Monday, November 29, 2010

How face book help save the caves of Nongkhlieh

It was the never-ending complaint made by a section of the villagers of the Nongkhlieh elaka (province) against the daloi (traditional chieftain) and the Jaintia Hills District Council (JHADC) which did not get the attention it deserves that made some of the young people in Jowai to rise up to the occasion. I think it was my face book posting of the Luray caves at the Rappahannock County in the USA on my face book account on November 3, which prompted Arwat and Sajeki to start a face book account they named as ‘save the caves and water of Jaintia hills.’ The day before the duo also visited Nongkhlieh to join the villagers in their protest against the plan of JHADC official to survey and mapped the proposed site of the 1.1 million ton per annum cement project of the Lafarge Company. The plan is to survey and mapped the land to enable the District Council to declare the land as non-forested and non-agricultural land thereby base on the recommendation; the council will allow the plant to go ahead. Seeing the plight of the poor villagers and their determination to protect their precious land motivated the two young friends to do something to help the people. From all the available means of protest against injustice- the strikes, the rally, hunger strike, bandhs etc, who would think that any tools in the internet, not to mention a much recent additional internet tool call the face book can be of any help to protect the caves on the Nongkhlieh ridge?
But it did. Now I now understand why no one come up with a plan to make a movie on the life of Tim Berners-Lee and his team at the CERN who started the (World Wide Web) internet, nor has anybody come up with an idea to make a movie on Bill Gates and Steve Jobs but instead a movie is now in the theatre on Mark Zuckerberg the co-creator of the Social Networking site called the Face Book. The moment the page went online, we started inviting friends to the page, and the numbers of friends of the ‘save the cave and water of Jaintia’ grow horizontally. I had the opportunity to camp and joined the Meghalaya Adventure Association (MAA) in one of their caving expedition at Nongkhlieh and wrote two stories about it. I immediately link to the face book page the old articles related to the caves in Nongklieh that I had posted on my blog. The tech savvy duo who created the page on November 5, keep on posting photographs and write-ups related to the caves in Nongkhlieh. In no time the number of friends on this face book page is 444, this is by no mean small feat. But the important thing about the face book is not the nummbers of people joining the face book group, but the postings and the comments and the ideas they shared. Sometimes posting and comments were just polite gesture to show one’s like and support for the cause by clicking on the like button, while other were like debates between members to throw more light on the pertinent issue. Yes, they would not have called it a social networking site for nothing. I was struck by the view posted by Patrick Sawian, who made us realize that it is not going to be an easy task to fight against a multinational like Lafarge whose clout and influence extends from the corridor of power in Delhi to a nondescript hamlet like Shnongrim and anything in between.
Looking back, I realized that I started to involve with efforts to protect this ridge since the winter of 2009, when the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board advertised to conduct a hearing on the Cosmos cement company’s application to set up plan in the area. A day before the schedule hearing I was given the honour to address the dorbar elaka and the decision of the dorbar was unanimous to oppose the the proposed plan. But on the day of the hearing, people from elaka Sutnga came in groups and claimed that the proposed project site does not fall in the elaka Nongkhlieh but instead falls under the elaka Sutnga. On January 7, 2009, I immediately send a protest to the Chief Minister of Meghalaya, the Governor of the state and other concern authorities. I know my protest will not stand a chance against a company co-owned by a (now) power politician of the state, but deep inside me, I belief it is not going to be a futile effort either. I don’t know what happened to Cosmos cement now, but then Lafarge came to the scene; the Daloi who was with us against the Cosmos is now on the other side of the fence. Members of the Synjuk Ki Rangbah Shnong Elaka Nongkhlieh came to meet me every now and then to seek advice and support, but we all know that we are in for a tough job ahead.
