Saturday, February 24, 2024

Wilful blindness

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By Paramjit Bakhshi

On the shore of the Umiam lake, towards UCC, countless people come to picnic. Most bring bottles of alcohol, water and assorted food items. After their brief outing of fun, most of them deliberately leave empty bottles of water, alcohol and disposable containers strewn on the land. A good many of them, ensure that they break the glass bottles, and others coming later, find it difficult, to locate a clean spot to sit on, or even just to walk around the lake. Is this done by outsiders? I can vouch for the fact that they are mostly Shillongites and mostly the youth.

On a bigger scale one can see the ruin of the land caused by unregulated coal mining. This time it is not the youth but grown up people. And are these also all outsiders. I think the answer is obvious.

Then of course we have the heartless pilfering of funds which come for the development of the region. This is done by whosoever can put his hands in the till. It includes politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, assorted NGOs, and what have you. Are they all outsiders?

That is not to say that outsiders are all angels. We have our share of crooks, laggards and criminals but I don’t think it is fair to blame all the ills on outsiders. Once again we have thinly disguised anti outsider movements – one pressing for the ILP and the other for a separate Garo state. Petrol bombs and assault, bandhs and blockade are being used as pressure tactics. Strangely we have had no major movements to protect the land or the environment. In a state riddled and paralysed with corruption there were no takers for Anna Hazare’s anti corruption movement. So why is there such a hullaballoo about these issues – do they really merit the kind of attention they are getting?

Does anybody really ask the question- do statehood and ILP really solve any problems?

Did these hills become a better place to live in, even for the tribals, after Meghalaya became a state? No. Except for few who walk the corridors of power, the ordinary Meghalayan still struggles hard to make his livelihood. (It is for this reason and with this scepticism that our villagers even sell their votes for a few thousand rupees.) Did we steal a march over Assam as far as our standard of living, healthcare, education (old infrastructure not withstanding), water supply, or on any other indicator of development? Are our roads any better? Can we point out even a single aspect where the government has achieved outstanding success? Everyone knows that this has not happened. It’s been almost four decades since the state was created but we have very little to show for it. At this rate even an eternity will not change anything. With almost eighty percent people engaged in agriculture and related activities we still import from outside most of the basic necessities ranging from meat, dairy products, eggs, cereals. Our tourism potential is still just that – potential. If the governance during Assam was bad is it much better today?

Let us also see what ILP has done for the states where it is operational. Do these states have better education, healthcare or job creation. Is there less corruption? If so why do so many people come to Shillong to study and not vice versa? Why do people from these states flock to other parts of the country for jobs and medical treatment. Most people from these states rate Shillong or Bangalore to be better places than where they live. This is because these places afford some opportunity to improve their lives. We now seek to close all opportunities for everyone including ourselves.

If that is the reality then why do we raise such demands? Is there any study which says that small states with no revenues or states with ILP are a good model to meet the aspirations of the local people? I don’t think so. It may then be perceived to be part of some contorted conventional wisdom. If three states have it why shouldn’t we, seems to be the main logic. However it is also wilful blindness. Just because a lot of people take to alcohol when faced with problems, it doesn’t mean that we should also do so, even when we know that it will make it tougher and not easier, to handle life. (In her talk on the subject of wilful blindness a former CEO of five businesses Margaret Heffernan demonstrates the dangers of wilful blindness and goes on to praise ordinary people who speak up. Her other talk ‘dare to disagree’ is about the need to modify our concepts of conventional wisdom. Both are excellent and are available on Youtube.)

We are being told that ILP is required to stop the Bangladeshis from coming. Yet that is not all that ILP will stop. It will also stop genuine Indians from coming here. Because of isolation the North eastern states missed the wave of development. The few industries that came to Meghalaya were parasitic, unsuited to the environment and did not benefit the local people. We also opted for timber logging and mining both of which enriched a few people at the expense of the state and other sections of the society. Instead if we had concentrated on building better connectivity and just allowed investment in tourism, heath care and education we would have had a healthy economy, a clean environment and decent job creation.

The Bangladeshi immigrant problem is a pan Indian problem and we need to build regional linkages to tackle it. There is also a wilful blindness towards this problem and none of the state governments have initiated any co operative effort. Even the student organisations under NESO who normally support each other during agitations have not evolved a pragmatic solution. The regional insurgent outfits’ which pretend to fight for their people are mum on the issue because they have bases in that country.

The last argument which the proponents of ILP put forward is that without ILP the local culture will disappear. Today culture is not destroyed just by the arrival of the outsiders. Technology, as Neil Postman so aptly describes in his book “Technopoly” does a far more ruthless job of that. So are we going to ban internet, TV, movies, music and fashion. Will we have advocates for censorship next?

Are we going to keep curtailing the freedom of others just because we don’t know how to use ours? When will we grow up?

We reach pit bottom, when even a learned person, one who has served in the administration for a long time, outside the state, starts berating inter community marriages. Not all non tribals marry tribals for convenience, and not all marry “khadduhs”. There is something called love, and this feeling, is hardly confined to choosing a mate from your own community. And not all of us return to Meghalaya, or choose to live here. Often it is our spouse who finds it difficult to adjust to the life outside. So what is the solution – is it stopping women from marrying anyone outside the community.

Today we are in real danger of becoming Talibanised and instead of solving our problems rationally we are seeking escape by promoting intolerance. We can head the way other NE states have taken or we can intelligently work out our own destiny.

A cousin of mine shared an analogy which is relevant here. He said that in a packed bus, jostling takes place as long as the bus is stationary. Once the bus starts moving everybody starts adjusting and there is peace because the focus shifts to reaching one’s destination. Also people regularly get on and get off it. The problem in Meghalaya is that the bus of our economy is stationary. Instead of development bringing a larger slice of the pie we have see a scramble for the few morsels left on the table. The scramble has got so bad that the issue is no longer confined to anti non-tribalism but has gone on to a stage where tribes have fought with tribes. A small issue like shifting of the MBOSE office caused such a flare up not so long ago. Today some localities in Shillong do not allow Garos or Jaintias to buy land. Where will all this stop? Will each locality become a mini kingdom like those that existed in the past?

The illness affecting the region as a whole is a lack of awareness of the world, total absence of real investment and unmitigated and crippling corruption. The cure is to ensure that money meant for the region is actually well spent, to judiciously attract investment in areas of our potential, and to expand our awareness. We cannot be blind to economic realities and expect the centre to forever foot the bill for our self inflicted paralysis of bandhs, blockades and drawn out agitations.

Fortunately there are still some voices of awareness and Mr. Phrang Roy’s article about scenario planning, was an eye opener. If we want to open our eyes at all. Another original thinker is Mr. Michael Syiem, who was largely instrumental in getting us the RTI. His suggestion for an equitable distribution of wealth, within the family, is likely to have a more positive impact than the ILP.

In today’s globalised environment it is not petrol bombs but explosive out of the box ideas which can bring about a solution. We can choose a cocktail of wilful blindness, passivity and petrol bombs, or apply our minds with integrity to find lasting solutions.

The freedom to choose is ours. Will we use it to make judicious choices or squander it through wilful blindness or passivity? By being passive onlookers we merely condemn ourselves to the ill effects brought about by the spasmodic movements of a mob. And mobs are always excitable and irrational rather than being logical. They destroy rather than create.

The writer is a life skills trainer and can be contacted at bakhshi03 @rediffmail.com

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