known world over for its music and cultural festivals. It has a central university, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) the North East Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences (NEIGRIHMS) etc. All these institutes have several visiting faculty and the last, several patients from outside the state on a daily basis. The Baccardi NH Weekender 2019 musical fest had just concluded. This is the fourth version of the festival. Then there is the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Autumn Festival, the Shad Nongkrem and the Wangala amongst others. Each of these fests relies heavily on footfalls from other states. Like someone has rightly said, tour operators and hoteliers earn from people who not only come for day tours but who spend several days exploring the sights and sounds of Meghalaya. Hoteliers in particular will want that visitors should stay for more than 24 hours in the state. Otherwise what’s the point in having hotels?
Sensing that the MRSSA has created much confusion and that tourism will take a hit, the Director Tourism on Tuesday Nov 5, clarified that the Act has not yet been implemented but will be done so subsequently. When Governments are reactive then there are adverse fall-outs. Every Act requires that the public give their considered views and that different stakeholders are consulted.
In the ultimate analysis therefore, Meghalaya seems to have the knack of doing a self goal, for that is what the MRSSA is finally going to be. This seems to be a case of the cure being worse than the disease!