It was in times like this; that face book came to our rescue. Of the many friends I invited to the group, one is Anirban Roi, (Jaintia’s own son-in-law); Anirban read the posting and saw the photographs of the villagers protesting against the JHADC move. A journalist who had worked in the state for so long; Anirban understand the situation we are in and he immediately supplied us the list of people we need to send our petition to. I immediately draft petition and send it to Jairam Ramesh, minister of environment and forest Government of India and all the names provided. My request to the Minister is not to issue environmental clearance for Lafarge to set up plan at Nongkhlieh; base on the following reason: That Nongkhlieh the smallest elaka in Jaintia hills comprises of only ten villages and if we allow mega cement plant to come up in the elaka; it will upset the demography of the area. It is also true that the proposed site of the plan is on the upstream of the Letein Valley, the rise bowl of the area, the cement plan will affect the livelihood of the people who solely depend on agriculture for their living. The same area is also the source of the three rivers, ka river Lynju also known as Lukha, river Kupli and Letein. Nongkhlieh is also adjacent to the Saipung reserve forest and Narpuh Block 2 Reserve forest, which the government has proposed to convert to Wildlife sanctuary. The Kut (fort) Sutiang and the Sutiang cave adjacent to it was once use by Kiang Nangbah the freedom fighter in his fight against the British army, the MAA caver also found broken clay pots inside the cave. But the icing on the cake is that Nongkhlieh ridge is famous for the caves. Not only that krem Liatprah (31 km long) the longest cave in Indian sub continent is in the Nongkhlieh ridge, elaka Nongkhlieh is also blessed with thousand of caves. The MAA record has it that in an area of 30 square kilometer (the approximate size of the elaka), it has surveyed and mapped 145 kilometer of cave passages, the elaka has the highest concentration of caves said Byan Kharpran Daly. Brian also informed that the uniqueness of the Nongkhlieh caves is that the cavers have documented two rare species found inside the caves and the caves are millions of years old. What follows then was that Jairam’s mail box was flooded with petition emailed to him from different quarter of the district.
Meanwhile, Arwat, Saje and another friend Russell update on the face book page any development on the issue. Any news item related to the protest was immediately put on the ‘save the caves and water of Jaintia hills’ face book page for the friends to read. Arwat told me once that it is like full time job. Based on our petition Dr. Jayanta Biswas of the National Cave Research and Protection Organisation (NCRPO) also send a petition to Jairam Ramesh with copies forwarded to national dailies. Dr. Jayanta’s petition was carried out as new item on many National dailies the Economics Times and Hindustan Times on November 16, and surprisingly the news was also carried by the Bangladesh newspaper, the Daily Star on November 21.
On November 17, the prominent NGOs of the District in show of support to the people of the Nongkhlieh elaka addressed the meeting with a huge crowd at Shnongrim. The social networking site has done wonder to the cause. Now that the Government has made public its decision not to allow Lafarge to setup plan in the area, the decision would be more meaningful if the same area is also include in the provision of ‘ecological sensitive area’ in the proposed Meghalaya Mineral policy. The matter should not end there the Tourism department and the Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum should start talking to the people in the MAA (the only expert group in the state when it comes to caves) to identify tourist friendly cave in the area and start promoting cave and nature tourism in the Nongkhlieh and Saipung area.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Whose land is it anyway?

When it comes to mining and saving the environment; the saying better late than never appropriately describe the conundrum the state of Meghalaya is facing now. I never ever involve myself with anything relate to the government but, for first time ever; I attended the meeting on November 25, to discuss on the proposed Meghalaya Government Mineral Policy which the deputy chief minister hope that it will be government’s new year gift to the people of Meghalaya. It would have been an all landowners and mine owners’ affairs with government on the high end of the table had it not been for few young people from Jaintia hills and Garo hills representing the environment groups.
Environment group were the last people that the mine owners expect to see in a meeting like this. This become evident from exchange of words when one of the environmentalists remarked in the meeting that mining in Meghalaya is illegal. No sooner the young-man resumed his seat, a member who is a spoke person of the Khliehriat miners rose immediately and questioned whether the speaker is also a stakeholder or has he been invited to the meeting? If so which organisation did he represent? My understanding is that; from the miner representative perception, stake holders in the mining business includes the government, the mine owners and the landowner only. The mine owners seems to be of the opinion that the three sections are the only groups that has the right to speak in the meeting called by the Government to discuss on the propose Mineral Policy 2010. What we did not say is that the environmentalists represents the stakeholders who cannot represent themselves in the meeting; we speak on behalf of the birds, the animals, the plants, the fishes and yes even the most hated animal the snake. Are we trying to say that animals are not stakeholders in the environment? Are they not part of the environment? In fact these stakeholders were the first settlers of the land; they have been living on these beautiful hills much before our ancestors arrived. We also hope we speak on behalf of the future generation by trying to convince the government to protect the environment for posterity. The CEM of the KHADC also immediately reacted to the comment made by the environmentalist and lectured the young man that he need to update his knowledge on the Khasi Pnar land tenure system which the people has been practiced since time immemorial.
