Meghalaya’s multiple challenges versus The outdated Social Justice theory  

Patricia Mukhim

The Galwan Valley encounter in Eastern Ladakh between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China and the Indian Army could not have come at a more inopportune moment. India is battling the Covid-19 pandemic which is surging ahead every day and shows no signs of abating. We hear horror stories from different states about how family members cannot even cremate their loved ones because of a tardy response from the municipal authorities. This report from West Bengal gives us the shivers. We cannot help  imagine such worst case scenarios even here in Meghalaya should there be a sudden rise in Covid cases and should we run out of hospital beds, and should our crematoria be overburdened.

How do we tackle such exigencies despite the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 and the Disaster Management Act, 2005.These are action plans whose implementation finally lies with the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy comprises people of all temperaments but many of whom and lack the passion for carrying out their jobs with the intention of achieving results. No one rewards results in Government so why should anyone even have passion for what they do? Hence the bureaucracy fails when it comes to taking things to the lowest rung of the societal ladder.

India is reeling from an economic crisis of unimaginable proportions hence the daily jump in prices of diesel and petrol. Prices of essential commodities are already spiraling. No government really has the muscle to keep a check on prices. Those who earn big incomes will never feel the pinch. Unfortunately, it’s the high income elite that have to correct this price escalation. They are ‘The Government.” If they don’t feel the pinch it is obvious that they will not be concerned with price rise. So they will offer lip service over television. In fact if you are an avid television watcher you would have noticed the daily briefs by the Deputy Chief Minister who is now the de-facto Chief Minister. When he is asked questions on job creation, on the economy on how Covid is being handled, you would think Meghalaya has no problems at all. The MDA Government has solved every problem. The TV news anchors too are happy with those flippant answers because they too don’t have the time or the inclination to grill anyone. If they do it, they will not get any response from any minister next time around to make an appearance on their TV news channels. We in the media have learnt the art of happy co-existence.

But the pandemic calls for a reality check. If you travel some distance from Shillong you get the feel of Meghalaya’s pulse. Some weeks ago during the lockdown, the farmer’s wholesale market at 5th Mile was thriving. So too the market at 7th Mile across the headquarters of the Eastern Air Command! These suburban markets seemed promising enough to give Iewduh a run for its money. Today they are a poor shadow of themselves. On Wednesday when this writer visited the markets they wore a despondent look. Not all the stalls were occupied and the vendors complained that business was at a record low. About 99 % of the stall owners were women selling only about 10 kgs of five kinds of vegetables and some tidbits. One wonders how much they make on a daily basis, but it’s certainly not much. On the way to Upper Shillong right from Lummawbah right up to 5th Mile one side of the road is filled with hawkers. Most of them sell fruits, the costs of which are prohibitive. But they must be selling their stuff because day after day they display the same items.

My own observation is that the 7th Mile market is nearly all run by Khasi women with a sprinkling of Khasi men manning a few shops. Those who frequent the market too are all Khasis. Now that Iewduh has partially opened and Laitumkhrah is virtually all unlocked, people would not want to make a detour all the way to Upper Shillong for their supplies of vegetables. Besides, the market lacks innovation and the same goods available there are found in the markets of Shillong too. A market has to innovate to survive. If there were some local items not easily found in the markets of Shillong then there might have been some attraction for visitors. However, there is one indicator that no economist will miss which is that a market has to be patronized by all who have the purchasing power.

The 7th Mile market on the contrary, resembles an ethnic bazaar frequented by one ethnic group. A market is a free space which transcends community, race, class, religion, economic status etc. Only then will business thrive. That’s the reason Iewduh is bustling with activity. It has an eclectic mix of vendors and buyers. They get along fine. It’s the surly onlookers with an eye on politics who seem to have a grouse against this mixed population in Iewduh. Try and turn Iewduh into an oligopoly and it will collapse on its own weight. If the world has gone global, Meghalaya cannot introduce economic xenophobia in the marketplace. The market knows only one rule – you sell and let others sell too. The vendors’ loyalty is to the purchaser, no matter her race, tribe or moral ethos.

Meghalaya like the rest of India could face a prolonged economic depression. Should we waste time in communal fracas or should we be thinking more dynamically and as Meghalayans about reviving the economy? There is no place for petty politics in the present situation. People who are used to bringing governance and livelihoods to a halt on a range of “pick and choose issues” should not even think of doing that now. The pandemic has given us time to reflect and we see things differently today. We need survival kits not political rhetoric. The pandemic has created a moral, spiritual and emotional disaster. People are now aware that the several pressure groups dotting our landscape are all surviving by extorting the non-tribal business community here. The burden being put on the non-tribal businessperson is that he/she has exploited the local tribals here. What nonsense is this? In the marketplace people are free to buy from anyone they choose? It’s a competitive space where only those with business acumen will survive. And not every person is cut out for doing business. Period.

This pandemic has to usher in some deep reflection which has to lead to a mindset change. We cannot cogitate on the same old issues that we have been doing for decades. Meghalaya may be a tribal majority state but it has a substantial non-tribal population. This population has been carrying out phenomenal charitable work by giving out rations to the needy during this pandemic without scanning their community. They continue to feed people every day at the Gurudwara, at City Hut Dhaba at Barapathar and they do it without much fanfare. But do we even recognize this? No we don’t and we don’t also have the sense of responsibility to follow their example and feed hungry mouths elsewhere.

For a long time we have put up with the so-called social justice activists whose real intent is to catapult into power politics. Once there they will abandon all rhetoric and begin their wealth creation programme. We have been harbingering for decades that the end of the world is at hand and that we will be outnumbered by non-tribals. The actual fact is that the non-tribal population is dwindling. So the Social Justice theory of change that was fed to us for decades did not produce actual change.  This Social Justice theory built upon the hatred of the other does not fit any political theory.  Can anyone of these pressure groups explain how exactly this cultural agitation will lead to legislation that will bring about greater accountability in governance, result in lessening income disparities, and create a better ecology that is sustainable? How will they tackle the big challenges such as landlessness, increasing poverty levels and more women headed households with thousands of under-nourished children and anemic women? I have never heard any of the pressure groups speak on these issues – not even on the gross landlessness that is going to lead to future inter-class warfare. You cannot capitalize from the politics of resentment which we have witnessed since 1979. It has outlived its utility. Post the pandemic people will think differently and they will, hopefully not fall into the same old trap that keeps them in eternal bondage.

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