Governance Institutions Need to Converge

By Patricia Mukhim

Going by the number of institutions in Meghalaya each tasked with governance and hence meant to be people-centric one would assume that governance would have reached the last mile in the last 50 years but such is not the case and socio-economic surveys reveal that we are not quite there and that large sections of our people are still beyond the pale of governance. True, that we are all more connected to our Dorbar Shnong which is our first “go to” institution for our problems which include poor water supply, bad roads, power cuts etc. The Dorbar Shnong then escalate those problems to the MLA or the MDC and sometimes with the departments concerned. It depends on how pro-active the Dorbar Shnong and their office bearers are.

Now let us look at the institutions in Meghalaya and see what each one is doing. At the top of the pyramid is the Government (and here I am using the pyramid as a model because the people are farthest from the Government). The government is somehow disconnected from the district councils. One sees no sharing of responsibilities; no engagement of the ADCs in project implementation. The Government is also estranged from the Dorbar Shnong and only engages them on and off. There is no connecting link – no umbilical cord that joins the ADCs to the Government and which would have ensured better outreach especially when it comes to environment conservation since the ADCs are supposed to be more closely connected to the Dorbar Shnong/Nokmaship/Village Development Council etc.

The second Institution is the District Council which has a set of duties and responsibilities as mandated by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and which certainly is not reduced to making footpaths and bridges, thereby encroaching into the domain of the state government. I am even wondering why the District Councils are engaged in construction work at all. They constructed some buildings right next to the Umiam Lake (accessible through the road next to Marten in Mawiong) several years ago. I last saw those buildings in 2019. They seemed to be meant for tourism purposes but the way they are designed is an architect’s nightmare. Instead of looking out at the Umiam Lake the part of the building facing the Lake is all cemented. So, it’s really one of those matchbox buildings.  No creativity; no thought for ambiance. It’s just a building – that’s it.    A substantial sum of money has been invested in those buildings. Why are they not put to use? And by the way that is public money that has been used.

The District Councils are custodians of rivers, forests, waterways etc. And now they have one more power source – that of granting building permissions. In the first place should the granting of building permissions be under the ambit of the District Councils? Which part of the 6th Schedule says that? What is ‘customary’ that needs to be conserved about buildings? Are the Councils even seized of the need to protect heritage buildings because that has something to do with legacy, tradition and customary practices. Let’s face it there is nothing traditional about new buildings. It’s all in the domain of modern engineering so how does the District Council come into this domain? It’s a question that we need an answer to. From what appears in the press, the District Councils are not focussed on their primary duty as authorities giving trading licenses to non-tribals. From the manner in which different pressure groups are going around and checking trade licenses and also closing down shops, it would appear that the District Councils have outsourced this task of granting trade licenses and checking out on violators to pressure groups. If they have not done so then they should not remain silent when someone steps into their domain.

The next institution in the order of hierarchy is the Syiemship. Other than collecting taxes from markets and overseeing forests and community owned (Ri Raij) land and other non-revenue land, the Syiem does not seem to have any authority today. Since the Syiems are not within the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) it is difficult to investigate how they spend public resources because any form of taxation/collection from the public should be subject to scrutiny and to public audit. This has never happened and is unlikely to happen because no one wants to disturb the hornet’s nest. There is no known equivalent of the Syiemship in Garo Hills. The Dollois in Jaintia Hills operate more or less like the Syiems in terms of granting land leases to different industrial units such as cement companies and coke units or alienating land for mining coal etc and they do this in collaboration with the District Council. The Syiems, according to me, are operating in a grey area with each Syiem doing what he knows best.

The fourth and the most widespread grassroot institution is the Dorbar Shnong/Dorbar Chnong in Khasi Jaintia Hills and the Village Dev Council/ Development Committees (in Municipal areas)in Garo Hills. These in short are what can be termed as Meghalaya’s hierarchy of needs. These institutions drawing their strength from tradition and therefore holding fast to the notion that women cannot be equal stakeholders in the Dorbar, have functioned to the best of their ability. But it takes all kinds of men to make a Rangbah Shnong. Some stand out for being pro-active and adopting modern governance methods; others that are less educated and ineffective tend to make up by being noisy. But they all function within the ambit of their mandate. The problem with Rangbah Shnong is that they work pro-bono in what can at best be called a thankless job. Yet there are so many problems that they resolve within their jurisdiction. It is not fair for any person to work pro-bono and for us as residents to expect them to address our every need. Why can the Government work on this and ensure that adequate funds are allocated to the Dorbar Shnong so that the Rangbah Shnong don’t need to be tied to the coat-tails and apron strings of politicians. They can assert their rightful authority and also undertake development work within their villages/localities. This is the grassroots governance that Meghalaya needs and which will address the socio-economic concerns of the people here.

The Dorbar Shnong have several schools in their respective jurisdictions. They can be empowered to  inspect the schools from time to time to ensure that they function well; that teacher absenteeism is checked; that learning is happening under competent teachers and that students are going back home not with more doubts in their minds but with confidence. It is pointless to expect the Inspectors of Schools to inspect all the schools in Meghalaya. The Dorbar Shnong can be a strong supervisory authority. This was tried in Nagaland and met with success. Even the Anganwadi centres and Health Sub centres can be regularly checked by the Dorbar Shnong. But they must receive due remuneration for their time, dedication and effort.

Soon we will be observing World Environment Day. Meghalaya like every other state and nation is passing through uncertain weather conditions. This is likely to cause a downslide in agricultural production. Yet again the Dorbar Shnong can collaborate with the line Departments of Agriculture, Horticulture, Soil Conservation, Forest Department, Water Resources Department et al. If the Dorbar Shnong effectively discharges its duties as the last mile institution we might still see better days ahead. The Dorbar Shnong has the wherewithal to check if those building homes and offices within their jurisdictions actually follow the rule in the building permission. For too long the building permissions were granted by the Urban Affairs Department for Municipal areas and there was no check or supervision on whether the buildings have observed all regulations vis-à-vis their septic tanks and drains and whether they have observed the mandatory distance from the main road and from rivers. Everywhere we turn the rivers have become receptacles for latrines and also garbage dumps. It looks as if the Dorbar Shnong have abdicated their duties. This can no longer happen. There has to be a chain of command and control and accountability at every level.

The Meghalaya High Court has now come down heavily on the dereliction of duties by all the institutions. It’s time that each Institution, traditional or modern, learns to work together rather than against each other because of bloated political egos. The public needs to hold all the institutions accountable.

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