How ancient is the present land tenure system? By saying that the current land tenure is a system practiced by our ancestors, the question that needs to be answer is; when did our people first learn to read and write and use the term like land holding certificates and pattas? Before we use the term land holding certificates and pattas, before our ancestor can read and write, how do they own land or do they own land at all? Isn’t it true that the land tenure system we are using now is one which was introduced by the British or may be later improves by the District councils? Our ancestors have no concept of owning land, they own the land as long as they use it, and once they decided to move on to greener pasture, they leave the land behind and it become a community land again. They take the saying (pyrthei shong basa) ‘earth our temporary shelter only’ literarily. They also occupy only as much land as they can use. This land system is still being practice in many places and one such place is the eleka Nongkhlieh.
The present land tenure system is neither ancient nor traditional; because it only creates more land grabbers whose crave for land and more land can never be satisfied. It is not because the land owner has little or no respect for the nature. It is also not traditional because the land owners and the miners have no responsible towards the traditional mother earth. It is due to the present land tenure system that in the process of mining; land owner and the miners polluted all the water bodies on the surface and even underground. They took for granted that they own the land; by that same right they also own the water in the rivers and the air around. The water in the river is not static; it flow from one place to another, so does the air which encompasses properties irrespective of who own the land. Can the land owner claim that they own the water and the air too? Our land tenure system is to be blamed for making land owners think that once they own the land they also owned the water, the air and anything around it.
Our perception of one’s affinity to the land is also funny to say the least; we think that one who does not live in the elaka or the village has no right whatsoever to utter any words and make any opinion on anything related to the elaka or the village which he is not a resident. A letter was published in the letter to the editor section of U Mawphor dated November 22, 2010, which asked me and my friend Sajeki the so call ‘ma Jowai’ to mine our own business and not to mess with matter relate to Nongkhlieh. The letter was signed by 5 people, who obviously are relatives of the dalloi, but that is not the important issue; the message behind the written words is very potent. The undertone of the letter is since we are from Jowai; we have no right to form an opinion or say anything on matter relate to Nongkhlieh. But the caves in Nongkhlieh (or anywhere else for that matter) do not belong to the people who own the land; neither does it belong to the village. The caves are our national heritage. We may own the land but how can we lay claim to the caves carved mysteriously by the nature millions of years ago.  If the caves of Nongkhlieh belong to anybody or anything, it belongs to the strange creatures which live inside the caves hundreds of meters below the ground; their survival depends on the existence of the caves.
In the meeting; matter related to the suggestion in the mineral policy that the miners should keep 3 percent of their profit under corporate social responsible fund came up for discussion. When the miners complained that the percentage suggested in the drafted policy is huge, I remind the meeting the statement in the Assembly made by the then Minister of Agriculture that agricultural activities in the Jaintia hills district of Meghalaya declined due to unscientific coal mining. The corpus funds created is not meant for starting schools, colleges and provide health care only, but it also meant to be use for reclaiming the land and water polluted by mining activities. It also meant to provide livelihood to the people who have lost their living due to mining, so 3 percent is peanuts. I introduced myself by purposely mentioned that if there is anybody who has not been invited to the meeting and enter without permission it is me, I was given to understanding that everybody is a stake holder in this issue. Arwat was right when he remarked ‘when we talk about the future, everyone is a stake holder’. Some way or the other we have been affected and we will be affected by the mining activities in the state, hence we have all the right under the sun on our side. The government should increase the percentage for the CSR base on the fact that in the coal mine areas not only water and air is being polluted, all the roads are in a deplorable condition because; the state roads are made for lesser traffic and vehicles with lighter loads. It is important that government should increase the contribution of the miner towards the CSR fund; the same can also be used for repairing the road damaged by massive coal trucks. It is high time that the government calls a spade a spade and make sure that the miners pay for damaging the environment and the roads.  
Although some would say that the proposed Meghalaya Mineral policy 2010 is too little too late especially for most of the mining areas in Jaintia hills, and this was confirmed in the statement made by non-other than a very senior bureaucrat in the mining dept of the state who in just four words said ‘Jaintia hills is gone.’ Yet policies are meant for the future, it is hope that the Mineral policy will help us avoid repeating the same mistake again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Doomsday Earthquake that never happened

This article was also published by the Shillong Times on November 17, 2010.
