Musings on Meghalaya’s lop-sided development

By Albert Thyrniang

On a recent day trip to Shillong with six students from Karbi Anglong our first stop was the Elephant Falls. I was surprised that the entry fee is Rs 100 per person. In the 1990s it was free. Next was Shillong peak. Here again, in the 1990s the public used to gain entry into the Air Force check gate without much of a hustle. Today private vehicles are not permitted inside. Local taxis have to be hired at Rs 200 per trip in addition to the entry fee of Rs 80 per person. We then by-passed Wards Lake for Golf Links hoping to spend more time in the green grass. But we were shocked to discover that here too we had to pay to gain entry. Much has changed. Till recently the young and the old would flock to the ‘Shillong recreational venue’ on weekends.
At my village when I narrated our visit to the ‘Scotland of the East’ someone said, “We too will go to these places” with others agreeing in unison. But when they were told of the entry fees, they said, “Then we cannot afford to see those places in Shillong.” It is true that villagers may never see the places of attraction in the state capital. To visit the Elephant Falls, Shillong Peak, Lady Hydari Park, Wards Lake, Golf Links, one has to spend Rs. 500/600 on tickets alone.
Our conversation on tourist locations continued. In West Khasi Hills and South West Khasi Hills districts there are some great spots like the Wah Rilang View Point near Mawkyrwat, the Nongsynrieh Hill and rock, the Nongkhnum river island and the waterfalls over there. These are no less stunning than the aforementioned tourist locations in Shillong and Sohra (Cherrapunji). Many of these spectacular places are free for visitors. Therefore, another one remarked, “Haba ngi leit sha ki jaka sor ngi hap siew shispah tyngka. Haba ki nongsor ki wan jngohkai ia ki jaka jong ngi pat ki peit ei ne siew tang arphew tyngka.” (When we visit tourist places in Shillong we have to pay Rs 100 but when Shillongites come to our sites they pay a meagre Rs. 20.” The peripheries are always at a disadvantage. Disparity is too obvious. Development is one sided.
Rangblang, my birth place is a village of over 300 households. But there is no PHE water connection to any home as yet. In all localities (dong) broken pipes are seen along the road. The storage tanks are all dilapidated. Two PHE schemes were brought to the village in the past. Storage tanks for distribution to all localities were built on a hill called, ‘Lum Iingmane Barim.’ I visited the site and found that the tanks completely dry. One of the tanks is probably incomplete. The pipes into them and out of them are broken. I took a couple of videos and posted them on social media asking whether this was a scam and what has happened to the schemes and why the projects were a failure? A journalist responded promising that he would follow it up. Another senior scribe informed that the schemes were sanctioned and executed during the time of a former MLA who was also a minister. He also mentioned the name of the contractor. “Both the minister and contractor is dead but water is yet to reach the people,” he joked.
Such a thing would never happen in Shillong, Tura or Williamnagar, Nongstoin or Jowai. In rural areas like Rangblang, things are taken for granted because people don’t raise their voices. So development works are half done, incomplete and they lay in ruins. Contractors escape with the money, in all likelihood in collusion with high level officers, ministers and public representatives. On paper Rangblang is probably shown as a village where PHE water flows to each of the households. But in reality there is not a drop of water. Possibly there are hundreds other Rangblangs across rural Meghgalaya.
The Nongstoin-Rangblang-Wahkaji-Ranikor road is an endless irritation. People now grudge the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) for blocking the 93 km stretch when in 2015 it was all set to be converted into a two lane road. The reason given for blocking that road project was that it would facilitate uranium mining in Domiasiat, Nongbahjynrin, Mawthabah and other locations. This is absurd and unacceptable. In spite of the assurance that there was no mining intention behind the road project the pressure groups were adamant. We know there are uranium deposits in Sohra, Mawsynram and close to Mawkyrwat too. Will the anti-uranium groups protest and stall a two-lane road to any of the above-mentioned towns? They may say, “We will allow the roads, but we will never let mining take place.” Then why not apply the same yardstick to the Nongstoin-Rangblang-Wahkaji-Ranikor road in 2015?
