Traditional institutions in a modern democracy

By Patricia Mukhim

Much has been written about the traditional institutions in Meghalaya and many paeans sung about the ability of the Dorbar Shnong in particular to render service to their respective constituents especially during the pandemic. However, the fact remains that the relationship between the Dorbar Shnong and the government is at best tenuous. It is as if the Dorbar Shnong are doing the Government a favour whenever the latter is in trouble. There is no synergy and no seamless working relationship because there is nothing written anywhere in any book defining that working relationship between the two authorities. The Dorbar Shnong draw their strength from the faith that people have on them in resolving petty disputes, addressing their immediate needs pertaining to buying and selling of land within their respective localities and helping to settle discords amicably.

In recent times the Dorbar Shnong beyond municipal limits also shoulder the responsibility of managing civic services such as garbage collection and disposal and managing the water supply system which is financed and installed by the Public Health Department of the Government, amongst others. After the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) the Dorbar Shnong in the rural areas and suburbs have played a key role in identifying the beneficiaries for the job cards. The Dorbar Shnong also supervises over the public distribution system and they also implement the MLA schemes in their respective areas. In a sense they are the local governance bodies but without clearly demarcated responsibilities and an accountability system. Since their terms of reference are not clearly mentioned in the Constitution and the office bearers of the Dorbar render voluntary service (without any salary or honorarium), their relationship vis-à-vis the government is also largely informal. Their roles too are what is called in Khasi “trei mon sngewbha” (rendering voluntary service).

Since most of the Rangbah Shnong in the urban centres are also government employees, they may not be in need of remuneration for services rendered but not all have that privilege. Some hold that office because of the faith that the residents have in them and when the MLA scheme comes by, it is usually the Rangbah Shnong or some members of the executive committee or their family members that carry out the work as contractors. And no one actually minds that as long as the work is properly executed. In fact if a member of the Shnong is executing a piece of work such as constructing a footpath or black-topping a road within the locality, it is expected that the work would be of a better quality than if it were to be executed by some contractor from outside who cannot be held accountable. Above all, Dorbar Shnong cannot access any government funds as the panchayats do. So they are hamstrung by lack of funds in carrying out any development work within their localities. Naturally, they have to keep plying the MLA for road/bridge repairs, water supply, and other developmental matters. The MLA puts across to the Government those requirements. Dorbars are therefore obliged to the MLA and are not free agents.

If and when a Dorbar Shnong writes to any Government department for any assistance in any area requiring intervention, they will also approach the MLA to ensure that the application is favourably considered. Rangbah Shnong rarely approach the departments on their own, perhaps because they don’t feel confident that those in the department will give heed to their request. And that is because Rangbah Shnong are unsure about their own status in the government scheme of things. If an MLA writes to the Government about some development work in the constituency which falls under a particular Dorbar, he/she does not have to ‘request’ because the MLA is a constitutional authority. Is the Rangbah Shnong a constitutional authority? That is a matter that is left wide open to interpretation. That is why in 2014 the High Court of Meghalaya had pointed out the arbitrary role of the Dorbar Shnong in issuing certificates of all kinds. Unfortunately the task of defining the role of the Dorbar Shnong fell on the autonomous councils. The Village Administration Bill is still hanging fire, thereby leaving the Dorbar Shnong a largely undefined institution in the modern governance system.

To be fair, there is nothing traditional in the architecture of the Dorbar Shnong other than the fact that women are still not allowed to assume headship of the Dorbar. The very word “Rangbah” without the prefix ‘U’ (male) or ‘Ka’ (female) is assumed to mean an adult male and as Mr BM Lanong in his letter to the editor in this paper (April 29) stated, women shy away from that post/responsibility for reasons best known to them. That’s an astute way of saying that women don’t want to head a Dorbar Shnong because they are either incapable of doing so or because they believe it is the last male bastion in Khasi society and they are apologetic of already having taken away so much from the male because of the very fact that women bequeath their lineage to their children – something that a certain section of Khasi male nurse a grouse against. But let’s keep this discussion for another day. Today the discourse is about the tenuous relationship between the Dorbar Shnong and Government and I shall stick to that.

As an institution the Dorbar Shnong is accountable to no one; not the District Council or the Syiem of Mylliem. If the Dorbars were functioning under the mandate laid out by any of the two authorities above then they would have had very clear terms of reference about what their duties and responsibilities are and when those duties would step into the realm of overreach such as in excommunicating a member of the Shnong for some act committed which the Dorbar has reason to believe is a breach of the law of that particular Shnong. We have examples of villagers being excommunicated for blowing the whistle on the corruption indulged in by members of the Dorbar Shnong in distribution of foodgrains etc., vide the public distribution system or for some malfeasance in the distribution of job cards for the NREGA. Under what law does the Dorbar Shnong derive its mandate to excommunicate anyone? This is a hugely grey area.

Let’s talk about the present pandemic and the role played by the Dorbar Shnong. Unlike other organs of the state that come into play once the pandemic has been declared a natural disaster, the Dorbar Shnong had to be invited by the respective Deputy Commissioners to discuss what role they should play in tackling the pandemic in their Shnong. The Deputy Commissioners too are well aware that they can at best ‘request’ the Shnong to assist them because there is no laid down administrative mandate where Dorbar Shnong can be told they have to ‘carry out certain tasks’ since they don’t fall within the purview of Government by virtue of being ‘traditional institutions.’ Since the District Councils have been tasked with framing the Village Administration Bill it would appear that the Councils have some authority over the Dorbars. In that case it would have been practical for the Deputy Commissioners to activate the Councils who will in turn activate the Dorbars. But that has never happened. In a crisis the Government has relied on the Dorbar Shnong to come to its assistance. But this undefined relationship cannot carry on forever even as we realise and admit that the Dorbar Shnong are more grounded and committed to the task at hand in their respective localities than the elected Councillors. It is this gap which is showing when it comes to maintenance of cleanliness of localities and above all the task of cleaning the rivers flowing through Shillong city. The District Councils have failed miserably. If at all anything can happen it will be through the synergy between the Dorbar Shnong and Government.

In this pandemic too the synergy has worked to the benefit of the public. It is high time to think of an enduring relationship between the Dorbar Shnong and Government. Perhaps the District Council Affairs Department of the Government should come up with a pragmatic Village Administration Bill. Only then can we have a robust local governance system which will be able to access development funds without being subservient to the MLA.

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