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.

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