Thursday, February 22, 2024

Meghalaya’s rural challenge

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Patricia Mukhim

Meghalaya is a state with over 6000 villages and only 16 towns. Sometimes it’s easy to forget these basic facts and to live in the bubble called Shillong or Tura, Jowai, Nongpoh, Nongstoin or Mawkyrwat. The real problem with Meghalaya and its lacklustre development is that nearly all of its elected representatives live in Shillong. Some are blissfully unaware of the cruel hardships faced by their constituents and therefore cannot empathise with them. But it’s also a fact that elections in Meghalaya and indeed the whole country no longer depends on the 5-year performance of the MLA/MDC/MP. It rests solely on the ability of the candidates to pay their voters while seeking votes. Most MLAs representing rural Meghalaya have not visited all of the villages in their constituencies. The villagers also admit that they see the MLA’s face only when he/she comes to seek re-election. In that sense we are a flawed democracy.

Elections today are a high stake game where only those with several crores stacked away neatly in their lockers can afford to play. Others with lesser or no resources will be swept out of the way. Being an MLA means having access to the MLA scheme which turns an MLA into a businessman/contractor. Former Home Minister, RG Lyngdoh had repeatedly stated that the MLA scheme is a grand deception on the people of Meghalaya. The money allocated vide the MLA scheme is not spent as it should for constructing or repairing roads and footpaths, to provide water connections or to build and maintain schools especially in the villages. Looking at the schools one wonders how the kids can spend several hours inside those dingy rooms that are leaking during the rainy season. Most MLAs have not seen such schools and therefore don’t feel the pain. They are emotionally distant from their constituents who they treat as clients that need to be serviced only intermittently. It’s also the fault of the constituents that they treat the MLA/MDC/MP as some distant benefactor – a patron who gives them money to pay their hospital fees or buy school books for their children but will not ensure that the public health system is fully functional in each village or will ensure that poor children have access to free books.

Take the case of Kongthong which is about 56 Kms from Shillong but because of the road condition, takes anything between 2.5 to 3 hours to commute. There is just one dispensary in the village which is serviced only by nurses. When the villagers suffer from serious ailments that require a proper check-up they have to come to Shillong using the scarce public transport which during the pandemic costs them Rs 300 both ways. In fact, the health services in Meghalaya are one of the worst in the country as per the NFHS-5.  Recently, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma informed on Meghalaya Day that at least five mothers and 30 children die every week in the State. That this should happen in the 21st century is disgraceful but that’s where Meghalaya is placed. The Chief Minister deserves kudos for not shying away from stating the ugly facts upfront. He is not responsible for this abysmal state of affairs. The statistics cited have been constant in Meghalaya for several decades now because (a) primary health centres are not adequately strengthened (b) there are not enough doctors to be posted in each PHC (c) even if doctors are posted at a PHC or CHC they are not provided decent living quarters or and transport. How does a doctor attend to an emergency in a distant place when he/she is not even allocated a vehicle? Compare doctors to other categories of employees such as those working in the Police, Forest, Soil, PHE, PWD, Agriculture Departments. They are all allotted vehicles; doctors are not. Successive governments have not given health service the priority it deserves. Mothers and children die of preventable deaths caused by anemia, malnutrition, absence of child spacing and poor reproductive health. The health seeking behaviour of women is such that they consider their health as the last priority.

Meghalaya has several villages that involve trekking on foot for hours together. Think how the sick traverse this rough terrain. You will find a primary school but the villagers are conned into believing that the primary school is what they deserve and should not aspire for more. To think of a High School in a village is a big deal. So after primary school the kids either have to walk miles to the next village closer to the Block HQ or drop out because parents cannot afford the transport fares and their children refuse to walk several kilometres each way. Their dreams are killed early. Only those with fortitude refuse to give up and manage to scale the peak and educate themselves through sheer will power.

It is a travesty that MLAs representing rural constituencies with hardly any roads are themselves living in mansions and gated residential complexes that the rural poor will not be allowed to enter or dare enter. Elections can no longer be an instrument to empower the MLA and his family only, while the constituents wither away due to sheer poverty and inability to meet their basic needs. This is why India needs another freedom movement. The next freedom movement will be to free the millions of Indians from an enforced imprisonment in the cage of poverty – a poverty that is the result of concentration of resources in the hands of the elite. For too long, Meghalaya has produced MLAs who see politics as a family entitlement. If the parents are in politics then the children automatically step into politics. The electoral expenses needed have already been accumulated by the parents by cornering the resources meant to service the poor whose votes they solicit.

The fact that Meghalaya has received thousands of crores from the Centre over the years for constructing roads and bridges but that these roads and bridges are invisible should make us angry. But we aren’t and we continue to vote the same people and the same old party. There’s something drastically wrong with our education system that does not encourage questioning. The churches too operate in a top-down manner where questioning is taboo. The Khasi society too is constructed in such a way that questioning or dissent is equated with insolence. Anyone who speaks up is immediately isolated and becomes the talking point. This is because we have not transcended our cultural prejudices and stereotypes. Many of us still take the adage, “Silence is Golden” literally.

On another note, Meghalaya was gifted a central university in 1974. It was meant to be a centre of higher education for students from the seven states and the rest of the country. Now, after every state in the region has managed to get a university of their own, NEHU has degenerated into a Khasi University. NEHU is only two years younger to Meghalaya but instead of a garden of opportunities it has turned into a fortress that entraps all those within it in orthodoxy, indifference and disrespect for civic polity when the need of the hour is to prepare students for a mercurial society and an unpredictable future. Education is pointless if it does not equip students with the tools to deal with complex threats and challenges and instead imprisons them inside carefully constructed and vigorously defended walls. I am saying this because not one scholar from NEHU has deigned to give us insights on what the Inner Line Permit entails and its larger consequences. If the academia shies away from these critical issues then are they worth their salaries? The students too know their professors have no view on any issue because they are too self-absorbed.

Democracy cannot succeed if the citizenry is uninformed. And how will the citizens be informed if the intellectual elite distance themselves from issues that have a bearing on the state and its people. It is the educated that have the onus of critiquing policies and governance. It is they who should be calling out the illegalities under the present dispensation which have resulted in two mining disasters. If the educated don’t engage with issues of our day and the ferment of our times then we might as well wait for a revolution. That misguided revolution happened once in the 1990s; the next one might be more evolved because it will be led by those who have been deprived of their rights and suffered injustice for far too long. Woe betide if that happens!

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