Wednesday, February 21, 2024

A week of tragedy, high drama and more

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By Patricia Mukhim

Cyrus Broacha, the CNN-IBN’s stand-up comedian has us in splits Sunday after Sunday in the programme – “The week that wasn’t.” For Meghalaya, however, this week and the one before, was traumatic. The chief minister of the State lost his niece in a ghastly incident at a premier institution. He holds himself responsible for recommending that institution to her parents despite having got admission into other universities. If Dr Mukul Sangma is floundering about how to handle the present uneasy situation in the state he can be forgiven Everyone needs time to grieve but we also have to come out that grief sooner than later. Life is unforgiving especially for a politician. More so for a chief minister who has to ensure the welfare of 3 million citizens and get the state machinery functioning.

When I use the word traumatic I mean the near starvation situation for many in Garo Hills who were forced to suspend all activities including their right to earn a livelihood on account of the GNLA imposed bandh. I also include the road blockade inflicted on us in the Khasi Jaintia Hills by a group that has taken upon itself the task of punishing the government for what essentially is the domain of the Election Commission. And always, by default the defenceless and voiceless common citizens get caught in a bind and suffer for no fault of theirs. Those commuting between Shillong and Guwahati are held up for six hours or more on the highway because of the spill-over of traffic due to the road blockade.

The situation in Garo Hills is spiralling out of control with the GNLA seeming to call the shots. How can a militant group wield so much power against the state and its machinery? Does the state not have enough ammunition to take on rebels whose only cause is to extort and kill and hold entire populations to ransom? And the same GNLA expect the government to wear kid gloves while handling them? How can any group call a five day bandh without thinking of the poor and those who depend of subsistence farming? It’s a clear case of cruelty and suspension of constitutional rights of people. The Meghalaya government cannot be seen to be indecisive on this issue. Enough is enough!

Coming to the Khasi-Jaintia Hills, no one is denying that influx is a real threat. Assam is a case in point and Meghalaya’s high decadal growth in the 2011 census has created a fear factor. Concerns of being swamped by a non-tribal population seem suddenly very real. Above all the paranoia springs from the fact that the population of Meghalaya is padded up by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Nepal. Questions asked are whether the tribes, as explained by some researchers, have only in the last decade suddenly reached a high fertility rate and whether condom use has suddenly been abandoned. Or whether the population spurt is due to other reasons that we have tended to brush under the carpet?

These questions curiously never seem to affect our elected representatives. They should be concerned about the diminishing size of the cake that they have to bring from the Centre every year. But that does not seem to bother them. Why do they never apprehend a problem, create a public debate on critical issues and address them appropriately so that no group gets a leverage to hold us common citizens at gun point? Vote bank politics that seems attractive now has the potential to boomerang on all of us but politicians with their short term vision never seem to get it. On the contrary, politicians seem to be the cause of many of our problems. Look at the Mining Policy for instance. Why is it consigned to the deep freeze? The Government owes us an explanation. What is there that is so contentious about the mining policy that the Government is shy of debating it? And why is the opposition silent on this issue?

There’s more than meets the eye about the Mining and Minerals Policy. Some powerful lobby is at work to scuttle this policy so that local tribal mine owners can continue to evade environmental responsibility and accountability while multi-national companies have been made to compensate for the carbon footprints they leave behind. Why else would a columnist (HH Mohrmen) who asks why the mining policy is kept in abeyance, be subjected to police questioning as if he was a criminal? Since when has pointing out government deficiencies become a crime? Are we now living in a police state? And I want to ask the police why they are so hyper-active in this case that they forwarded the FIR which virtually has no legs to stand on, to the court? A FIR which has no locus-standi (because the complainants felt defamed on behalf of someone else) should have been rejected. Why is the police suddenly so conscientious that they would even pursue a case of defamation which is not within their purview? It’s rather curious and this is no feather in the cap for the police. In fact it’s a clear case of dancing to the tune of politicians! Shame on those policemen who think they can earn brownie points by pleasing the ruling party and government.

Actually the aggrieved party here are we the people. It’s us who are losing our forests. It’s our rivers that are poisoned. We have no drinking water in Jaintia Hills. Those who used to earn their livelihoods from fishing have lost that forever! Anywhere else people would have filed a case against the Mining Department for postponing the Mining Policy indefinitely. But here we have a case of some misplaced cheer-leaders (who are perpetually at their wits end) filing a defamation suit on behalf of their much revered leader – the Mining Minister BM Lanong. What a miscarriage of justice!

Mining is an extractive industry and there should be no discrimination between a tribal or non-tribal mining entity. The devastation they cause is the same. Environmental pollution affects all of us to the same degree whether the mining lord is a tribal individual or a company. This matter merits a state-wide debate. The cost of mining should be so prohibitive that it deters individuals from taking out everything in a rush of greed! We need this legislation and it must come, not from politicians but from public demand. And let’s not turn this into an argument about livelihoods. We know whose livelihoods we are talking about. They might as well go back to their own countries and work there!

We have elected a set of leaders to show us the way, not to cower in fear from militants and all kinds of interest groups. Anyone who has a demand has to follow the democratic path. If we allow interest groups to push an entire citizenry into a corner, then the very existence of the government is questionable. As someone has rightly said, “The law is not optional; every citizen must obey the same set of laws.” That evidently does not seem to be the case in Meghalaya. Calling a road blockade to prevent free movement of vehicles is illegal according to the Supreme Court. Imposing a five-day bandh at gun-point is criminal. Can the Government get its act together?

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