An Inconvenient Proposal


By Toki Blah

“Opposition skips Ampareen’s meet on Municipal Poll” were the front page news headlines of ST May 3, 2016.  On May 5, comes a rejoinder from the UDP Working President of the party’s readiness to hold exhaustive discussions on the subject but not on logistics only. For once let’s face and accept an inescapable truth.  Firstly, Shillong is going, if it has not already gone, to the dogs. There is no overall strategy waste and garbage management. The city water supply system has collapsed. We are highly suspicious of the quality of water supplied to our homes. On the other hand we are the only people in the entire world who tolerate the laying of drinking water pipes through public sewers. More than 40 years of statehood and no one has a clue on how to manage Shillong’s civic affairs. It is sadly obvious that we are a people who are incapable of managing the city we live in.

Amid this dark and dismal urban scenario politicians continue to spar and bicker on who is right and who is wrong. Logically speaking why can’t the opposition and the Govt sit together and come up with a solution to the civic crisis that confronts Shillong? In the interest of the people, why do MLAs refuse to work together? Please remember you came begging for our votes. You promised to serve the people but that pledge was broken no sooner it was made. This charge is being made with all the sorrow it conveys but it happens to be the truth. Meghalaya’s body polity is interested more in political posturing than in working out solutions to iron out Shillong’s woes. As long as people continue to vote, even if they are up to their necks in squalor, it is OK. The ethics of politics has lowered itself to that miserable level and no one seems to care.

The second truth is even more perplexing. It is no secret that our political system has failed in providing an answer to the city’s civic misery. The news headlines mentioned above is a typical case of how politicians of all hues have been approaching the problem of civic administration for the last 40 years since statehood. First they took over the Shillong Municipal Board, superseded it, appointed Govt Chairpersons and CEOs and then found it just didn’t work. The Shillong Municipal Board was, not surprisingly, then abandoned and left to its fate! MLAs and politicians then started turning to the Dorbars for the civic management of Shillong city. In our euphoria for tradition we demanded that durbars use their traditional leverage in running the civic affairs of the city. Dorbars are excellent traditional institutions for Shnong/village level administration.  We tend to forget that tradition never had need to come up with an institution to manage a city. Therefore expecting traditional village durbars to manage Shillong’s growing and expanding civic needs is like trying to fit in mobile hardware into a laptop. It just won’t work. We need to come up with a more effective and workable solution.

So, how do other cities manage their civic affairs so efficiently? The answer is simple – they do so through an institution called a Municipality! In Shillong most people sincerely believe (why and how is a mystery) that a municipality is a monster; a trap set up by the Govt (whoever is in power) to take away our tribal rights. In Shillong the word municipality has assumed the notoriety of a four letter word. It is not mentioned in polite Khasi society! Truth is a municipality is simply a public institution to look after the civic needs of a town or a city. Nothing more nothing less! This simple truth, despite directions from both the High Court as well as the Supreme Court, has been consistently ignored and lost sight of.

There are elected municipalities of New York, of London, of Delhi, of Kolkata, of Singapore and of Tokyo. Municipalities provide civic amenities to the citizens and keep the cities clean and safe. The Shillong fear arises out of the unfounded belief that an elected municipality is inimical to our tribal ethos. No one has challenged the validity of such fears. No politician has ever stepped forward to say “Ok, come let’s debate the issue”. Our leaders simply love to be led! They shun leading. No one has dared question the intellectual integrity of those who propagate such outrageous ideas. They have instead been accepted as Gospel truth and left at that. In the meanwhile the entire city is under threat of being buried under its own filth. The real threat from filth, squalor, faecal contaminated drinking water and unattended garbage is quietly being accepted as part of our tribal culture and identity! How can we accept such absurdity?

Coming back to the topic at hand, the reasons put forth for not holding Municipal polls are four in number, There is fear that elected non tribal ward commissioners would ultimately dominate the Municipal Council. How this can happen in a council of 27 wards where 22 wards are reserved only for tribal candidates, is hard to explain. Next there is this fear of party politics polluting municipal polls. This too is unlikely to happen as there is a Govt ordinance prohibiting contest of ward elections on party lines. Thirdly there is a strong resentment against Meghalaya continuing with the Assam Municipal Act. The demand is for a Municipal Act of our own. The fact remains, however, that all Municipal Acts deal with aspects of civic administration. A Meghalaya Municipal Act of our own will more or less be the same as any other Municipal Law the world over. So there is hardly any justification for reinventing the wheel. What is actually called for is an amendment of the existing Act to suit Meghalaya’s specific requirements. That can easily be attended to and should in no way prevent Shillong Municipal polls.

The fourth reason revolves round the fear that an elected ward commissioner will usurp all the existing powers, prestige and importance of the Rangbah Shnong and that the existing traditional system of governance will be adversely affected. He will manipulate and channelize the coveted MLA scheme to his advantage. The ward committee will be dominated by his nominees. Who then will bother with the Rangbah Shnong when he becomes just a mere puppet of the Ward Commissioner? Some grounds for concern and tradition definitely cannot be sacrificed at any cost. Fine, but why sacrifice tradition at all in the first place? Why can’t we empower tradition instead; make it relevant to the needs of our times and make it the fulcrum on which we run our urban civic governance system? Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we think out of the box? There is ample scope in involving the durbars in municipal affairs and to bring in real community participation in civic administration.