Every time our grandmother tells us the story of the devastated earthquake that rocked the Khasi Jaintia hills, she always ended it on less tragic and a much optimistic note by telling us the story of the image of an earthquake in Syndai (ka dur u Jumai). The story says that in the village of Syndai about 20 kilometers from Amlarem on the Indo-Bangla border, there is this representation of an earthquake. Now in the many visits that I made to Syndai and the cave, I tried to locate the image from the many sculpture in the village, but I was not able to decide for myself which among the sculpture is the earthquake’s image. The matter was made even more difficult by the very fact that perhaps Syndai is the only village in the Khasi Jaintia hills which has many sculpture including the famous Rupasor bathing ghat carved on a single rock.
The two likely candidate of the legendary image is the cone-head figurine of Lord Ganesh near the Syndai cave and the sculpture of an elephant in the Pubon River. The Khasi Pnar legend of the earthquake also says that after the great Khasi Jaintia quake, to ensure that similar quake would not trouble the people anymore; God detached all the nine fingers of the earthquake except its pointer finger. The one remaining finger was saved for the earthquake to rub lime when it eat bettle-nuts and pan-leafs. If this part of the legend is taking into consideration then the most likely candidate of the Earthquake image of Syndai is the limbless elephant image in the Pubon River, but Syndai has many more sculpture some still covered by the shrubs at Rupasor.
I must also thank whoever started the doomsday prediction for the mere fact that it has made me realize the richness of our Khasi Pnar language. From the many discussions that I had, I learned that only in the vicinity of Jowai, earthquake is known by many names. The Pnar call it ‘u Khmi,’ the Khasi of Puriang call it ‘u Khynniuh,’ and the War Jaintia call it ‘u Kynjun’ and ‘u Khmai.’ I am sure other Khasi dialect would have another name for earthquake and we still say that Khasi language is not as rich as other languages.
The interesting thing about the doomsday forecast is the fact that the traditional image of the earthquake is integrated in the predicted story. The image of a personified earthquake which has a figure of its own; perhaps shaped in the human form or a demon is still lingering in the mind of the tribal people. Or maybe the personified earth quake is also influenced by the Biblical stories of the Almighty God intervening in the history and always side with the faithful.
Local people who have the benefit of reading the vernacular papers were fed with the detail description of the forecast; from the earthquake with 30 kilometers long tail to the detail account of the event which was predicted to start from the War Jaintia area and of course will only hit the Khasi Jaintia only. One can sympathize with the lack of knowledge of the poor villager who started the entire ruckus (unless she had at some point of time watched the movie ‘2012’ and with the invasion of satellite TV, one never know), but to think that the clergy, the church elders and the vernacular press too were part and parcel of the whole commotion is something beyond one’s comprehension. I have nothing to comment on the part played by the section of the clergy and the church elders, but my indignation is against the media particularly the vernacular papers.
My first question to my esteemed colleague in the media fraternity is; are we ignorant of the fact that till date there is no method or device available that can predict the occurrence of the earthquake? Can we allow ourselves to be dictated by the church or any institution without questioning the reliability of the source? Can media persons like the clergy and church elder get carried away in something that cannot be tested and prove beyond doubt? Are we not supposed to cross check and ascertain the fact before we publish any report? What happened to the rule number one of reporting that one must be able to separate fact from fiction? Are we not supposed to report the truth and nothing but the truth? One would expect an upright journalist to ascertain that anybody who made prediction has earlier made a similar forecast that came true and has ample prove to that affect, but sad to say nothing of that sort happen. The media published the story and the write-ups related to the so called ‘prophesy’ like it is the gospel truth which came straight from the mouth of God. The blame for the entire commotion should lie squarely with the media for creating undue fear psychosis in the mind of the people. The media are responsible for bringing the earth quake to the public domain.
