Voters’ Manifesto

For Meghalaya, 2017 has been another year in a sort of mess with its murky political pool getting murkier as the state stares at its 13th Assembly elections next February.
The hill state, known for its political volatility, lacks on several fronts. Development, like in other parts of the country, is a favourite word of all political leaders here and remains only in promises rather than translating into reality.
Infrastructure in education and healthcare, especially in rural areas, is dwindling. While some village schools lack basic infrastructure like buildings most primary health centres are nothing more than a mockery of state services. This is despite Meghalaya having a stable government in the last five years and for the first time in 45 years.
There are no industries in the state other than cement, which in turn is harming the environment. Talking about environment, Meghalaya with its abundance of natural resource does not have a policy to protect it.
Corruption in the government is another factor and disturbs the sinews of administration at all levels. Charles Tympuin, a teacher in a government school in West Khasi Hills’ Nonglwai, says in order to implement any scheme for the common man, the foremost work is to weed out corrupt leaders and officials and “that should be one of the agenda of parties”.
Many among voters and the ruling party’s rivals believe that the government lacks vision and has failed to formulate policies for better implementation of projects in various sectors. Recently, former home minister RG Lyngdoh highlighting the need for policies, had said, “Today an MLA’s first priority is self, second is the party, third is the constituency and the last priority is the state and its people. It has to be reversed. The first priority should be the state, second the constituency, third the party and self should be the last one.”
The opponents of the incumbent government are sharpening their words and readying manifestoes listing various agenda. But are they incorporating their voters’ wish list or living up to their aspirations?
Sunday Shillong spoke to people from different walks of life to gauge their mood and find out what the electorate want from parties who beat a path to the voters’ door months before the elections.

Policy gap

Ketrick Chyne, who is a resident of Ri Bhoi, wonders why the government has failed to formulate policies in various sectors. “Separate policies will streamline the system,” he says.
Chyne, who is the head of the Meghalaya Small Tea Growers’ Association, says though the chief minister had promised to formulate a policy for tea growers nothing has happened so far.
Talking about the problems faced by the sector, Chyne says tea is under the Ministry of Commerce and Industries at the Centre and the Agriculture Department in the state. The dichotomy has added to the distress of tea growers who want the government to “fine-tune” the existing norms like Assam recently did by laying down new guidelines.
The People’s Democratic Front, a newly formed political entity in the state, has set its agenda on policies.

Primary agenda

Agriculture always takes a backseat when it comes to election agenda. Parties promise the moon but forget the lesser mortals who strive to keep their land and earn from its produce.
The state needs to develop its asset that is agriculture, feels veteran political leader Rowell Lyngdoh. Many voters, besides farmers whom Sunday Shillong spoke to, say there is a lot of scope to leverage existing resources in the primary sector and introducing technology to make it on a par with markets outside the state as well as the country.
But the basic issues need focus, says DL Nongspung of Mawkynrew. “Even if there is good produce, where do the farmers market it? They have to solely depend on local markets. Political manifestoes should include this,” he adds.
MPR Lyngdoh, former principal of Shillong College, points out that the number of landless villagers is increasing as the rich are buying out all the land and the poor are becoming poorer. She says political parties should look into this skewed landholding.
Echoing her views, Tympuin says people in his village are scared of land grab and they need assurance from their leaders that land ownership will be protected.

Reverse the flow

Lack of education infrastructure and healthcare facilities often drive people in hordes from villages to cities. The migration has adversely affected rural economy in the state.
“Proper healthcare and education up to class 12 should be made state subject and available in all the divisional and sub-divisional headquarters because 80 per cent of urban migration is due to the lack of proper healthcare and education system in the rural areas. Reverse migration from urban to rural areas with the formulation of proper rural development-based policies is the need of the moment,” points out Sajay Laloo, a local activist.
Lyngdoh too feels the state’s education system needs a revamp and more focus should be on science and technology.
“Attaining cent per cent education should be the target,” he says.
Bintu M Sangma, a member of the Garo Students Union in North Garo Hills, says education, from primary to higher levels, needs immediate attention. “There is no commerce stream in colleges here and students have to leave their native place for education. The issue should be in parties’ manifesto,” he says.
B Roy, the 51-year-old teacher who is originally from Bihar but has spent 35 years in Shillong, says whichever party is in power should allocate more budgetary funds to education sector. He also raises the teachers’ demand saying parties should talk about bettering their condition.

On beaten track

Meghalaya, a land-locked state, is in need of improved connectivity. Both roads and railways are necessary, feels Rowell Lyngdoh.
Maintenance of existing infrastructure is another important factor and many voters feel political parties should focus on that and ask the Centre to dole out funds to meet the high expenses. “The state has many tourist sites but the roads leading to them are broken hindering footfall and affecting local economy. Why doesn’t the government build the roads? Parties should flag this issue as it is intrinsic to local livelihood,” says Firstborn Kharlukhi, a picnicker at Raitang village in Sohra.
HSPDP is among the regional entities opposing railways in the state without proper entry and exit points to check influx.
Sangma says roads in the district are in appalling state and after monsoon they have become worse. “Villagers here want parties to do something immediately. They have been suffering for years now.”
In Shillong, where the growth of population and number of vehicles has been inversely proportional to expansion of roads, traffic congestion remains an important issue and needs to be highlighted, feels MPR Lyngdoh and others.
“The city is choking and it seems no one bothers. Instead of taking up this pertinent issue parties are engaging in blame game which will do nothing good to the electorate,” says a disgruntled passenger in a local taxi.

