By Patricia Mukhim
Meghalaya is (in) famous for its multi-layered system of governance. Some are legitimate and notable; others are de-facto. Among the legitimate ones are (1) The Government through its multiple arms which claims to govern right from the top down to the last village (2) The Traditional Institutions (which include the Dorbar Shnong, Dorbar Raij, Dorbar Hima etc) (3) The District Councils which are disconnected both from the State Government and the TI’s, insofar as their governing methods are concerned (4) We have a fourth tier, a loosely organised but more potent one because they decide the manner in which governance is either delivered or obstructed. They include the hundreds of pressure and interest groups which are notorious for their capacity to choke development. They object to the road construction, airport expansion, the coming up of a state of the art slaughter house; they even decide who is a scheduled and non-scheduled citizen as if there are no definitions about those in the Constitution.
This second and fourth tier have both been traditional opponents to any development project either because of a vested interest or because they see demons everywhere. Funnily, these groups pick and choose what to demonise and what not to. When they feel like, these groups remain silent in the worst of environmental and criminal onslaughts. But when they want to they can give the government hiccups. The organogram that we are familiar with puts the government at the top of the pyramid as far as its control of financial resources is concerned. In that sense, government is the most important functionary when compared to the last three actors. Yet, times without number, government has had to buckle down to pressure exerted by the actors at the bottom of the pyramid. If we do not have a railway line or a fully functioning airport today we have to thank the pressure groups. But are they accountable to anyone? No they aren’t. This is where governance has failed completely in Meghalaya. Other things we see are all peripheral services. I wonder why these same pressure groups do not audit our PHED/PWD or the several other departments that give out contracts galore. Is it because they all survive on government contracts? Can we then trust these pressure/interest groups to decide our collective development agenda and our very future?
The District Councils, if I may say so are a stand alone institution. The members seem more interested in making it to the Assembly by the next election rather than in any long term reforms. The Councils have a huge mandate. They are the guardians of our forests, water, mineral resources apart from being custodians of our land. They have never been critiqued by society no matter how deficit their delivery systems are. Their finances and the use of such monies have never been seriously analysed, perhaps because the manner in which the Councils generate their revenues is too complicated a method. And the amount projected in the budget is negligible when compared to the 2000 odd crore rupees that Dr Mukul Sangma brought back from Delhi this time. What we do not realise is that much of the revenue collected by individual councillors is not factored in as part of the Council’s revenue. It is in the domain of private wealth. Hence it is easier to hold the government accountable because what it spends or the failure to spend can be found out through the RTI route.
Not that the District Councils are beyond the RTI but somehow they have not caught the imagination of the public. I think it is high time we did a reality check on the Councils which were created for ‘tribal interest’ and see whether they have upheld those ‘interests’ or mortgaged them forever? If we take a cursory look at the Jaintia Hills district which is the mining district of Meghalaya, the question that comes to mind is, “Who has given the right to coal mining without any corresponding responsibility?” Can the Council give mining permission without extracting any corporate social responsibility from the miners? Or is that CSR already negotiated and paid under the table to a few individuals before the project starts?
I was at a reputed hotel the other day and could over hear conversations (I may be forgiven for eavesdropping but that’s part of a journalist’s job) between two shrewd, shark-looking business types. They were openly muttering about how they have been able to win over a particular individual and that he would become their champion here. From what I could gather, they are one of those cement company honchos. I cringed to hear of the manner in which our people are being bought over and how traders from across the country discuss the buying and selling of conscience as if that is common transaction. Perhaps I am naïve but this buying and selling of human loyalties must be old hat. So much so that people are now gauged by their nuisance value. The price of that nuisance value is fixed accordingly. It happens and must have happened all the time here.
Now coming back to the District Councils what exactly are they doing about the management and regulation of approximately 90 % of forests under their jurisdiction? The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution empowers the Councils to ‘manage any forest not being a reserved forest.’ The United Khasi and Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Management & Control of Forests), Act 1958, amended in 1960 is the guideline followed by the three Councils after Meghalaya came into being. Under this Act, “Forest is and shall be deemed to be a forest if in the area there are reasonable number of trees, say not less than 25 trees per acre, reserved or any other forest produce growing on such area, which have been or are capable of being exploited for purposes of business or trade.” The Act does not define the girth of the trees that can be cut. No wonder you see truckloads of trees of varying girth (from the waist of a new born to that of a pregnant woman or a horribly obese man) being carted out of the Meghalaya every day. That is a grey area no one wants to define.
At one time the United K&J Hills Forest Act was a simple piece of legislation. It never factored in that there could be important minerals under forest land and if so, how to look at that issue. And this is precisely why the District Councils have given a blank check to all coal mine owners to exploit coal and limestone right left and centre without any corresponding liability and responsibility. If the coal and limestone mining areas were brought under the Forest Conservation Act (1980) one would have reason to believe that the kind of devastation happening today might have been alleviated to a certain extent. But that is guesstimate. We can never be too sure about how the Forest Department might have handled the issue. We can only assume that the coal mafia might have to go through more stringent processes. But it is also possible that they would circumvent the processes by bribing the Forest officials in the same manner that the timber lobby is able to harvest the choices of teak and sal trees from some of our Reserved Forests in Meghalaya.
But the fact that large swathes of forest lands have been alienated for coal and limestone mining without any accountability and without ploughing back a penny towards environment conservation, and, that for decades the mine owners have been able to escape responsibility is an environmental crime that calls for stringent laws to be enacted. It is unimaginable that people who have made millions from coal, have no sense of commitment to the environment which sustains their livelihoods. Those who have approached the Supreme Court on the issue of holding Lafarge accountable towards environmental costs should now take up the issue of ecological costs of coal and limestone mining in other areas of Meghalaya. Or other groups might like to take up this issue. The problem is that we do not have a dedicated environment NGO (ENGO) in Meghalaya. With the exception of Samrakshan Trust which is based in Garo Hills and which has made some critical interventions, there is a general lack of concern from communities who are at the receiving end of an impending ecological disaster.
The two-day seminar organised by the State Forest Department (Sep 1-2) is trying to come up with an appropriate definition of “forests.” It is high time the department apprises the Supreme Court through their counsels that the District Council Forest Act is an archaic piece of document and needs to be revisited and rewritten to suit the times. One is not asking that more areas be brought under the FC Act 1980. There is the Forest Rights Act 2005 which must be given priority. But rights come with responsibility and it is the Forest Department which needs to guide forest users to ensure that the rules facilitate more responsible community management of forests and forest produce. Ultimately people must become real custodians of their wealth and thereby learn to conserve the forests. No one can police our forests better than a responsive and responsible community. This is where capacity building matters!
It is also time to hold all the tiers of governance responsible through a robust engine of social auditing. Too many people have got away without having to answer for their arbitrary decisions.