Meghalaya’s Traditional Grassroot Institutions: Who owns them?

By Toki Blah

In a broad Policy decision the Govt of India (GOI) had decided that from 1st April 2022 onwards, the ongoing DRDA programme will henceforth be merged with the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). It was after all to be expected as the GOI begins to carry forward its plans for “Less Government and more Governance”. The immediate reaction from Meghalaya which had been exempted from the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution and therefore had no Panchayats, was a smug counter proposal to merge the DRDA programme with our Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). By next morning however the realization must have dawned that such a proposal would bring in more misery than solve problems. Our ADCs by no stretch of the imagination could be compared with the development oriented Panchayati Raj Institutions whose powers and functions have been duly elaborated in the XI Schedule. Our ADCs on the other hand are top heavy overturned pyramids, with a huge entourage of babus at head office and a minuscule field presence limited to Forest Guards and dubious staff manning questionable check gates on the National and State Highways. Diverting DRDA activities and funds to the ADCs can only be compared to attempting to load a leaky boat with heavy boulders. Both would simply sink without a trace. It was a no go!
So we backtracked and the Minister of C&RD, Hamletson Dohling, declared the next day that Meghalaya would seek exemption from this move of the GOI. This counter proposal from GOM means that permission would be sought from GOI to maintain the ongoing process of DRDA implementation to be carried on by Project Directors assisted by a team of officers and professional staff. For the uninitiated the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) set up in 1999, is the principal organ at the District level to oversee the implementation of different anti-poverty programmes of the GOI. Here once again Meghalaya exhibited, in the most embarrassing manner, its inability to gauge the intentions and degree of commitment of the GOI on the concept and policy of decentralizing administration.
The whole idea behind the Panchayati Raj Bill was to bring administration closer to the people (not as some believe by creating more and more itsy-bitsy, pint-sized and frivolous Districts) but by creating institutions of governance at the grassroot level to be manned, run and managed by the people and communities themselves. The democratic profile of such institutions lay in the election of its members through universal adult franchise. Their inclusive nature lies in the equal participation of both men and women in decision making; their power, through their ability to identify, plan and budget for the development needs of the community from a pre-determined legislated catalog of activities; their empowerment, through trainings on basic concepts of financial management systems, accountability and transparency; their viability, through their ability to claim ownership and management of assets created by themselves. This is devolution of power to the people that the 73rd and 74th Amendment sought to bring forth.
Meghalaya was exempted from the Panchayati Raj Bill (passed in 1992) because of the belief that we already had traditional village and intermediary institutions of the community that could easily be tweaked to conform with the above-mentioned desired characteristics of a bottoms-up approach to development based on a demand driven paradigm of and by the people themselves.
For 29 long years, Meghalaya and its elected leaders, both at the State and ADC Level contemptuously brushed such expectations under the carpet. We steadfastly refused the need to bring our traditional bodies to a level where they could really serve the needs of their respective communities. We witnessed instead the playout of petty politics between the State Govt and our District Councils over ownership of our traditional institutions, forgetting that our traditional bodies belong to no one but the communities they serve. In this tussle the vital issue of legislation on how to bring our traditional bodies at par with the needs of the times was forgotten. Our Dorbars were left to languish where history discovered them 200 years ago. This neglect blew up on our faces when a High Court order in 2014 questioned the legal status of the Rangbah Shnong. Tradition came under legal scrutiny and was found wanting. Chaos and confusion ensued and normalcy only returned through a ‘stay’ obtained from the Supreme Court. The respite however is temporary as the ‘stay’ could be vacated any time to take us back from where we started.
The disappointment is amplified when the victim themselves, the Traditional Dorbars, remain mute and indifferent to the urgent and felt need for their transformation into modern vehicles of inclusive governance to provide meaningful service to the communities they serve. Shameful to admit but most are still stuck in the ridiculous debate over participation of women in Dorbar meetings.
It has now become obvious to all, but the politically blind, that empowerment of our traditional grassroot institutions, be they in Jaintia, Khasi or Garo Hills, is an issue of crucial importance to the people of Meghalaya. The very relevance of our Dorbars, Akhings or by whatever name they are known is at stake. The critical issue is to give them the legal power, clout and authority through legislation to execute their mandate as grassroot institutions of governance as tradition meant them to be. Let these traditional bodies continue to be known by their local traditional names. That is not the issue. The real issue is for a uniform Grassroot Governance Bill that cuts across the whole state. In Meghalaya we have three different ADCs each with its own system of village administration. In the KHADC it’s more confusing as each Hima has its own set of laws on how governance is to be administered. Confusion is worst confounded with every Dorbar having its own Constitution. Absolute chaos and confusion prevails. The need for a uniform Law cannot be underscored.
The State Legislature can do it through (Art 243M(2a) read with Para 5 of List II of 7th Schedule, read with para 12 A(a) of 6th Schedule) or alternatively by all three District Councils passing identical bills in their respective councils. It should be made clear to all that such a Bill is not to belittle the ADCs or to demonstrate the power of the State over the ADCs. It is simply to demonstrate to the world that we have the political resolve to envision on how to ensure better and efficient delivery of service to the people and that this is the ultimate goal of our politics. There is no reason on earth why the benefits of direct funding available to other communities of India should not be made available to the people of Meghalaya. No reason for our rural communities to subsist only on doles from the MLA schemes. No reason for them to beg so that they remain in perpetual poverty.
In conclusion, next year as we celebrate the 50th year of Meghalaya’s statehood let it not be a celebration for extending the abuse of power by the political class but of a resolve to elevate people’s power towards better governance. We shall adopt legislative measures towards devolution of more powers for local self governance. Programmes of livelihood promotion; poverty reduction; improving health and education; sustainable natural resource management together with effective waste management concepts will be the future issues that will demand better governance through active participation of empowered communities. We have our traditional village Dorbars. There is no question of diluting their mandate as the upholders of culture and traditional values but at the same time they must be empowered and prepared to shoulder the responsibilities and demands of modern governance.
One of the resolutions of the recent Climate conclave at Glasgow is to support Indigenous practices of absorbing carbon through community administered forests. i.e our sacred groves. Our traditional institutions however, lack the authority and dexterity to interact with International donors. Then there is the rising global demand for fresh water that is expected to increase a thousand-fold. Meghalaya receives billions of tonnes of fresh water every monsoon. Approximately 64 billion cu.mts or so. We need technology (perhaps from Israel) to empower our communities to harvest and store this water for a thirsty world willing to pay for this life sustaining resource. Our Dorbars require only three basic needs. legal recognition through an act of legislation; empowerment to act as true grassroots governance systems; financial management skills to handle direct funding from outside agencies. Our politicians are required to do nothing except facilitate the above three prerequisites and watch Meghalaya and its Institutions grow to their full potential.
Author is President of ICARE: Email: [email protected]

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