We have stories of parents asking their children studying in Shillong or Jowai to return home without fail latest by Sunday evening, and then there are also stories about people shaking hands and biding goodbye to each other like they are not going to meet again in this world. The people at Moowakhon village made a makeshift tent house in the open field which is in accordance with the disaster preparedness procedure. Then we have the Office of the Deputy Commissioner Jaintia hills who asked his disaster management team to be prepare in case of an earth quake. On Saturday people were seeing buying enough rations to last for few days and torchlight sold like hotcake. People in the village made makeshift tent under the bamboo plantation because it is belief that in case of an earthquake it is safer to be beneath the bamboos plants. Other are heard busy preaching to the non-believers ‘to repent for the end is neigh.’ The preachers are certain that they themselves will be save because they has accepted Jesus as their savior while those who have not will not be safe by the earthquake. So, this earth quake also has prejudices and discriminates between the believers and the non-believers.
On Sunday evening, faithful gather in their houses to pray till the appointed time, but before stroke of midnight mobile phones started to ring. I received a call to conform if it is true that the earthquake has hit Nongtalang? Then one of my relatives received a call informing her that Dawki is leveled to the ground and turned to rubbles.
In the cyber world; there is a group of young people using the modern technology available and started a discussion group about the prediction on the Face Book page. I was invited to the discussion and most of those joining the face book group are young people and very few took the issue of the predicted earthquake seriously. Some students who are obviously studying elsewhere in the country jokingly thank heaven for he is not in the Khasi Jaintia hills.
Now the question is should we let those people involved in creating the fear psychosis (especially the press) escape scot free? We should remind our journalist friends that reporting is like a double-edged sword, while one is free to report any news; one is also equally responsible for one’s own report. Freedom and responsibility is like the two sides of the same coin. Imagine the loss of the parents who has to summon their children to come home for fear of the impending earthquake. I know of students who had missed their selection test because they were not able to arrive on time next Monday morning. Who will compensate them for their loss? I am sure readers would have many more stories about the Prophesy.
The doomsday prediction is an evidence of the fact that no matter how educate we are, our belief in the personified earthquake is still deeply entrenched in our mind. We seldom use our rational mind and reason before we belief anything, we easily get swayed away by anything especially if it has even an iota of connection with our church or our faith tradition. The entire earth quake drama also speaks volume about our tribal mindset which; like many first nation people, in our effort to move forward we are trapped between tradition and modernity

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Unitarian In The Khasi Hills

Unitarianism In The Hills: An Indigenous Religion With Modern Offshoots
Rev. Bert Inkson once said, “Unitarianism is rather a religious way of life than a set of belief.” Unitarianism hence can be defined as a way of life followed by different people in different parts of the World. Unitarianism’s origin as a faith in various parts of the Globe is in fact unique to the culture and ethos of the area in which it exist. In many cases all around the world where Unitarians Universalist churches present, the movement was originally started by individual who experienced spiritual trial and tribulation within ones self, it could be the individual discontent with the faith that he possessed and was struggling to find new meaning and insight to life. In other words it was started by people in their respective area against conforming to any set of beliefs or tradition dictated by certain authority in the power that is. From a historical point of view its origin as a movement can be trace back to a group of people in early Christian era, under the leadership of Arius who started a debate on the issue of the ‘godliness’ of Jesus Christ at a Council was held at Nicea in 325 AD. Since it is a way of life followed by people in different Places, of different Races and of different Cultures, Unitarian Universalism in different part of the Globe is therefore as varied as the people that followed it and each has maintain its own uniqueness. Though it varies with the people that followed it, but in spite of the diversity, it however has a certain common belief that the whole church adhere to, prominent among the many is the freedom of belief, respect of other religions and respect of the dignity of a person, are few of the fundamental principle which bind together the Unitarians Universalist the world over.
Unitarianism in Khasi Jaintia Hills and Karbi Anglong District, like any of its sisters in faith in different parts of the World is a unique religion with an equally unique beginning. The later part of eighteen and early nineteen hundred, Khasi Jaintia society witnesses an emergent of giants and stalwarts of Khasi intellectuals and the doyen of Khasi literature in the like of Babu Soso Tham, Pahep R.S. Berry, Nissor Singh and his brother u Babu Hajom Kissor Singh, the list is however by no mean exhausted. (One must also bear in mind that it was only in 1847 that Khasi language was put to writing using Roman script and the period we are talking here is the late 1800) The mentioned personalities were great littérateurs, and of these H.K. Singh was not only poet and an essayist par excellence but he is also religious reformer in his own right.
