Meghalaya at 49: Where are we headed?

Patricia Mukhim


The Positives first

On Meghalaya’s 49th birthday it’s important to do a reality check about how much we have progressed as a people. Contrary to what we generally believe and have learnt to stereotype, the Government of Meghalaya (read bureaucracy) has made efforts to address the development lacunae they encounter. There are quite a few officers who sincerely carry out their tasks even though they are not indigenous to this state. They regularly visit the rural outback to get a firsthand account of development vacuums. Meghalaya has come thus far because of these dedicated souls. On Meghalaya Day we should salute them for their outreach programmes across the length and breadth of the State. The same cannot be said of politicians though for they have mostly been self-seeking.

Meghalaya can boast of several national institutes such as the IIM Shillong, NIT (campus still in the making), the NEIGRIHMS a health and research institute modeled on AIIMs and with the potential to grow into an institute of excellence with a little push from the State Government. We have NIFT and the NEHU (which has unfortunately gone downhill over the decades, courtesy internal politics and undue interference of the central government in appointment of VCs). Other private universities have come up and offer professional courses. All these institutes place Meghalaya on an educational pedestal that needs to be nurtured with Government playing a facilitating role and not an obstructive one.

Now the negatives

A friend with a fecund mind who could convert dollars into INR in a jiffy and had one of the most successful businesses in the 1980’s and 90’s was also a man in a hurry. He started with corporatizing the coal business and ventured into other areas and had spread his businesses far and wide, but realised that Meghalaya and those who were running the state did not understand what systems and processes needed to be put in place for entrepreneurship to flourish. Exasperated with the government’s inability to understand the demands that growing a business takes, he coined the word “sleepwalking” to define the pace at which the state proceeded. This gentleman died early and I suspect that frustration had a lot to do with his early demise. He was far ahead of his times. It was he who pushed for the Meghalaya Economic Development Council (MEDC) for which some of us invested our time and energies and brainstormed for several months to give it shape and purpose. The MEDC was intended to enunciate clear economic goals for the state based on available resources and thereby set unambiguous goals where government was only the facilitator and not the businessman.

Alas! Meghalaya is still steeped in the license-permit raj and despite the existence of the single window agency (SWA) for clearing business proposals which include environmental, land and other clearances, entrepreneurs and established business houses still have to grease palms and pull strings to be able to set up business in the state. Hence from the outset no clean business could be started here. As far as ease of doing business is concerned Meghalaya is in the South Pole. With cold and calculating people in government at every level no one with a start-up idea can survive here.

Tourist destination: Sorry no 5-star facility 

The North Eastern Council meeting scheduled for Saturday is seeing a flurry of high flying visitors from the Union Home Minister downwards. Governors of the other six states will be present at the meeting. They carry the baggage of human entourage that has to be accommodated. And guess what? Other than Ri Kynjai next to the Umiam Lake there is no hotel worth its salt in the city to accommodate these worthies and their bureaucracies. The best we have are 3-star hotels in the heart of the city with burgeoning traffic and no worthy landscape to gaze at. Pinewood has somehow failed to live up to its former idea of a pine-wooded ambiance. Some friends who wanted to come for a visit to Meghalaya could not find accommodation at Ri Kynjai from Jan 22-24. One can imagine their frustration! One of them muttered, “Damn! Don’t you guys have any sense? You invite tourists and don’t have a decent place for them to stay in other than Ri Kynjai and Jiva Resort at Sohra. Not every tourist is a bag-packer willing to shack in, in a home-stay. We come with families and look for some comfort while holidaying.”

After receiving this mouthful early this morning, one suddenly woke up to the reality that this state of sleepwalkers actually does not have a single 5-star luxury hotel. Hotel Crowborough imagined way back in the 1980’s is mocking at every passer-by like a worn-out prostitute who has serviced too many clients. No the metaphor is wrong. Crowborough was not even able to service clients because she was left unfinished by her creators; she is still an unfinished piece of work. Imagine a hotel in the heart of the city that could not be completed in 40 odd years because of sordid politics. The Centre Point Group had bid for it in the 1990s but was thwarted by those with political clout. That’s Meghalaya’s idea of development!

And that’s not the end of the story. Another hotel allegedly a joint venture with The Marriot was started by another group. The group ran into a financial whirlpool and the project is now abandoned. It is a grim reminder of Meghalaya’s many quixotic projects. One is unable to understand why these unfinished projects are not auctioned off to the highest bidder through a transparent bid an allowed to operate so that Meghalaya becomes the venue for high-level national and international conferences also. Let’s remember that every visitor to Meghalaya is not a tourist. Some come for business and conferences and we need facilities for this.

An 18-hole Golf Course falls from grace

There was a time when Meghalaya used to boast of its 18-hole golf course. Now that place too has fallen into the grip of ugly politics and those playing golf there don’t seem to have the stamina to fight for their right to play uninterrupted and without the golf course turning into a part time picnic ground. Look at the golf courses elsewhere. Do non-golfers get to go loafing there and drink to their hearts content and then break the bottle to pieces? Do other golf courses allow the course to be a part time playground where people leave behind their garbage for someone else to pick up? This also speaks a lot about the people who ‘play’ golf and frequent the Golf Course? They have no sense of ownership and responsibility about its upkeep. Simple! They think they have paid their dues and the rest always has to be someone else’s responsibility. That’s how the elite think! Here is a state that cannot even maintain a valuable asset and yet has a couple of ministers with a penchant for hitting golf balls – perhaps in the wrong direction.

How does Meghalaya fare by the following yardsticks?

On Meghalaya’s 49th birthday one tries to wrack one’s brains to define development. What does ‘development’ really mean? Does it mean the same thing to everyone? Does development include only economic development, economic growth, education, entitlements, gender equity, good governance (which includes the rule of law), Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP), health, human development, human rights, income, justice, livelihoods, poverty reduction, reducing vulnerability, self-determination, social development, social inclusion, environmental sustainability among others? Sorry about the long list but hey isn’t the Government meant to have these yardsticks on its fingertips?

Development a loaded political term

A multitude of meanings is attached to the idea of development; the term is complex, contested, ambiguous, and elusive. However, in simple terms, development about bringing social change that allows people to achieve their human potential. Another important point is that development is a process rather than an outcome: it is dynamic in that it involves a change from one state or condition to another. Ideally, such a change is a positive one – an improvement of some sort (for instance, an improvement in maternal health). Further, development is often regarded as something that is done by the government or currently the World Bank to another (such as rural farmers or for promoting education). Again, this demonstrates that development is a political process, because it raises questions about who has the power to do what to whom.

Development in Meghalaya

But development is not simply about the interactions between human groups; it also involves the natural environment. The basic function of an economy is to convert natural resources (raw materials and energy) into products and services that are useful to humans. However, in Meghalaya the conversion processes have left behind a trail of wastelands and black, gory landscapes that spell destruction. From a source the environment has turned into a sink and the government has no blueprint to regenerate toxic rivers and desolate environs.

So this is where we are at on Meghalaya’s 49th birthday. Did we have reasons to celebrate? What did we celebrate? Let’s introspect!

Tailpiece: The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 is just out. Meghalaya, Tripura and Bihar are the last three states on all health parameters especially maternal and child mortality. Will the Government please take a call on this?

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