Thursday, February 29, 2024

Do we still need the District Council?

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By Micheal N Syiem

Before the British first came to the Khasi Hills in 1829, the Khasi States comprised of small independent kingdoms ruled by the Syiem. However when the British reached these Hills and the agreement between them and Tirot Sing Syiem fell out, Tirot Sing led a confederation of Khasi States and fought a fierce war with the British for four long years till he was treacherously captured. Then the 25 Khasi States were persuaded to enter into an agreement with the British and forced to accept their terms of surrender. The British recognised the Syiem as rulers of their Syiemship subject to the overall control of the Deputy Commissioner and this was conveyed by means of Sanads granted to the Syiem.

When India became independent, according to (Late) Mr. R.T. Rymbai, Retd, IAS, “The Khasi States legally regained their full sovereignty by virtue of the Indian Independence Act. According to the Standstill Agreement, they stipulated with the Dominion of India that only matters relating to defence, currency and foreign affairs would be looked after on their behalf by the latter”. Then the 25 Khasi States were persuaded by various means to sign the Instrument of Accession on the 17th August, 1948, but by the force of the Constitution under the First Schedule, merged the Khasi States with the state of Assam and any power of the Syiems so far as administration was concerned came to an end.

However, later by Article 244 (2) of the Constitution of India the governance of the Khasi States was to be carried out according to the provisions of the Sixth Schedule which resulted in the creation of the District Councils on June 1952. Even though the emergence of the District Councils diluted the significance of the Instrument of Accession it was however found necessary at that time to protect our identity and our interest because the Khasi & Jaintia Hills were then merged with the state of Assam.

According to (Late) Mr. J.J.M. Nichols Roy, one of the architects of the Sixth Schedule, “The District Councils will give them a certain measure of self-government so that they may develop themselves according to their own genius and culture”. So, therefore, even though the District Councils were useful to us when we under the Assam rule, the usefulness of the District Councils after Statehood is subjected to a serious debate especially after the inclusion of paragraph 12-A after para 12 of the Sixth Schedule making the laws made by the District Councils repugnant to any provision of a law made by the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly. “The overriding effect of the state laws has rendered the councils as subordinates to the state government and therefore infringes on the autonomy of the council’ according to Mr. J.M. Phira (Retd) IAS, in his book ‘The Autonomous District Councils of Meghalaya’.

Then according to Mr. B.M. Lanong, then Member of the District Council, debating in the autumn session of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, “Para 12-A of the Sixth Schedule made the District Council a house without power… if para 12-A continues to exist it is useless to have a District Council as it will always do away or suppress the law passed by it”.

But if Para 12 A were to removed, as demanded by some politicians it would create a situation, where there will be 4 Governments or seats of power in Meghalaya each making different laws, resulting in 4 different laws on the same subject, thereby bringing about total confusion in governance.

Even the role of the District Councils to protect the culture and traditions of the people is

questionable when we see their interference in the affairs of the different Hima in matters relating to the appointment, removal, and suspension of traditional authorities. Political interference and political leanings have been a major factor leading to many controversies and by the power of the United Khasi & Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Appointment and Succession of Chief and Headman) Act 1959, the Khasi Syiem were reduced to mere subordinates of the District Councils.

Now, with regard to the financial soundness of the District Councils to merit their existence, we find that in reality the District Councils are increasingly facing financial crisis, especially, after the revenue from timber was cut off. The Councils often have to be bailed out by the State Government. Even for the just concluded elections to the two Councils and the one in Garo Hills, the expenditure running into a few valuable crores will have to borne by the State Government.

One of the main factors responsible for the continuing financial mess in the District Councils is because nearly the entire money received by the councils goes towards meeting their establishment cost only, leaving very little for development works. Although the District Councils had approached the Finance Commission in the past for direct funding, the Chairman of the 10th Finance Commission, Mr. K.C. Pant had observed that “The District Councils as an institution did not fall under the purview of the 73rd amendment which envisaged direct funding for Panchayats and other Village Councils… The Sixth Schedule areas are not included in the 73rd amendment”.

According to the opinion of the former Governor of Meghalaya, Mr. Madhukar Dighe, “The case for direct funding of the Autonomous District Council as being done for the Panchayat, was a weak one, since the administrative set-up and the overhead charges in the councils were so high that most of the money sent to them would hardly be used for development purposes”.

Therefore, when the District Councils are slowly losing their importance, what is then the need to retain them? According to (L). Mr. John Deng Pohrmen, then Minister of Law & Parliamentary Affairs, Government of Meghalaya, “With the achievement of a full-fledged state of Meghalaya some political pundits argued that the District Councils are redundant since the interest of the tribals are well protected by the state government which by all intents and purposes is a tribal government. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the District Councils will continue to be the springboard for young politicians whose ambition are to have an opportunity to serve their own people at the state level”. If the District Councils, therefore, are to be retained just for the self-interest of political aspirants and political adjustments at the cost of the state’s development, then for how long will the people remain mute spectators.

In Mizoram where the majority of the population are literate and their leaders far-sighted, the Mizo District Councils stood abolished when the Mizo Hills District was elevated to the status of Union Territory, giving effect to the constitution of the Mizoram Legislative Assembly on the 29th April, 1972. The Mizoram Government, however retained the District Councils only for the 3 (three) minority tribes in Mizoram which are the Pawis, the Lakhers and the Chakmas.

Our State is always passing through severe financial crunch and if we are to get out of this financial mess, it is time to cut down our losses. The 3 District Councils are white elephants whose outcomes after so many years are not visible or tangible. The State Government and the general public will have to give serious thought about dissolving the Councils.

However, if the District Councils were to be dissolved the political reforms that will follow the devolution of powers from the State Government to the Local Self Government (or Local Dorbars) must ensure that the land and resources of the indigenous people are well protected under this new arrangement.

With this brief writeup I hope it will bring forth a serious debate on the merits and demerits of retaining the District Councils.

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