Born to a Khasi family whose father was an employee of the mighty British Empire, the Singhs along with few of their contemporary were perhaps few lucky educated Khasis of the time. It is said that in those days one can count on one’s hand the numbers of educated Khasis and H.K.Singh was able to complete his Entrance examination (High School graduate) which is itself a great achievement in those days. H.K. Singh though born a Khasi was converted to Calvinist faith along with the whole family while he was studying at a school in Nongsawlia Sohra (Cherrapunjee). He being an educated and an ardent quest for spiritual truth was well acquainted with the traditional animist religion and read his Bible thoroughly. He read the sacred text from cover to cover and found that the Bible has only reinforced his belief in one God, which in fact is a belief not alien to the Khasis. His studies of the Bible particularly the Gospels convinced him that Jesus himself; a true Jews to the last; worshiped one God, which he called Abba and taught his disciples to pray to this God the Father when they pray in what was latter known as the Lords prayer. At the same time H.K. Singh though he discovered that even the Bible and Jesus teaches about the existence of one true God which is similar to the belief followed by the Khasis, he however is reluctant to go back to the Niamtynrai/Seng Khasi fold (to which he has very close relationship) for other theological intricacies. Basically H.K.Singh was not at ease with what he believed to be the two variant of difficult belief that he cannot comprehend and one must remember that the age we are concern saw the advent of Christianity and the beginning of the people in the Khasi traditional belief to organise themselves to repel the rapid advancement of this new faith in the hills - the Seng Khasi was also started around this particular period. H.K.Singh was essentially caught between the old and new truth and ultimately came up with his own version.
H.K.Singh was struggling with the new truth that he had discovered, he was in search of a faith or religion, which worship one true God as well free human from the bondage of other super natural deities and at long last his search led him to his goal. By divine providence he met one Brahmo (member of Brahmo Samaj) who introduced him to Rev. C.H.A. Dahl a Unitarian Missionary stationed at Kolkata (Calcutta). Singh’s contact with Dahl was like the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and the correspondence between the two has indeed greatly influenced Singh. The communication between H.K.Singh and C.H.A. Dahl came to an end only in the demised of the later, which had shocked Singh and ironically the tragedy happens only two months before Unitarianism in this Hills saw the light of the day. H.K. Singh in spite of all odds went ahead with his plan and started “Ka Niam Mane Wei Blei” Unitarianism in the Khasi Jaintia and Karbi Anglong on the 18th of September 1887 and the rest is history.
Unitarian in the Khasi Jaintia and Karbi Anglong District is like a tree standing tall with its roots deep into the ground and its branches and leaves widely spread receptive of the light and the blessings of the Universe. Its roots are strong and firm in the belief and culture of the people of the region as well as being open to truths from elsewhere.
From a theological point of view, the concept of God Worshipped by the Unitarians in the Hills is the Khasi’s own concept of God the Creator (U Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw) (which is) formless. The Khasi concept of God is in contrary to the western concept that they inherited from Judeo-Christian tradition. The concept of God in a western context is God in an “Anthromorphical form.” – God on whose image man was created or to be precise God in a human shape. God in Khasi Pnar concept is not only of a formless God but also in contrary to other tribal God or gods; the Khasi Pnar concept of God is that of a Universal God. He is neither a God, which have a territory, nor God, which belong and recognize only his own tribe. H.K. Singh preaches of a formless God and a Universal God and he even went a step further by preaching a dual identity of God ‘ the motherhood and fatherhood’ concept of God. Unitarians therefore worship the Khasi original idea of God- a formless God, a Universal God, a Divine Power and a benevolent Benefactor.
Khasi Pnar is a tribe with its own distinct culture and value system. The genesis of any tribe’s culture and value system is based on its Mythological stories handed down by their ancestors since time immemorial from one generation to another. Unitarian treated the khasi-pnar folklore and legends as aetiological account of the tribe that can neither be describe as historically factual or mere mythologies. Like any other tribes or races in the World, the Khasi-Pnar also has its own genesis the “Hynniew trep hynniew skum.” Hynniew trep hynniew skum is a folktales or story as important and profound to the Khasis as the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis for both the Jews and the Christian. The Hynniewtrep story for that matter is as solemn as any mythological stories of any race or tribe. The story does not have to be factually true but they certainly have a profound impact on the belief, culture and psyche of that particular tribe or race.
