By R Wahlang
After the British established their new capital in Shillong in the 1860s, they identified Laban, then a small farming village, as the ideal location for their Indian government servants brought mostly from Dhaka, to settle in. The residents of Laban, unused to exposure of any kind to outsiders, moved away from contacts with the “dkhar”(non-tribal). Enterprising East Bengalees bought land from the locals at ridiculously low prices. Thus, a lady going by the name of “ka Tik” sold a huge plot of land to one such buyer for a princely sum of Rs. 20. Hence the name, “lum ka Tik”, which became ” Harisabha” for the migrants. The gentleman kept the land for a few years, and then sold plots to the new migrants. This pattern was repeated all over Laban. The locals shifted to areas like Riat laban, Lawsohtun and Lumparing,. And so, Laban became synonymous with “dkhar”.
But not every local sold off their land. When the irrational fear of outsiders subsided in subsequent years, some of these folks built homes alongside the migrants, and some came from other areas to settle in the new township. Thus Laban became a more cosmopolitan locality, with a mixed population. It became the first township of Shillong city. For many, Laban is synonymous with Shillong. Even today, the older generation of people in Sohra, Jowai , Mairang and all over Khasi and Jaintia Hills will say ” leit/ lei/lai Laban” when they travel to Shillong. Laban became a thriving, self contained locality with its own market known as “Iew Dak” ( the name derived from being in proximity to the post office of that time), or ” batti bazaar” because of the “dongmusa” lighting system used in the open stalls. Another unique feature of this market was that it was a night market. The cosmopolitan nature can be seen from the fact that every community is present in Laban in strength, including the two main sects of Islam, the Hindus, Christians , Unitarians, and in their own seasons, organize colourful religious festivals. With the advent of the automobile, a road was constructed to pass through the length of Laban which connected to the rest of the city by the Red Cross and the Harrison bridges over the Umshyrpi stream. For some reason, the main road through Laban was established as a one way road, and remains so till date.
As the population spread to the suburbs of Laban, new roads were added to connect Lower Lumparing, Madan Laban and Riat Laban. After independence, it was the turn of the Assamese as the new ruling class, to locate to Shillong and the government opened up Kench’s Trace and Rilbong for settlement by the Assamese gentry, and in Bishnupur by the Bengalees. Oxford came up after Meghalaya was created. At present , greater Laban encompasses all these localities, and also includes upper Lumparing and Lawsohtun. The boundaries of Greater Laban are the Lum Shillong , Um Risa , Um Shirpi, and Um Jasai.
There are anecdotes about how the graveyard located in lower Lumparing was distributed. The land was a “raid” land and has been given for burial purposes of those following different faiths. A day was fixed for representatives of each of these faiths to be present to earmark the plots. Now, most of the Khasi elite of that time were government servants. The chief minister was from a particular community ( pre-independence). He came personally to represent that community along with a sizable entourage. The other community leaders were awed by the presence of their “boss”, and the boss went ahead to allocate the prime areas closest to the road, and consisting of more than half of the total to his community, and what was left in steep slopes, far away from the road was allocated to the others. No one dared to object. Till today, no one feels a sense of injustice on this issue.
Coming to the present, in spite of being such a premier township, we find that Laban as a whole suffers from utter neglect by the powers that be. The infrastructure created since the British days has stagnated. The road through Laban has never been widened. Water supply has not been augmented sufficiently. No new roads have been added for decades. In the meantime, in the last ten years, the skyline of Laban has totally changed. The old Bengalee families of Laban, of several generations, with good education and prospects, no longer want to be confined to the restrictive atmosphere of Shillong. They have left for greener pastures, selling off their ancestral properties mostly to the gentry from Jaintia Hills. In place of the old Assam types houses, huge multi-storied buildings have sprung up. The other day I was looking down from Lumparing, searching for the very prominent spire of the Laban Church. It used to be a prominent landmark. Not anymore. The spire is completely obscured by the new high-rises. A huge green monstrosity by the side of the Umshyrpi river is part of this new look. A prominent persona claimed it is a tourist attraction. With so much additional living spaces, the population of Laban is now risen many-fold. But the public infrastructure to support this development has failed to keep pace.
Someone had recently written in this paper about the horrible state of the roads in Laban. The entire stretch starting from the Red Cross bridge, all the way to Madan Laban, Lumparing, to Kench’s Trace, Bishnupur, right up to Rhino Point is dilapidated. The metalled surface has almost disappeared. Only pot- holes and gullies galore are visible. On top of that, the entire stretch of road has become a parking space. In the race to build bigger buildings, no one has cared to provide for parking space inside their compounds. There is water scarcity because supply has not kept pace with demand. There is rampant drilling for ground water.
But the worst injustice to Laban comes from the Traffic Department. While I would be the first to applaud the efforts of the traffic police to streamline traffic all over Shillong, in the case of Laban, an injustice is being meted out. Let me elaborate. The main road of Laban as I mentioned, is one way, with only two entry/ exit points at Red Cross and Harrison bridge. One enters Laban’s one way road and travels all the way via Lower Lumparing or round to Rhino point to exit.
The Civil Hospital junction has been made a “no right turn” point for traffic from Laban. So you take a turn from Red Cross and go all the way round Pine Mount school and by the side of Lady Hydari park to exit at Barik point. This is a very long, circuitous route and also there are choke points in front of Pine Mount School, the BSNL office and the Park entrance. One can get stuck for up to 30 minutes at that stretch because of the traffic jams caused by park visitors, BSNL customers, school pick-up and the traffic from Laban. Even on Sundays, when the Park traffic is maximum and there is hardly any traffic on the Civil Hospital main road, the ” no entry” rule still operates. Is this logical?
If, on the other hand, you decide to exit from Rhino Point, you face the same dilemma, ie: No right turn for traffic from Laban area. You have to turn left, go down to the end of the barricades and then play chicken with competing traffic from both sides which is always very heavy, to turn right towards the city. Now, this “no right turn” rule does not apply to ML 01, 02 registered vehicles, army brass vehicles and all those with the much coveted red beacon on top. The rules apply only to lesser mortals like you and me. Never mind if the mentioned vehicles have only the driver as occupant. Is this logical or just? As the adage goes, what is good for the goose….etc, should apply here. Now that the truck traffic has reduced considerably, there is no reason why traffic cops cannot manage this extra traffic from Laban taking a right turn. It will reduce the chaos and chances of accidents, as well as spare everyone the tempers.
I would appeal to the residents of Laban to take up these issues with the concerned authorities. As the oldest township in Shillong, Laban deserves better.
(The writer is a former Foreign Service officer)