Meghalaya’s economic dilemma as a dependent state

By Patricia Mukhim

“Tourism had just begun to pick up this year when we now have another bout of insecurity and most tourists cancelling their plans to come to Shillong and also cancelling their hotel/homestay bookings. Think of the loss to those running these facilities! It has been stated times without number that tourism is one important engine for employment generation.”

Tourism is a money spinner if we know how to nurture and sustain it. But there are certain pre-conditions that are non-negotiable. A climate of peace and security is imperative. Tourism is a fragile industry. It takes one incident in a distant village in West Jaintia Hills to shatter the peace in Meghalaya. Sure, we are all outraged by the loss of five innocent lives at Mukroh at the hands of a panicky Assam police contingent that went berserk and started firing to kill, instead of firing to disperse a crowd. Our demand for justice for the family members of the five victims who died a violent death must be ongoing and not an intermittent one. The trouble is that people of Meghalaya have short memories and only rake up issues selectively and generally before the elections. Once elections are over it’s back to business as usual.
For nearly two years between 2020 -2021 Covid had put paid to the tourism and hospitality business. Quite a few homestay owners could not repay their bank loans and struggled to stay afloat. Tourism had just begun to pick up this year when we now have another bout of insecurity and most tourists cancelling their plans to come to Shillong and also cancelling their hotel/homestay bookings. Think of the loss to those running these facilities! It has been stated times without number that tourism is one important engine for employment generation. Yet those who specialise in creating a law and order situation on the plea of demanding justice for the dead souls don’t stop to think of similar other living souls that are dependent on tourism and other ancillaries for their livelihoods. There are taxi owners and drivers; vegetable and meat vendors; restaurateurs, tour guides and tour operators and the list goes on. Will those who deploy their skills to create panic and insecurity compensate for these losses? I guess if they can be arrested then perhaps they can be held accountable. But who will arrest them? The rule of law in Meghalaya has never been at its best except during the short stint when late RG Lyngdoh was Home Minister. He gave the police enough freedom to carry out their tasks and did not reduce them to handmaidens of the Government as they are today and have been in the last four years.
On Thursday afternoon the news spread that the Assam Petroleum Mazdoor Union would not send their members to Meghalaya on account of the fluid situation, vehicles from every nook and corner came out and queued in front of petrol pumps. Every road, lane and bye-lane in the city was jammed with vehicles. It’s the first sign of panic. Housewives started panic buying and we know what that means – cost escalation on several pretexts.
What is missing in all of this is the voice of sanity which should come from civil society. In every enlightened society there are peace activists whose voices would prevail and they become bridge builders between agitating groups and the government. Recently the Government called a meeting of the Rangbah Shnong and the all-faith leaders forum to assist in ensuring that things did not spiral out of control after the Mukroh firing incident. So what are these “leaders” doing? Have they spoken out and called for a better handling of the present situation? Are they able to prevail upon the pressure groups to remain calm and not create more problems for their own people in their quest for revenge on what happened at Mukroh?
In periods of tumult and confusion people tend to lose faith in governance systems. They feel it is necessary to take extraordinary action by tearing down systems of power. Such situations leave no space for alternative narratives. Social media has become a drug that gives power to even the most unthinking person. The collapse of decency feeds the attack on democracy and the tenuous threads that hold democracy together suddenly seem to disintegrate. These signs of the loosening of democratic tenets tends to put those at the helm of power in a vulnerable position. From that convoluted position they surmise that cutting the links to social media by banning the internet can save their collective faces. This is such a short-sighted and cheap short-cut to redeeming political ego. The tragedy is that the truths of these moments have no space to be distilled. There is a disconnect between expectations and reality. The youth expect so much but those mandated to govern the State are buffeted by their own proclivities to make hay while the sun shines and keep off the thinking for the next five years and the next….
Just a few days ago the North East Olympics Games (NEOG) had come to a grand climax. Everyone was overjoyed but more so the Chief Minister and the CEO in chief who virtually ran the NEOG like clockwork. Naturally celebrations were in order and the celebrations were such that they went on to the wee hours even while tired drivers waited outside for their masters to pack up. There was dancing and fun and why not? Except that a few days later we have the “present” and its ugly turn of events. The poor internet is always the casualty for the Conrad Sangma Government. This Government believes that the best way to fix what is broken is with a sledgehammer.
Meghalaya is a broken state. The poor are increasing phenomenally hence one cringes to see the vulgar display of wealth by those in power and close to those in power. The road (only parts of them being in a driving condition) to Mukroh whether one takes the Nartiang way or the Barato- Phramer- Jowai road are nightmares. From Barato – Phramer – Jowai the road passes through miles of stone quarries and hundreds of women breaking stones even in the dark. It’s a hard life and they have learnt not to complain. They barely survive on the MNREGA wages.
The recent survey released by the Union Ministry Education shows Meghalaya to be the state with the highest number of dropouts at 39.2% till and just after Class 10. The overall figure for India is 16.9%. Just think of the future of these kids and adolescents! Where will they end up? And this is the tragedy of Meghalaya. We are going down on all parameters. And there is no serious thinking as to how to redeem our failing state.
The Khasi, Jaintia and Garo community however has not produced a brave enough politician who will question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle class. Progressive policies whether on education or land reforms (cadastral survey being one) all run into the wall of upper middle class opposition. The idea is killed stone dead! Today this tribal society is not just fragmented by a clash of ideology but also because of the need to carefully preserve and sustain the strong drive of entitlement coming from the top 20 % of rich tribals. For the tribes of Meghalaya to solve the problem of this deepening class division we will have to start by admitting their existence and our own complicity in maintaining them and their lavish lifestyles which come out of the public exchequer. Beneath the veneer of classlessness the Khasi class reproduction machine operates with ruthless efficiency. And this happens across faiths – Christians and the so-called indigenous faith practitioners. Religion does not provide us with the moral rubric we need to measure our humanity with. Just look at the conspicuous consumption in terms of swanky vehicles on the road and the over- the- top weddings even while a huge number of our own people are sinking deeper into poverty. They are just existing, not living! And this while the top 20% of tribal elite go about their wealth accumulation project without so much as a moral disquiet!
Whenever there is a law and order situation those who suffer the most also occupy the last rung of the economic ladder. Pressure groups that create desperate situations should therefore think who they are punishing. They are putting the poorest in a graver dilemma then they already are in. Pressure groups need to be more responsible and accountable and not kick those who are already hungry in their starved frames.

“Just a few days ago the North East Olympics Games (NEOG) had come to a grand climax. Everyone was overjoyed but more so the Chief Minister and the CEO in chief who virtually ran the NEOG like clockwork. Naturally celebrations were in order and the celebrations were such that they went on to the wee hours even while tired drivers waited outside for their masters to pack up.” There was dancing and fun and why not?

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