“It was the best f times, it was the worst of time…it was the season of light it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…- in short the period was so far like the present period… ” Thus, Charles Dickens started his classic novel, the tale of the two cities and the opening aptly described the drastically diverse conditions of the two villages in the Jaintia hills district; the story of which this writer tries to portray in this write-up. The tale of one of the two villages is the story of despair and hopelessness while the other is pole apart from the former, for it is a story of delight and hope.
Both the villages are among the oldest villages in the District and one has the reputation of being the village the Jaintia monarch originated and that is the reason why the erstwhile Jaintia Dynasty is also known as ‘ki Syiem Sutnga.’ Sutnga is a village blessed with coal deposit in and around the village and judging from the numbers of palatial houses constructed in the village, it gave one the impression of a prosperous population with nothing to worry about. But on a closer look; the village tells a different story. All the children of rich families who can afford to study outside the village or the state are away free from muddy road of the summer season and the coal-dust-laden wind during winter; while the children of the poor families has to bear the brunt.
Come winter and it is the beginning of the season of despair and helplessness for most of the people in the village. Water is the main problem of the village because all the rivulets and rivers in and around the village are polluted. Here again the well to do can afford to spend thousands of rupees to drill underground to get their supply of water, but what about the poor? In fact the wealthy families does not have to worry about the future of the village either, because most of them already have a second or a third home in Shillong or Jowai, their future is secured but that of the poor section of the village is not. The village does not have a water supply and the last time the village had the semblance of a water supply was when it hosted the Synod of the Presbyterian Church. The water was then made available for the occasion from the source in the Narwan, a village nearby and the arrangement is for the purpose of supplying water during the Synod only. Even the Sutnga CHC does not have a water supply and on my last visit to the village; the Doctor told me that they have avail funds from the Government to drill water from underground. I asked him ‘are you sure the underground water is free from pollution because it is known fact that mining is done even hundreds of meters underground?’ The Doctor’s reply was ‘That I cannot say.’ During winter the poor people have to travel to Moopoon also known as river Kwai to wash their linens, but even the river is now poisoned from coal mining. I asked the ladies washing linens on the bank of bluish river, ‘you know the water is polluted?’ and they answered in affirmative. I again asked ‘why in spite of that you still wash your clothes in the river?’ They said ‘we do not have any other option.’ The pertinent question is when will coal mining stop or can scientifically mining of coal and lime stones be of any help?’ and even if it is stopped ‘how long will it take for the water in the rivers to regenerate itself?’
Shangpung is the village on the other end of the spectrum. More than fifteen years ago; Um-iurem the main river in the village met the same fate the rivers in the other coalmining area had suffered due to pollution. Coal was then allowed to freely dump on any available space in the village, water sources started to get polluted and part of the wah Um-iurem River too was affected. Thanks to the farsightedness of the elders and timely intervention of the village, the Dorbar shnong then decided to ban mining and storing of coal in the whole village. That was the beginning of the complete turnaround in the villager’s perception with regard to mining and stockpiling of coal and its harmful effect to the village and it does not come easy I was told. More than fifteen years after the landmark decision was made this writer visited Shangpung last summer and it was indeed a summer of contentment and a summer of hope.
A walk down the Shangpung market across the wah Um-iurem, draw us close to the farmers busy planting rice saplings on the fertile bank of the river. Men ploughed and tilled the muddy earth and the female and young men followed from the rear to plant the sapling. We did not want to disturb them and waited till it was time for them to rest. During the impromptu chat with the male farmers while they chew betlenuts and smoke from their pipes, we were informed that the reason there were large numbers of farmers in the paddy field that day was because of the tradition called ‘chu-nong.’ It is a unique tradition of lending one’s hand to help each and every family of the farming community. The word ‘chu’ means to give or to provide and ‘nong’ means labour or wage, in other words it also means exchanging of labour. It is a tradition by which farmers would help each other by giving one’s day labour to work for each and every family in the community during the entire sowing season. Every family will reciprocate when it was a turn for the community to jointly farm on their neighbour’s field. This way the cycle goes on and every family is duty bound to help another family so, by the end of the farming season, families in the village completed the sowing of rice without having to pay for the work, because the entire community has donated a day work to help one another.
On our way back we cross the pristine clear Um-iurem River packed full with ladies washing their cloths and young boys merrily swimming in the river. Heibormi Sungoh the headmaster of the Khad-ar-nor Upper Primary School, Shangpung told me that the Niamtre in Shangpung would have lost some of its traditions had the wah Um-iurem died like any other rivers because there are several rituals that has to be performed in the river he said. Heibormi is also a person one would call a village environmentalist who subscribes to the saying ‘think globally and act locally.’ In the capacity of the headmaster of the school, Heibor came up with an innovative idea of taking the environmental classes outside in the open where it rightfully belongs. The school does not believe in just the ceremonial planting of trees every environment or earth day, but took another step forward by organizing the students into groups to take care of the saplings that the group has planted. It is the responsible of the students to take care of the plants all year long and credit was given to the group accordingly. Before our education minister come up with the idea of continuous comprehensive evaluation of the students, Heibor has already practice it. The school has embarked on another new idea; the saplings they had planted earlier were supplied by the forest department and are not native to the region. In the near future the school hope to plant local trees and encouraged its students to collect seeds of native trees in their neighborhood for their school’s garden.
Recently the Shangpung village supported by the Fishery department of Jaintia hills inaugurated the fish sanctuary at Moolasha a section of the river Um-iurem which was one once polluted by the coal mining but was now reclaimed fifteen years or so after the dorbar shnong banned mining and stockpiling of coal in the village. The village plan to develop this sanctuary by planting more trees on the bank of the river and hope to develop many more sanctuaries on the entire stretch of river Um-iurem.
Shangpung village enthusiastically dream and plan for the future of the village, while ma T. Chyrmang the headman of the Sutnga village would not even allow filming the village and its vicinity and even discouraged us from interviewing the villagers during our last visit to the village. If there is really going to be change in the coalmining areas of this District, it is not going to be the mining policy or anything from outside, it has to be from inside the community -from the heart of the people. Shangpung has proved it that it took the Dorbar Shnong a little more than fifteen years to reclaim the precious water and the valuable topsoil that we have lost to pollution from the coalmining.
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