Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Dilemma Called Saipung


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By HH Mohrmen

Nestled close to the Saipung reserved forest is the area where the Biate people live, and the place is also called Saipung. To some of our readers, perhaps this is the first time they have ever heard the name Saipung. It is the remotest and most neglected area in the state and one has to travel from Sutnga to reach the place. It is about 50 km from Khliehriat and about 136 km from Shillong, the state headquarters.
The people and the place
The people who live in this area are Biate of Kuki-Zo descents, and the Pnar call them “Hadem.” The Biate have been living in the area for a long time, as the Pnar have folk stories that mention the Hadem. Among them, the Nampui, Darnei, Thiate, Lalsim, and the Ngamlai are the original clans who settled in the Saipung area. They are collectively known as ‘namrnga kea dewan,’ the five clans. The traditional office which looks after the administration of the area is called a sardarship, and by tradition, the five clans share the office on rotation basis. (Mohrmen HH, Cultural History of Jañtia in Stories, Stones and Traditions 2021)
There are 29 Biate villages in the region, and the place is as green, clean, and serene and the people who live in these hills are kind and very hospitable. The Biates are peace-loving people who mind their own business, which could also be the reason why they have been neglected by the government.
Road connectivity
The only road that connects the area with the rest of the state is in very bad shape, as it took us almost 3 hours to drive from Ladrymbai to Saipung, a distance of a about 30 kilometers. In summer, only vehicles with four-wheel drive can navigate the region. Surprisingly, the internal road that connects some of the villages is blacktopped, but road connections to other villages are still absent. It is also very unfortunate that all the basic public necessities are much to be desired in this region. Zo Siam Thianglai, Sirdar of the Saipung area, said that they hope the road will be repaired as Santa Mary Shylla, the MLA of the area, had informed them that she had availed funds of 50 crore for the repair work. But when asked where the funds are coming from, he had no answer.
Government health services in the area
The only PHC in the area is located at Saipung village and it is run by Karuna Trust under the Private-Public Partnership (PPP) mode. There is only one allopathic doctor stationed at the PHC he is retired Colonel Dr. Dilip Kumar of the Indian Medical Corps from Hyderabad, who is working as a physician at the PHC. He is a pediatrician and apart from serving in the army, he has also served as a member of peacekeeping forces in many parts of the world. “But it is very difficult to get allopathic doctors to serve in a far-flung area like this,” he said. “We have doctors who came here for a few months only and left the center because of a lack of basic amenities,” Dr. Kumar said. “The center is manned with the help of Ayush practitioners because even MBBS graduates from your own community are not ready to serve in a difficult area like Saipung,” the good doctor said. “We had doctors from the Jowai area that came and left the job after serving for two or three months only,” he said. The doctor lives alone in his quarters and makes his own food. He spends his time singing and doing some research of his own. The doctor also said that the Ayush doctors have done a commendable job; without them, they would not have been able to implement many National Health Mission programmes.
Water supply
There is no water supply as such, and people have to make their own private arrangements for water supply in the entire region which is also unsafe for human consumption. Dr. Kumar said that maybe because of the kind of water they use, the PHC had two cases of patients suffering from typhoid last year. However, he also stated that in spite of the area being very near to the forest and the border with Assam, they fortunately don’t have reports of malaria cases from the area.
Education or the lack of it
There is one government secondary school at Saipung and another two RMSA schools, one at Saipung and another at Saphak. There is no higher secondary school in the area, so students have to go to Khliehriat or Jowai to continue their education after they have completed their tenth class. “People here are peaceful and they do not protest even if the government has not been able to provide them with their basic needs,” Dr. Kumar said.
Supply of electricity
Lal Niam Nampui, the Waheh Chnong (village head) of Saipung, reported that electricity supply is erratic, forcing residents to rely on solar power. “In the summer when it rains, there are times that they do not have electricity for days together,” the Waheh Chnong said. Dr. Dilip Kumar confirmed that they use solar power to keep vaccines refrigerated. The people in the area cannot rely on the electricity that MeECL supplies them.
Other public services
There is no government water supply and also no sign that the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) is being implemented in the villages that I visited, or even in Saipung. Even JJM projects implemented in some villages, are yet to become operational, so one wonders if they will ever become operational at all. Unfortunately, there is no proper water supply even to the PHC.
C&RD Block in the area
The Saipung Community and Rural Development (C&RD) Block is supposed to be a hub of administrative activity, serving the people of Saipung. However, the block which is supposed to bring the government closer to the people, is non-existent. The block was inaugurated at Saipung on April 4, 2001, by late E.K. Mawlong, the then Chief Minister, in the presence of H.B. Dan and O.N. Chyrmang, both government ministers at the time. Although the block is officially located in Saipung, sadly nothing exists in Saipung except the buildings of different departments, which are in decrepit condition.
The abandoned buildings of various departments in Saipung are a testament to the substandard work of the contractor and ultimately wastage of precious government resources. The two main buildings, intended to house the Block Development Officer (BDO) office, are in ruins, with large cracks suggesting they could collapse at any moment.
The approach road to the BDO office becomes impassable during summer, and in many sections, the road has disappeared altogether. Ironically, the block will celebrate its silver jubilee next year, but it still does not function from its designated location, depriving the people of Saipung of their right to access government services. Now, the entire office operates from Latyrke, a village near Sutnga. That the block operates from Latyrke, which is very close to Khliehriat, the district headquarters, defeats the purpose for which it was created in the first place.
Conflict with forest department
Immediately after I had posted a story about my visit to Saipung, a friend who is an officer in the forest department texted me to inform that there were many pending cases of encroachment into the reserved forest by the members of the Biate community. The Saipung Reserved Forest is located in the area, and people’s main livelihood activity is jhum/slash-and-burn cultivation. Lack of development in the villages could also be because of the allegations of encroachment into the reserved forests. Perhaps the reason that fifteen villages in the area are yet to have electricity connection is also because of this conflict.
The State Forest Department is holding only 1145.19 sq km or 5.10% of forest cover in the state, and if we are even losing this forest, then what is the point of planting trees elsewhere if we do not protect the forest we already have? The government is exploring the option of access to the carbon market and to plant more trees to benefit from it, but if we are losing forest cover day by day, then it becomes a futile exercise. The alternative is to help the community by exploring other livelihood opportunities like accessing non-timber forest products (NTFP), so that their dependence on forest is reduced.
Sustainable development
People already have the solution, and one such option is harvesting wild mushrooms locally known as Tit Tung (Lactariusvolemus), which grows on Dieñ Sniñ (Castanopsis armata), particularly Dieng Soh-ot Rit (C. indica). This indigenous knowledge is part of their traditional practices, where this particular tree species is used to harvest the mushroom. The government recently introduced the cultivation of Japanese Shiitake mushrooms in the state, while this indigenous knowledge is ignored. The government, particularly the forest department, should explore sustainable livelihood activities like adventure tourism, where humans and forests can coexist.


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