The Unitarians in the Khasi Jaintia Hills faces no contradiction what so ever between the faiths they followed and the common culture or ethos of the tribe. Believers in western oriented denomination are many a time in a dilemma whether to believe in the teachings of their Sacred Book or to follow the Value System follow by their forefathers since time immemorial. Oftentimes their faith and dogmas being western oriented are in contrary to the prevailing customs and ethos of the society. Being a liberal religion in a unique Khasi Pnar context, the Khasi Unitarians adapt well to the culture and ethos of the society, they follow and lives by the cardinal values of the tribe and continue to respect the traditions values of the tribe. The basic Khasi value system are ‘To earn righteousness’ (Ban kamai ia ka hok), ‘To live honorably and courteously and to know and revere God’ (Ban long Tip-briew Tip-Blei) ‘To know and respect one’s relation both from mother and father side’ (Ban tip kur tip kha). These three basic value systems of the Khasi pnars are like the tri-pot stones (maw byrsiew) in the hearth of the khasi-pnar’s home that provide warmth and feed the entire family. The Unitarians found no contradiction to the Value System; they in fact adhered in letter and spirit to these basic value system. Faiths that were introduce from other areas, naturally carry with them the ethos and traditions of the area from which they originated and therefore they remain out of place to the contemporary Khasi-pnar society. We see that these religious organisations started the process of trying to adapt to the prevailing culture of the people of the area.
Unitarian church though has an alien name and naturally has the influence of Protestantism in their worship traditions, yet they hold tight and fast the intrinsic values of their tribal value system. In fact Unitarian Universalism Church is itself an all pervading and all-encompassing religion it is inherent to the church to be able to easily accept different variety of thoughts and beliefs. Unitarian church in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, is therefore a liberal church with its roots strong in the Khasi Pnar value system while it is also all encompassing and free to reach out to new thoughts and teaching. R.S. Berry in one o the many hymns he generously composed for the Khasi Unitarian hymn book, described Unitarianism as “Ka niam ieid i’u blei ieid i’u briew” (The Religion of love God and love fellow human being), in a nutshell this best describe Unitarian in Khasi Jaintia hills.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sein Beh Iaw Jowai: Meghalaya’s own Dabba Wallahs

If the Dabba Wallahs of Mumbai can make it to the pages of the Forbes Magazine, the Economics Times et al, the Sein Beh Iaw Co-operative Society of Jowai deserves at least some space in the editorial page of the Shillong Times. There are two things that these two business organization have in common, that their business model is original in its own right and the unique business ventures are not a copy-paste models of some successful business enterprises or models copied from certain management books. Secondly both the organisations are laymen’s movement in which most of the members are semi literate and the day to day affair of the organization is being run by the members themselves.
Co-operative organization come and go and with one of the two outstanding co-operative societies in Jaintia Hills, the Mowkaiaw Transport Society is now a mere a shadow of its former glory, Sein Beh Iaw which was established on June 23, 1980 is now a 30 years old organization and it is still going strong and doing a good business. Perhaps the success story of Sein Beh Iaw, Jowai is one case study that our own IIM, Shillong can take up for study.
Incidentally while composing this article, my wife shouted from the kitchen asking me when is ‘Musiang’ (the market day in Jowai), the fact is even though Jowai is a growing town and everything is available in the market throughout the week, the significance of Musiang has not diminished. Musiang is the day the town folks look forward to fresh (and many a time organically grown) food products that petty farmers from every nook and corner of the district come to sell in the local market. I was told that an IAS officer from the town posted in Shillong was once asked why he didn’t opt to serve as the Deputy Commissioner of Jaintia hills. The officer who was born and brought up in Jowai replied ‘why would I want to work in a town in which I already know what food each family cooks every morning and evening of the market day? Jokes apart, to understand the principle on which the foundation of the Sein Beh Iaw is set, one needs to understand some of the traditions of the Pnars which has some connection with this business. The business is based on the eight days a week traditional calendar of the Khasi Pnar, yes we have eight days in a week and don’t ask me where did the Khasi Pnar get the extra day in their week? If the Beatles had known about the Khasi Pnar tradition, it would have safe the group the trouble of composing a hit song wishing for a week of eight days. Unlike the western calendar; each day is named after the market in the particular village; hence each major village has one market day in a week which also caters to the need of the villages in its vicinity.
