Monday, April 22, 2024

The Great Delusion: Meghalaya’s Quest for a $10 Billion Economy by 2028


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By Napoleon S Mawphniang

On February 21, 2024, Meghalaya Chief Minister, Conrad K Sangma, presented the state’s budget for the financial year 2024-25. In his speech, the Chief Minister reiterated his commitment to transforming Meghalaya into a $10 billion economy by 2028. While the ambition is laudable, the reality on the ground paints a starkly different picture – one mired in rampant corruption, exploitation of labourers, and a gross misuse of power by those in positions of authority.
As a concerned citizen of Meghalaya, I have witnessed first-hand the suffering of the state’s workforce, particularly the labourers and casual workers who form the backbone of our economy either in Government or private entities. These are the very individuals who will bear the brunt of the government’s pursuit of a $10 billion GDP, toiling endlessly to push the wheels of progress, yet reaping none of the rewards.
The budget speech paid lip service to the empowerment of youth and the creation of employment opportunities. There was a glaring absence of concrete measures to safeguard the rights and welfare of the state’s labourers and contractual workers/staffs. How can we speak of economic prosperity when the very hands that build our infrastructure are shackled by exploitation and neglect?
Moreover, the budget document fails to address the elephant in the room – the rampant corruption that has plagued nearly every government department and institution. Through hundreds of RTI (Right to Information) applications, I have uncovered a disturbing pattern of collusion between contractors, government officials, and the ruling elite’s “right-hand gangs.” Work orders are routinely inflated to benefit these groups, and public schemes intended for the welfare of the masses are instead channelled into the pockets of retired officers, politicians’ agents, and their cronies.
The evidence of corruption is overwhelming, and the judicial system, overburdened as it is, will take years, if not decades, to untangle this web of deceit. Meanwhile, the resources that should have been invested in the development of our state and the upliftment of our people are being siphoned off by those entrusted with their stewardship.
It is a harsh reality that the government’s lofty dream of a $10 billion economy by 2028 is nothing more than a mirage; a delusion that will ultimately lead Meghalaya down a path of servitude. Our state risks becoming a modern-day version of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, where the labour of the masses is exploited to construct monuments to the vanity of the ruling class.
The budget speech boasted of increased government expenditure, doubling from Rs 12,159 crore in 2018-19 to Rs 25,052 crore in the current financial year. However, one must question where these funds are truly being directed. Are they genuinely improving the lives of the common people, or are they merely lining the pockets of the corrupt and the well-connected?
The Chief Minister spoke of streamlining the payment of salaries, pensions, and benefits to government employees, pensioners, and various categories of workers. Yet, how can we trust that these funds will reach their intended recipients when corruption has become so deeply entrenched within the system?
The budget outlined plans for infrastructure development, including the construction of new roads, bridges, water supply projects, and urban developments. While these initiatives are undoubtedly necessary, one cannot help but wonder if the contracts for these projects will be awarded fairly and transparently, or if they will once again fall victim to the machinations of the “right-hand gangs” and their political masters.
The Chief Minister’s vision of a $10 billion economy by 2028 is predicated on leveraging ten identified opportunities, including investment promotion, regional connectivity, urban transformation, IT and ITeS, agriculture, women’s empowerment, youth engagement, sustainable eco-tourism, a green economy, and power generation. However, without addressing the fundamental issues of corruption, misuse of power, and the exploitation of labour, these opportunities will remain elusive.
The budget speech painted a rosy picture of increased private sector investment, but how can we expect investors to have confidence in a system plagued by graft and favouritism? The ease of doing business, touted as a priority by the government, will remain a hollow promise as long as the playing field remains tilted in favour of those with political connections.
The budget’s focus on agriculture, horticulture, and the empowerment of women and youth is commendable, but these initiatives will struggle to bear fruit if the very people meant to benefit from them are denied their fair share due to corruption and mismanagement. The Chief Minister’s commitment to a climate-resilient green economy and the development of sustainable eco-tourism is laudable, but how can we trust that these programs will be implemented with integrity when the underlying systems are rotten to the core?
The budget’s allocation of funds for infrastructure development, healthcare, education, and citizen services is undoubtedly necessary, but without addressing the systemic issues of corruption and misuse of power, these investments will fail to yield their intended results. Ultimately, the government’s dream of transforming Meghalaya into a $10 billion economy by 2028 is nothing more than a facade, a grand illusion that conceals the harsh realities faced by the state’s people. Unless the government takes decisive and transparent action to root out corruption, protect the rights of labourers, and empower the masses to participate in the fruits of economic progress, Meghalaya will remain shackled to a cycle of exploitation and inequality.