The distance from Nongstoin to Rangblang is a mere 25 km but it takes over two hours from one end to the other. From Rangblang to Wahkaji the distance is less than 40 km but a ride takes three hours or more. By now the whole stretch would have been like the Shillong-Nongstoin-Tura road. But here we are now still riding on the bumpy ‘country roads to take us home.’ I visited Wahkaji, Domiasiat and Nongbahjynrin recently (more about them later) and discovered shocking revelations. In public transports, in tea stalls and in other conversations people blame the KSU for the loss of the two-lane road. Since everyone in the area speaks the Rangblang dialect the chorus is, “Ta seng bhalang da men khang chna surok. Seng bhalang aio gai ata” (It was the ‘do-good’ organisation which prevented the construction of the road. Who knows what kind of organisation is that). Even children take the name of the KSU and hold it responsible for the hardship of the people till date. People also revealed that the real reason for obstructing the road construction was actually jealousy. During the public hearing certain leaders scornfully uttered, “Balei ai surok ia ki shrieh”? (“Why give a road to monkeys?”) “Balei shna surok sha khlaw”? (“Why make a road in the jungle?”) So it was discrimination against the people in the Langrin areas that stalled the road project.
That the KHADC too was involved in this discriminatory act is disappointing to say the least. The Council refused to grant NOC to the Nongstoin-Wahkaji-Ranikor road but was liberal in issuing NOCs to Nongstoin-Rambrai-Kyrshai, Mawsynram-Balat-Nongjri-Moheskola, Nongstoin-Maweit-Kulang-Nongjri, Riangdo-Athiabari-Hahim-Boko roads. Why block only the Nongstoin-Rangblang-Wahkaji-Ranikor road just because there are uranium deposits on the way? Is this not a blatant discrimination?
This writer visited Domiasiat and Nongbahjynrin on August 9. Nongbahjynrin, a sleepy, tiny hamlet of 5 households where the exploratory uranium mining was carried out in the 1990s has a motorable road from Wahkaji (22 km) because UCIL constructed it. The village hardly gets electricity. People depend on solar panels for lighting purposes. Mobile connectivity is only for making calls and does not support internet conneciton. The village has a decent LP school building but teachers are not very regular. In November 2021 there were reports of explosion from one of the abandoned sealed tanks containing uranium effluents. This visitor and others found two tanks manipulated but ultimately no one really cares.
Domiasiat is puzzling. The epicentre of anti-uranium mining, thanks to late Kong Spility Lyngdoh Langrin, is situated 3 km away from the Wahkaji-Nongbahjynrin road. The ten household settlement is quite isolated. The approach road is horrifying. Only pick-up vehicles can reach the village. In fact the path is not even a PWD road. The village has no drinking water supply. People have to walk for 1 km down the valleys to fetch water. Electricity is non-existent. It may come once a week informed the residents. The village has an LP school building but it has only two classrooms for students of class I to V. It was closed down in 2004 due to the negligence of teachers and was reopened in 2021.
In terms of natural beauty the village is a paradise. Nestled around hills and green vegetation, the surrounding is a sight to behold. I intend to revisit this village. But the residents wonder as to when road, water and electricity will come. They have approached the local MLAs, present and past, but nothing has happened. Some are desperate. They warn the government that there may come a time when they could allow uranium mining so that development would come. Not only in Domiasiat but in other villages, people recalled that when uranium mining was on there were electricity and other facilities. Thanks to UCIL, the present tarred road from Wahkaji was constructed. If not for UCIL the cluster of seven villages would have remained isolated even today, people confessed.
Regarding the recent statement by the central government that it has not abandoned plans to mine uranium in Meghalaya, people are quite cool about it. They are amused that politicians and pressure groups warn of a law and order situation in the event the central government resumes mining in the state. People lament that it is they who suffer whether uranium is mined or not. Hence they should be allowed to decide their own fates! Period.