By Rudi Warjri
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times “ . A line from Charles Dickens , A Tale of Two Cities , resonates in my mind when I look back a little more than 50 years ago to an event that culminated and finally led to the emergence of the Meghalaya State .
Best of times , as a fledgling teenager , consumed with idealism and valour, I participated on the September 10, 1968 picketing at the then Assam Secretariat (now Meghalaya Secretariat). Enrolled by my Uncle (Hamilton Warjri) as the Volunteers Organizer from Malki for the Non Violent Direct Action (NVDA) but who prematurely passed away in 1967. Worst of times, because of the neo-imperialism under the then Assam Government. And the fear of being arrested , lathi charged and teargassed at the picketing .
Golden Jubilee and we celebrate the 50 years of statehood. The attainment of what the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi described “to fulfil the aspirations of the Hill People!” The sense of a separate entity and identity; the devolution of power and self governance to protect and promote one’s interest , culture and customs; the opportunity to create more opportunities, develop and optimize one’s potentials, given the physical , material , natural and intellectual resources we had; to catch up with the rest of the advanced States in India and indeed with the rest of the world . In short , to decide and shape for oneself about one’s future .
The real meat of the celebration however lies in tangible Socio – Economic indicators. In the current global context what the Israeli historian Yuval Harari would call the ‘Data religion’. Much has been written about Meghalaya’s abysmal ranking in Government of India agency-conducted surveys relating to National Multi – dimensional Poverty Index ; Performance grading index etc. Amidst that the cold consolation according to some survey that the farmer in Meghalaya is the richest in India .
Population in 1972 was a little more than 2 million; it is now almost 4 million. Literacy in 1972 was almost 30% , now it is 75%. Evidently visible among them is the expanding numbers of educational institutions . The expanding elite and middle class population and consumption of fast moving consumer goods. In 1972 the number of privately owned vehicles could be counted. Today several households would have more than one vehicle. In 1972 being allotted a telephone even by a Government official was hierarchical, today the very landline itself has become more or less obsolete and replaced by the ubiquitous mobile. Rapid urbanization has seen proliferation of shops and departmental stores. We can dig and analyse on other data like per capita GDP , infant mortality rate , maternity mortality rate etc. And between rising population and progress in education arises rising expectations. And most importantly bridging the gap in socio – economic disparity. What Mahatma Gandhi says, “ to wipe every tear from every eye “ .
The stress on growing population is because it impacts directly on the entire infrastructure supply and demand of the State. Then there is the gap between multiplication in vehicles and road construction. This applies equally to health, education, power and energy, water, sanitation, civic governance , employment, economic activities that include agriculture , industries , services and on environment and climate change .
So we celebrate 50 years of political autonomy but what about economic autonomy? At infancy there is need for parenting so dependence on the Central Government in Delhi was justified. Being a Special Category State was necessary but should it continue for the next 50 years? Should exemption from income tax for the tribal community continue infinitely? Has there been even a marginal shrinking of budget dependence on the Central Government in Delhi? One wonders what work do the several Government appointed bodies with superlative nomenclatures like Planning Board , Economic Task Force , Economic Council , Resource Mobilization et al do ?
As far as the quality of political leadership is concerned, gone are the days of leaders like JJM Nichols Roy , whose sterling performance at the Constituent Assembly of India in 1947 – 48 led to the creation of the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). Discovering the inadequacies of the ADCs under the Assam Government led to the demand for a Hill State and produced leaders like Capt W A Sangma , B B Lyngdoh , Stanley Nichols Roy , G G Swell, Edwin Bareh and several others. Today , mostly , charlatans are occupying positions of political leadership. The key qualification for contesting elections is Money . And ruefully majority among the electorate has also accepted it as normal .
Inherent in a vibrant and a robust democracy is political activism. In Meghalaya today political activism of a plethora of pressure groups has become an overkill and a vested interest industry in itself. Even more regrettable is the populist and expedient attitude of the Government in power towards these pressure groups. Hyperbolically speaking , the pressure groups have become parallel governments. The pressure groups say ILP , Government and the whole Assembly lock stock and barrel says ILP. No one wants to study why Simla ( a higher hill station than Shillong and also inhabited by highlanders ) where the railways arrived more than 100 years ago have been able to retain their exceptional character. Darjeeling Railways have been in existence 140 years ago. Positively , the politically mobilized society can be converted into a society which is economically mobilized .
Charles Darwin says. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives , nor the most intelligent , it is one most adaptable to change.” The book, ‘ The Age of AI (Artificial Intelligence) And Our Human Future” by Kissinger , Schmidt and Huttenlocher talks about how AI is transforming societies in fundamental and profound ways . To faith and reason, AI adds a third. AI is the game changer for the future. Does Meghalaya even know what AI is beyond AI in our smart mobile phones?
We are living in a VUCA (Volatility , Uncertainty , Complexity , Ambiguity ) world. The Corona Virus epidemic in the last two years has perplexed the VUCA world even further. Tech companies and enterprises have benefited while services sectors like Tourism , Hospitality , Aviation , Real Estate etc have suffered . Online education has become the new normal. The prognosis is the digital divide is widening. Meghalaya has to choose which side of the digital divide it wants to be in by being “adaptable to change”.
The key to the next 50 years is change and reforms . India is where it is today because of economic reforms that began with liberalization in 1991. Not to speak of China which started in 1978. Begin with land. A cadastral survey that leads to a systematic land record and that makes land to be a convenient collateral asset for bankable purposes is the need of the hour. Do away with the archaic system of land transaction or the antediluvian outdated colonial patta system where local vested interests are benefiting instead of accruing revenue to the Government treasury for public interest.
On border problems, while India is tortuously deliberating border issues with China , States within Northeast India are ludicrously resorting to shooting over boundaries. People living in borders across the world are surviving more on the cross-border economy. They either benefit or suffer from the border trade, illegal smuggling, human and drug trafficking etc. Meghalaya and Assam can come with ‘out of the box’ and innovative ecosystem of utilising the common borders to facilitate legal transaction and checking crimes. Boundary for the sake of boundary just to satiate populist sentiments is transient .
Let us not forget that south of Meghalaya is a country called Bangladesh. Its data is overtaking India in many respects from per capita income to women’s empowerment. Therefore, wake up from looking down on Bangladeshis. Rather take advantage of export-import trade , tourism , access to Chittagong port etc., through Bangladesh. And Meghalaya Government please come up with a Look South policy.
I am writing this piece more for those who will be around in Meghalaya 50 years from now.