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.


Joy said...

Yes, Arwat and his friends are doing a marvellous job. I had joined Brian's caving expedition in February this year and got a chance to see the fantastic beauty that lies beneath. I had also written an article on this in the magazine I work for. Facebook has certainly facilitated exchange of ideas and helped build a movement against limestone mining in the Jaintia Hills. I'm sure that this movement will succeed against all odds.

H.Helpme Mohrmen said...

Thanks Joy.