No health no wealth

Healthcare in Meghalaya, particularly in the rural pockets of the state, is in a lamentable state. Dearth of doctors and medical staff and skeletal infrastructure make belie the promises that the powerful make. For those living a serene life far away from the city, healthcare is an expensive commodity and not many can buy it. Sangma says in North Garo Hills, the civil hospital, which is supposed to be the nodal health centre, has only 100 beds, too less to cater to a district with a population of over a lakh. The less one speaks about the primary health centres the better.

No helping hand

Rarely a political party raises the issues of persons with disabilities, whose votes also count. Bertina Lyngdoh, who teaches at Bethany’s, says their problems are aplenty but are always ignored. She says the physically challenged are entitled to a meager monthly amount from the government “but that too we do not get regularly and are paid after months”.
Another problem, says Bertina, that the visually challenged often face is the new digitisation. “For everything, be it jobs or higher studies, we have to apply online which is difficult. There should be a provision for submitting hard copies or a centre where people will help us fill the forms. There is no helping hand at most cyber cafes and we often miss opportunities,” she explains.

Vote for jobs

Elambok Sanglyne, an unemployed youth in Nongstoin, sounded despaired when asked about what he wants from his choice of political party. “What do you think I want,” he asks back.
Sanglyne is among the hundreds of educated but unemployed youths in the state. The present government has, on many occasions, admitted the daunting task it is facing on this front.
“Unemployment in Nongstoin is mainly due to lack in diversity of different sectors of economy. Though the area is urban, most of the activities are primary and only government employees are part of the other sectors, including education. There are no industries, companies or any private institutions which can employ our youths. Job placement centre is an alien idea here. Career counselling is almost nil. The harsh truth is if the youths don’t get government jobs, they’ll end up being labourers. Only the elites and the richer folks can get such jobs, the rest of the youths will end up being jobless,” says Sanglyne. The young voter suggests opening up the economy, “like India did in the 1990s”.
As the conversation proceeded, a few more youths, all of whom are jobless, join Sanglyne. They agree to what their friend says and add that the powers that may be can promote eco-tourism, cottage industries and self-help groups for eco-friendly waste management.
The state government is harping on startups and encouraging youths to take up entrepreneurship.
Dasumarlin Majaw, a young entrepreneur, says Meghalaya has the right climate for business ventures as there are subsidies both at state and central levels. However, “financial awareness needs to be spread, especially in colleges, so that the youth know exactly how to go about entrepreneurship”.

Paying the price

The spiralling prices of essential commodities have hit voters both in the city and villages. VGK Kynta, senior advocate at the High Court of Meghalaya, says the combined impact of price rise, demonetisation and GST on the common man has been massive and political parties need to take note of this.
“The ban on coal mining and felling of trees has also affected a section of the people. Though the bans will help people in the long run, the government formed by whichever party should create alternate livelihood means for the affected citizens who are living below the poverty line. Also, there is a need for central schemes to trickle down to the lowest level,” he says.
Useful Tympuin, who has seven children and runs the family by selling vegetables at Nongstoin market, says her sales declined “ever since the government banned coal mining and I am afraid that I might not be able to send all my children to school anymore”.
“A party should try and find ways to boost local markets because they are the pillars of the state economy. To vote for an MLA just for schemes and grants without thinking about the market is dangerous,” she adds.

In focus

There are a number of issues that political parties here need to focus on “but it is to be seen how they approach the problems”, says Rowell Lyngdoh.
Many issues elude political manifestoes before elections and one of these is political appointments in plum posts, points out Kynta. “It needs to be stopped,” he says.
With the state witnessing a spate of crime against women and children, safety and low and order should definitely be on the agenda, says MPR Lyngdoh.
But most importantly, “we need a clean government with capable leaders who can deliver”. “Every party’s manifesto should reflect the aspirations of voters in respective constituencies in particular and the populace in the state in general,” says Lyngdoh.
Meena Sahani, the 52-year-old vendor at Laitumkhrah and resident of Nongrimmaw, says there are five voters in her family. “But none of us wants false promises. It does not matter what parties have in their manifestoes, they should act on those. Manifestoes should not be a poll plank,” she says.
But many among the voters are reluctant to what parties say or do because “all are same, they help only during elections and once the vote festival is over they forget their promises and even refuse to recognise voters when they approach for help”, is the acerbic reply R. Dkhar who earns her livelihood from a tea stall at Wapung village.
A section of the electorate, like Charles Tympuin, feels only a regional party can value people’s aspirations here. He has a simple logic to support his view.
“National parties run to high command for every small thing. Why can’t local leaders take any decision? If a regional party comes to power, there will be no need for a high command, isn’t it,” he explains.
At the same time, he raises the concern about lack of astute leaders with vision. However, this is not a one-man’s concern. Many voters are perturbed by the fact that the state, at present, does not have enough competent leaders whose voice will inspire the hoi polloi as well as have an effect on higher authorities. For them, the 2018 elections will be “another round of mudslinging and deal-makings rendering democracy farcical”, says Bryan D Marak, a college student.
“No matter which candidate wins or which party forms the government, I don’t expect any changes,” says Kynta with the disappointment of a deceived voter.
~ Nabamita Mitra
(With inputs from Richa
Kharshandi, Ronald Syiem &
Sannio Siangshai)

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