Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Imprisoned by tradition, silenced by bullies

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By Patricia Mukhim

An important and non-negotiable aspect that defines tribals or indigenous people as we would like to term them today is the collective ownership of the commons. What are the commons or common property resources (CPR)? The ‘Commons’ include natural resources such as water, land, forests etc., that provide users with tangible benefits but which no single person has an exclusive claim to. What we have in Meghalaya today is a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ – an economic problem where the individual consumes a resource at the expense of society. This has been happening in Meghalaya for a few decades now. When the Sixth Schedule was proposed to be added to the Constitution of India the argument by Rev JJM Nichol’s Roy was that the Khasi, Jaintia tribals who were under the rule of the majority Assamese people might lose out on their customary practices and traditions and their rights over land and its resources. The Sixth Schedule sounded like a perfect solution at the time and the tribes were pictured as people who were governed by fair and equitable traditional institutions. At the time gender was a word that indicated only whether one was male or female. It wasn’t a political term as it is today. So the traditional institutions were actually the hubs of patriarchy. They were male-centric institutions that saw no role for women in their scheme of things. Since 1949 when the Sixth Schedule was added to the Constitution of India till date, women are not allowed to have a say in the traditional institutions; much less to hold office there. So this aspect of tradition remained constant.
However there are other aspects such as the common rights of all tribals over land, water and forests have changed unilaterally. Today the very District Councils that are empowered by the Sixth Schedule to actually ensure that community rights over land, forests, water bodies, catchments etc., are secured so that individual rights cannot supersede community rights, have become the very institutions that are palming out tracts and tracts of forest land for boulders and sand to be extracted without any environmental regulation. As a result what we have today are rivers that are gasping for breath and barely flowing. On Thursday a notification from the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED)warns that the water level in the Mawphlang Dam which is the main source of drinking water supply to residents of Shillong city has decreased considerably due to the dry weather conditions and the public are therefore cautioned to be judicious with their water use. Only people who go around with their eyes closed would not know that this was waiting to happen. Above the Wahniangleng river which flows to the Mawphlang dam, at Laitkroh village a huge quarry was operating for several years and the boulders were being transported to Bangladesh. When The Shillong Times followed up the investigations on this matter with the Khasi Hills District Council, the State Pollution Control Board and other agencies it was learnt that the quarry owner, a former Rangbah Shnong never got permission from anyone but operated the quarry independently. Can we ask all the three District Councils as to the total number of quarries in Meghalaya and what is being done to offset the environmental consequences that we are facing today such as the silting of rivers; the rising day temperatures and the bald forests that greet us almost like they are smirking at the human capacity for self-destruction?
Meghalaya’s economy has been extractive and there is no sustainable economic model in sight. From coal to limestone mining and now to at least 300 trucks daily carrying boulders to Bangladesh, what is the Khasi Hills District Council presiding over if not the extinction of the very tribes that JJM Nichols Roy said would be protected by this constitutional provision; now a mere placebo?
It is uncanny how tradition is being viewed today. It is reduced to dances and songs that are pitched regularly to lull the people into a kind of trance so that they continue to believe that their culture and tradition is alive and kicking. But is culture not intrinsically linked to our relations with mother earth? We humans are part of the environment and not apart from it. What’s the point of those songs and dances if all we are focussing on are the external aspects of that culture even while our natural environment – Ka Mei Ramew – is shrivelling and weeping silent tears that we callous humans have not learnt to decipher?
Relentless quarrying has resulted in heavy siltation of our rivers. But mind you even sand is being mined from our rivers at an unsustainable pace. Those who travel to West Khasi Hills will testify to the mindless timber farming that has turned the once verdant forests bald. God knows what we are thinking and whether the government we have elected is capable of ensuring that this state is not reduced to a dry desert someday. The MLAs we have elected are themselves the biggest exploiters of nature with some of them owning quarries that operate above the rivers that were once flowing with gusto. Now those rivers are at the verge of drying up. Does anyone have the gumption to tell these ministers that they should stop stone quarrying and coal mining? No, because they will turn back and tell us that they are creating livelihoods. But livelihoods at what cost? Who has allowed these ministers to violate all environmental laws? Or are they exempt from the environmental laws that govern this country?
If the people of Meghalaya do not wake up from this slumber; if they do not protest this environmental crime and if need be approach the courts to stop the insanity of irrepressible extraction of resources by a few at the cost of the many, they will soon face a dark, dry and horrific future ahead and hasten the consequences of climate change with all its destructive force.
Mark my words, the present set of ministers are not going to settle down here when the chips are down. They already have homes in the national capital and other metros. Some even have penthouses abroad. So they will shift to greener pastures. It is us poor citizens who cannot afford to migrate but must live and die here who will suffer the unspeakable revenge of nature. As a society we have become numb and silent. The bullies around us ensure that we don’t speak too much because their capacity for making hay will diminish if we start taking responsibility for our own lives and stop outsourcing our problems to them.
This is the sad fate of a society that claims to be ‘tribal’ but has lost the very essence of ‘tribalness’ which is the use of shared resources and having a shared vision for how the commons are to be used for the larger common good.
For now, will the KHADC, the State Forest Department, Water Resources Department, the PHED and the State Pollution Control Board inform us (a) the total number of stone quarries in Meghalaya (b)the total number of limestone mines? Will the Forest Department inform us how many crores per month of royalty is collected from contractors’ bills with another 10% added to the Meghalaya Minor Minerals Reclamation (MMMR) funds? Where is that money kept and how much of the forest cover has disappeared till date?

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