Restoring degraded landscapes in Meghalaya – another view
I read with interest the report captioned, “Meghalaya’s barren landscapes poised for a big-time change,” (ST Jan 7,2021) where the Government of Meghalaya received funding from the World Bank to the tune of 48 million dollars ( Rs 352.64 crores) to support the Meghalaya Community Led Landscape Management Project. This is a worthy initiative to restore and conserve the natural resources of Mawlyngot village and I presume of the surrounding areas. The news item also stated that an Auroville based NGO Sadhana Forests has been invited by the Government of Meghalaya “to help give shape” to the Project. Sadhana Forests has done good work in wasteland reclamation and I personally welcome this collaboration. But I do not believe it will be a magic wand. I also like their holistic approach to afforestation schemes and to their emphasis on biodiversity and the use of local tree species. These are very important approaches that we must all support throughout the project period. There is today a growing international acknowledgement that minimal disturbance to soils and ensuring that soils are very much covered are one of the most effective ways of controlling climate change. It is also hoped that Projects of this type will sensitise our communities in Meghalaya to the self inflicting damage we are likely to bring to our future generations through biodiversity loss due to our charcoal, broom grass, mono crop plantations and coal mining business enterprises. These initiatives completely ignore the sacredness and wisdom of biodiversity and our ecological knowledge in our Mei Ramew culture and paradigm. COVID-19 has also reminded us that the loss of biodiversity is the source of pandemics and zoonotic diseases. Viruses because of this biodiversity loss are today jumping to us as their habitats. This Project must therefore be supported. BUT it must not be a purely technocratic or ‘smart’ initiative.
My only concern is that Sadhana Forests has no experience of working on indigenous lands and their specific indigenous worldview. Their first step must therefore be for the full team to learn the fundamentals of indigenous ecology from local knowledge holders within the village and in Meghalaya. Forests are the result of generations of interactions between the local communities and nature. An outside group will need to understand how Khasis and Garos have evolved their complex land tenure, food and sacred forests systems in an effort to leave no one behind. An outside technical group and indeed our own modern experts, for example, may not fully appreciate when communities speak of “per khlaw” ( garden in the forest) because lands are not divided between agricultural and forest lands as we generally classify lands in our administrative systems. Project documents often ignore this phase of immersion for understanding local values and knowledge. Many projects naturally end up as “graveyards of well intentioned initiatives.” We need to avoid this.
A well designed project often aims to ’empower’ communities. This is not enough. We must aim to give communities an actual agency role so that they can have a culturally sensitive and self determined development. NESFAS has learned that this is not an easy process and it takes time. We have learned that project drivers (Govt staff, Sadhana, NESFAS etc) and informed communities must have the humility and willingness to co-create knowledge and initiatives as equal partners. This co-creation must be based on an intercultural approach of using traditional ecological knowledge and the experiences of contemporary science.
Modi Govt’s wrong priorities
Apropos the letter, “Jaundiced view of Shillong’s personalities” (ST Jan 9, 2021 by H K Phawa, though I was not mentioned by name the insinuation was directed at me. I also appreciate H K Phawa for taking time to react to my “bird’s eye view”.
The writer appeared to have been peeved by my characterising of the central government’s priority as being ‘religion-centric’. Here is my substantiation. The pandemic is all about public health. Absence of adequate institutions of virology, immunology etc., in India is one of the reasons for the chaos at the beginning of the pandemic. Has this even been addressed yet? Why not a Sardar Vallabhai Patel Institute of Virology and Immunology? The great Sardar Patel would have liked it even more. Instead Rs 3000 crores were spent on a so called Statue of Unity, the steel work of which was also imported from China.
The pandemic is also nature and environment related. Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. And so is Beijing. But while Delhi has done nothing, Beijing had started a clean air initiative under the Carbon Utilization and Storage programme. Instead, Rs 20,000 crores is earmarked for the central vista project. The design is supposedly being Hindutva driven. And the urgency is to finish the project by 2025 to coincide with the centenary of the founding of the RSS. On top of that, the topmost priority of BJP ruled State Governments in UP, MP is, ‘Love Jihad,’ Gau Cabinet etc. Amidst regular cases of brutal rapes of women, safety of women has been satirized into having to wear a cow’s head mask by women. Not to speak of how much has been done to address the problems of migrant workers. The economic downturn is at 23 %. 1200 sq kms of land lost to China in Galwan is yet to be recovered. The CAA being pushed down the throat of India in the name of majority in Parliament is nothing but religion centric. All these actions point to the urgency of converting secular India into a Hindu Pakistan .
The writer has nevertheless factually enumerated the several positive actions taken by the central government during the pandemic. But that is the job of the government. Those elected are in the government out of their volition, so they better do the job expected of them. They are not doing anyone a favour. Platitudes like hailing Covid warriors is welcome but talk to the Covid warriors; they will say they need more monetary rewards than platitudes.
Coming to the State of Meghalaya and the Northeast, I am not aware of any law which is religion-centric yet. And by the way, singing, ‘Amazing Grace’ in the media to ward off the spell of Covid 19 is nothing compared to the chanting of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ in Parliament, which is a flagrant violation of the Constitution itself.