Instead of a top down Ward Commissioner led paradigm why can’t we have a durbar led municipal administration? Why can’t the modern needs of urban governance be amalgamated with the existing traditional system of administration? Why not indeed!  It’s possible. We only need the vision and the courage to try!

In any attempt to bring in a meaningful Dorbar led community participation in Shillong urban governance, there first has to be an amendment of the Meghalaya Municipal Act to accommodate the desired changes. The Meghalaya Community Participatory Bill of 2010 provides for the setting up under the chairmanship of the Ward Commissioner, a ward committee composed of members to be nominated by him. In all probability only stooges, chamchas and family members of the Ward Commissioner will ever be nominated to this committee. Its hard to see how this top down approach can be called community led and participatory in nature. If therefore real meaningful change is to be initiated, it has to begin with the composition of the Ward Committee. Instead of the Ward Commissioner filling the Ward Committee with his nominees, why can’t the Ward Committee Members (WCM) be elected from the various localities/shnongs/dongs that make up the ward? Each locality/shnong/dong (as the case maybe) within the ward, elects and sends in a specified no of WCMs that will include women. Rangbah Shnong, office bearers of the dorbar and other prominent members of the locality are not barred from being elected as WCMs. Once the Ward Committee is setup and ready, it then elects a Chairman from amongst its own members. The exercise ensures that the Ward Committee is made up of persons who represent the community; are chosen by the community itself and are not mere stooges of an individual. Real community participation is ensured.

The process of election of the ward commissioner then comes next. Each ward committee comes up with a panel of names, anyone of whom is considered fit and competent to represent the ward at the Municipal Council. Ward Committee members are not exempt from being so identified. The persons so listed will be urged to contest the ward elections which accordingly to existing Govt notification will be on non party lines. This exercise brings in a pre election community screening process of the persons who are considered the fittest to represent the community at the ward level. It ensures too that the elected remain conscious that they owe their election ticket to the community and to no one else. This however does not in the least prevent or prohibit any citizen, not so empanelled, from trying his luck at the Municipal Polls. No one’s democratic right to contest an election will be barred. It is simply a candidate screening process to get the best representation through a community led pre election process. There is no intention to circumvent the Constitution of India nor to defy the People’s Representation Act.

It has been made clear above that one of the amendments to the Municipal Act is the constitution of the Ward Committee where it will elect its own Chairperson from amongst the chosen Ward Committee Members. There will also be an amendment where the Ward Commissioner will no longer be the Chairperson of the Ward Committee. Instead he will now be known as the Ward Secretary. The Ward Secretary in the new amendment, reports to the Ward committee instead of chairing it. As such he becomes a true servant of the people in its most practical terms. The Ward Secretary carries the will of the ward community to the Municipal Council and reports back to the Ward Committee irrespective of the office he holds in the Municipal Council.

In such a setup two basic issues that have plagued urban governance of Shillong will be settled. Firstly the fear of the durbars of being sidelined and marginalised by a Ward Commissioner would have been laid to rest. Instead of being sidelined they will now be the driving force and the prime movers for everything that the Ward Secretary will be doing. The amended Municipal Act will also clearly spell out the powers and functions of the Ward Secretary. These Powers and Functions should be strictly confined to issues of civic management and betterment of Urban Governance. The Ward Secretary shall not interfere nor meddle with the traditional administrative functions of the Traditional Dorbars. The Ward Secretary will be acting strictly on the directions of the dorbars that constitute his respective ward. In keeping with the time honoured traditions and best practices in local self governance, the provision for RECALL shall feature prominently in the amended Act.

Secondly once the amended Act is in place elections to the Shillong Municipal Board can be held. This will instantly open up doors and opportunities that have so far been closed or partially shut to Shillong Municipality. Funding from various schemes and projects under urban development can start flowing in. Real urban development can take place. There is no need to sneer at such a statement. Shillong needs to replace and improve its outmoded urban infrastructure. We need money to improve our drainage systems, our sewage system, our roads, our garbage disposal system and a host of other urgent civic issues. The beauty of these proposals is that they can be applied to even the so called 6th Schedule Areas and the designated town committees of the Autonomous District Councils. Why should these semi urban institutions be left out of any urban improvement and funding project? This proposal is inclusive inasmuch as it offers structural uniformity to others outside Shillong Municipality. Semi urban entities   can also benefit. And why not?

In conclusion it must be mentioned that these proposals were at one point of time, presented by ICARE to members of various NGOs of the city; to some members of the Synjuk Ki Rangbah Shnong and to Office bearers of two prominent women’s organisations. There was unanimous agreement on two points. Firstly ,if the state is to have a Municipal Act of its own, then this was it. It reflects inclusiveness, greater community participation and most important, it recognised the role and responsibility of our traditional durbars in urban governance. Secondly, it introduces a new paradigm on what ‘public service’ really means and provides continuity of control by the electorate over its elected representative, an issue that needs to be embedded in our system of democracy. No doubt these possible and potential improvements in the relationship between the voter and the elected will be looked at askance by Meghalaya’s body politic. It will mean introduction of greater transparency, accountability and service delivery from our elected representatives. It will mean an end to the disgusting system of political patronage that thrives in Meghalaya. It will be of no surprise therefore if these inconvenient proposals are trashed into the nearest political rubbish bin.

(The author is President, ICARE)

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