Ma Ronel Chullai reminiscence in the silver jubilee souvenir of the Sein Beh Iaw, the day he first joined the elders in the ‘Beh iaw’ tradition which literarily mean ‘following the market;’ way back in 1948.  He recalled starting from Shangpung which falls on ‘Muchai,’ the day after ‘Musiang.’ During those days there were no means of conveyance so they walked on foot the entire week with bundles of goods on their back from one village to another. They stayed overnight at Shangpung and continued the next day to the market at Mynso, they again stayed overnight at Mynso then crossed the river Myntang to reach Barato market. On the same evening they left Barato and crossed the river Mynriang stayed overnight at Lapangap to walk to Ummynso the next day. They returned the same route from Lapangap, to Mynso and it took them two days to reach Jowai again. After walking from one market to another braving the inclement weather and the danger of wild animals, by 1950-54 traders used cycles to commute from one market to another, later on they used Jeeps and by 1956-60 they started using small buses and followed next by the big buses.
As per the traditional calendar except Jowai two or more villages share the same market day. The second day of the week is Muchai and it is the market day at Shangpung and Dawki, Pyngkat the third day is the market day in Khliehriat, Iooksi, Mynso and Chiehruphi, the next day is Thymblein; on this particular day  market is held at Muktapur, Barato and Khanduli, the next day is Hat and  it is a market day at Borkhat and Mookaiaw, followed by Khyllaw the market day in Jowai, Dawki, Sutnga, Kympreng and Namdong, the sixth day of the week is Pynsyin where market is held at Wah-iajer and Rymbai. Mulong is the market day at Nartiang, Jarain Lumchnong, Muktapur and Raliang followed by Musiang the market day in Jowai and the last day of the week.
Sein Beh Iaw co-operative society was organized to help those following the markets and the organization was in a way forcibly thrust upon them by circumstances prevailed then. Initially traders depend on private buses for transportation but the lackadaisical attitude of the private bus owners, forced some of the ‘beh-iaw- wallahs’ to think of an alternative. They decided to join together buy their own bus and not to depend on the whims and fancy of the bus owners. Initially all 121 members of the ‘beh-iaw family’(as they would like to call themselves) contributed as much as they can to purchase the society’s first bus and since they cannot afford a brand new vehicle; they bought a used bus from Shillong. Irrespective to the amount a member contributed to the corpus fund; members were allotted an equal share and it was repaid immediately after the coop break even. The Society’s second bus was financed by the State Bank of India, Jowai and now the Society has 5 buses and another new one will join the fleet soon. The Coop has 15 employees which include bus drivers and helpers and 15 members working on a voluntary basis to run the day to day affairs of the society. The account of the organization is being audited every month and the auditors provide a quarterly audited report to the management and the members meet at annual general meeting on the society’s foundation day.
The market day in the village is not only an opportunity for the villagers and those nearby to sell their local products, but traders even from distance places came to sell their goods once a week to create villagers’ own supermarket where the weekly need of the villagers is provided; likewise traders bought the villagers products to sell them elsewhere. Sein Behiaw is one big entity which contributes to the flourishing traditional weekly market system and perhaps it is not an overstatement to say that the Sein Beh Iaw, Jowai is single handedly responsible for the growth of these village markets. Numbers of unemployed youths in the state is growing at an alarming rate, and the government is yet to come up with any employment policy, helping the village market grow is perhaps one alternative to create employment and at the same time arrest the ever increasing urban migration. The tradition of having market is already in place, it remains for the government to create value in the market by providing modern facilities like cold storage and even transport with cold storage facility, RCC stalls etc, this will surely help create employment opportunity. The corporate houses created modern market for people to come and shop in their malls and super mart; the genius of the Khasi Pnar is they take people’s own super market to the villages.
People often conclude that Pnars are enterprising lot, but the real entrepreneurs are not those coal and limestone mine owners who just happens to own lands with mineral deposits, real entrepreneurs are people like the members of the Sein Beh Iaw who 30 years ago out of nothing created their own business and struggled hard to prosper.
In comparison state run Transport Corporation failed in spite of financial support from the state, one can’t help but wonder what does the Sein Beh Iaw, Jowai has that the Meghalaya Transport Corporation does not have. Perhaps the government of Meghalaya has a lot to learn from the Sein Beh Iaw. The Sein Beh Iaw not only created a viable transport alternative for its members, it has created employment for many drivers and helpers in the buses and occasionally it is also an opportunity to earn extra income for the members. It is also a mean of communication for hundreds of traders depending on its buses to travel from one market to another.