The solution lies not in grandiose economic targets but in fundamental reforms that prioritize transparency, accountability, and the equitable distribution of resources. Until the government demonstrates a genuine commitment to combating corruption, safeguarding the rights of workers, and empowering the people, any talk of a $10 billion economy will remain a hollow promise, a mirage that will lead our state down a path of servitude and oppression.
As concerned citizens, it is our duty to demand better from our leaders. We must raise our voices and hold them accountable, for it is only through collective action and vigilance that we can break the chains of corruption and exploitation that bind our state. The time has come to wake up from the delusion and embrace reality – a reality where the prosperity of Meghalaya is not measured by economic figures alone but by the well-being and dignity of its people.
If loopholes are identified, it becomes evident that there is an endless number of them, and as far as we are aware, the budget presentation is merely a document crafted by financial experts to capture the minds of the public by offering them an appealing yet unrealistic vision. In my personal opinion, given the current situation and the prevailing conditions under the Meghalaya government, it is improbable that the stated goals will be achieved, and they will remain an unattainable dream indefinitely. As a concerned citizen, I would like to offer the following suggestions based on my personal understanding and perspective. These are my ideas as well, and it is up to the Meghalaya government to consider and implement them if they are genuinely committed to the budget presentation.
Here are some suggestions that could address the issues:
I. Establish an independent and empowered anti-corruption agency: Meghalaya should create a strong anti-corruption agency that is independent of political interference and has the authority to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption at all levels of government. This agency should be adequately funded and staffed with skilled professionals to tackle the deep-rooted problem of graft.
II. Implement labour reforms and strengthen worker protections: The state government should enact comprehensive labour reforms to safeguard the rights and welfare of labourers, casual workers, and the entire workforce. This should include measures such as minimum wage regulations, safety standards, grievance redressal mechanisms, and provisions for social security and healthcare.
III. Promote transparency and accountability: Meghalaya should adopt robust transparency and accountability measures in all spheres of governance. This can include measures such as mandatory public disclosure of government contracts, regular audits by independent agencies, protection for whistle-blowers, and the implementation of an effective Right to Information (RTI) framework.
IV. Decentralize decision-making and empower local communities: Rather than concentrating power in the hands of a few, the government should decentralize decision-making and empower local communities to have a greater say in the development projects and initiatives that affect their lives. This can help reduce the influence of “right-hand gangs” and promote more inclusive and equitable economic growth.
V. Prioritize education and awareness campaigns: The government should invest in public education and awareness campaigns to inform citizens about their rights, the importance of transparency, and the detrimental effects of corruption. An informed and engaged populace is essential to sustaining the fight against corruption and holding leaders accountable.
VI. Strengthen the judicial system: Meghalaya should allocate resources to strengthen its judicial system, ensuring that it has the capacity and independence to effectively investigate and adjudicate corruption cases in a timely manner. This could include increasing the number of judges, improving court infrastructure, and providing specialized training to judicial officers.
VII. Promote ethical leadership and governance: The state government should lead by example and foster a culture of ethical leadership and good governance. This can be achieved through measures such as mandatory asset disclosures for public officials, strict conflict-of-interest rules, and the promotion of integrity and transparency as core values in public service.
VIII. Encourage civic engagement and public participation: Citizens should be encouraged to actively participate in the governance process and hold their leaders accountable. This can be facilitated through public consultations, citizen oversight committees, and the creation of platforms for constructive dialogue between the government and the people.
IX. Foster public-private partnerships with transparency: While promoting private sector investment is essential, the government should ensure that all public-private partnerships are established through transparent and competitive processes, free from the influence of corruption and nepotism. Clear guidelines and oversight mechanisms should be in place to safeguard the public interest.
X. Focus on sustainable and inclusive development: Rather than pursuing ambitious economic targets at the cost of exploiting the workforce, Meghalaya should prioritize sustainable and inclusive development that benefits all segments of society. This includes investing in human capital, promoting equitable access to opportunities, and ensuring that economic growth translates into tangible improvements in the quality of life for all citizens.
Implementing these suggestions will require political will, sustained effort, and the active participation of all stakeholders – the government, civil society, the private sector, and the general public. Only through a concerted and collective effort can Meghalaya overcome the challenges of corruption, labour exploitation, and misuse of power, paving the way for genuine progress and prosperity.(The writer is an Advocate and Trade Unionist)


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