Monday, June 24, 2024

Meghalaya’s landless population: Who cares?


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By Patricia Mukhim

The news that Meghalaya has the highest number of landless tribals in the country (ST November 24) does not surprise us. I had written in these columns a couple of weeks ago that landlessness will be the biggest challenge to Meghalaya and could well be the cause for Leftist-Maoist movements in the State. When the poor and oppressed are pushed beyond a point, the only way they can regain or retain their self esteem is to use the gun. At least they have the power to intimidate. And perhaps intimidation could bring change. That is what the Maoists everywhere believe. Meghalaya has never had a peasant’s movement, perhaps because the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo people were never that impoverished. These were societies known to be egalitarian, with strong social bonds of clan and kinship. But that’s all in the past.

The last time I had pleaded for a Land Ceiling Act for Meghalaya in these columns, many were suspicious of my motives. They murmured beneath their breaths that the only reason I have come up with such a weird suggestion is because I do not have the means to purchase land like some do. That’s a typical Khasi reductionist argument. You say this because of that. You can’t have altruistic goals. You always have a vested interest in saying something. So there were no letters to the editor on the issue as there have been on the salacious Education scam or some other job scam. Corruption is a favourite topic of gossip. Even civil society groups prefer to remain silent on the issue of the Land Ceiling Act. No one wants to rock the boat. One MLA called to say that we should work at making this issue a point of discussion in the coming winter session of the Assembly. I hope he still remembers it and has done his homework. But I will not blame him if he doesn’t. Politicians own more land than they need.

Yes, the Land Ceiling Act is not a favourite topic for those on a land buying spree or those with a surfeit of land ownership documents. Many of our urban rich (and we know in each case how they have acquired their wealth) are all absentee landlords and land-ladies. They own hectares of land in the countryside, more than they can ever use in their lifetime. These modern day zamindars accumulate land the way some people hoard food in their refrigerators. There is a ceaseless greed to own up every empty plot they see. But where is all this all-consuming greed going to take us?

Robert Putnam, political scientist of Harvard University best known for his book ‘Bowling Alone’ speaks of social capital as an asset built around mutual trust within a community where there is economic equality. He says community and equality are mutually reinforcing. In other words, economic inequality results in the fragmentation of society and in the loss of social capital. The economically sound prefer to create a social circle of their own. Their social goals are different. They soon become members of a gated community. They might engage in some charitable works more as an attempt to assuage their troubled conscience. But they will not, as Mother Teresa once said, “give till it hurts.” Putnam points out that in terms of distribution of wealth an income, America in the 1950’s and 60’s was more egalitarian than it had been in more than a century. Those were also the decades of social connectedness and civic engagement. But sometime around 1965-70 America reversed course and started becoming less just economically and less connected politically and socially.

Much the same can be said of Meghalaya. It was after statehood, post 1972 that the political elite and their business cohorts began to milk the public exchequer. Every business person worth his/her salt in Meghalaya started by subverting the government’s food distribution system which essentially means squeezing the poor; distributing rotten food grains and selling off the best quality rice and wheat and other subsidised items in the open market. The largesse was shared with politicians to replenish their party coffers and build their bank balances. Do the poor know that they are short-changed? Of course they do but they are powerless to do or say anything. That’s the reason why when the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council(HNLC) first asserted itself as a pro-poor, underdog movement it resonated with this population as much as it did with a section of urbanites who desire to punish the corrupt but by sub-contracting their angst to a gun-toting group. When the ‘dkhar’, who were assumed to have made all the wealth and run away with it, were gunned down, we gleefully kept silent and laughed inwardly. Until the guns moved a full circle and rich tribals became so-called victims of extortion. Then the Khasis spoke up and began to gradually dislike the HNLC. In any case the HNLC stood for nothing and therefore fell for everything from money to the good life to high flying motor cycles.

That there is a complete fragmentation of the Khasi-Pnar and Garo society is evidenced from the voting patterns in Meghalaya. The poor don’t care much about issues. They know that their votes are worth something even if it means a once- in- five-year bonanza. The pretentious urban, middle class voter, whose needs are over-stated, believes it has the right to preach to the impoverished about the virtues of voting a good politician and voting out a bad one. But who is good and who is bad? Over the years we have seen that a good politician is one whose heart beats for the poor. And that means someone who is with them at their hour of need (deaths, weddings, and other social functions). He is someone who will give cash to a voter whose family member needs urgent medical attention or whose wife has just delivered a child. It is interesting to chat with this category of voters. They compare the amounts given by different politicians in their constituency. Once at a funeral, one politician gave Rs 300 to the bereaved. The other contending candidate upped that amount by almost seven times to Rs 20,000. You might call that exploitation but it’s a small price that politicians pay for the amount they make in five years especially if they are ministers. The agonised ones are those who try to walk the straight narrow. For them it’s a no-win situation.

Coming back to the issue of landlessness, I am reminded of a project famously named the North Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project (NERCORMP) which was first implemented in two of the most backward districts of Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur some ten years ago. The project was largely funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and was designed to be a poverty alleviation programme. Now ten years down the line the NERCORMP continues to function like a government department with little visible outcomes. It would have been educative to know how much of landlessness has been reversed in the project areas, particularly in West Khasi Hills. From what one learns the project which is now taken over by the North Eastern Council is merely an extension of the Council; its staff serves the interests of the NEC rather than the poor who are actually the original targeted beneficiaries.

Social auditing on the NERCORMP is urgently called for at this point of time. Do the poor have any place in their scheme of things? Once in a while the beneficiaries of the project who are ‘displayed’ as self help groups come here to exhibit their products. But what exactly are their growth indices and how much they have scaled up their incomes remains a mystery. What usually happens with such projects is that they ultimately serve only the interests of the staff. The huge bureaucracy added up over the years continues to draw salaries whether or not they perform. What the NERCORMP project was supposed to do is to build the capacities of the poor so they can claim their rights from the Government which is the legal distributor of resources. If the NERCORMP had done its job as it was intended to, it would have by now built and created strong advocacy groups of the landless, demanding land rights from the state. But we hear of no such advocacy group emerging from the NERCORMP project. Other lesser known NGOs have done much better on much, much smaller budgets.

The Land Ceiling Act will not happen unless there is an uprising by the poor. The poor need to be mobilised to claim their rights as envisaged by the Indian Constitution.


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