Monday, November 14, 2011

Who will reform the PWD?

By HH Mohrmen   

Much has been written about this very important department of the state. The editor in her weekly piece devoted one entire column to highlight the state of affairs in the department. It is perhaps the only department which has maximum numbers of letters to the editor written against the sub-standard work the department executes in constructing roads in the rural areas and particularly the Guwahati-Shillong road which is the gateway to Meghalaya.
This column is a response to a letter to the editor carried by this paper in its November 8, issue. The letter gave a startling revelation of the mess in the Public Works Department (PWD) of Meghalaya and the whistle blower deserves a pat on the back for daring to call a spade a spade. Now it is the duty of civil society to protect the whistle blower and to see that the Department does not initiate proceedings to punish the person (if he or she is still in the service). Dr. Mukul Sangma too should realize that if his Government is to deliver, it not only must protect whistle blowers but also encourage employees to bring to light the rot in their respective departments. There is no point having grand policies and funds to match if the delivery mechanism is in shambles.
PWD is one department that has failed to deliver, or delivers sub-standard work which results in roads needing repair every year like the Jowai-Shillong road or the Jowai-Amlarem-Muktapur road. Are our engineers under-qualified and cannot even design roads which will last more than a year? Or is it because of the sub-standard work? I believe our engineers are qualified. I know that those of my classmates who are engineers (about 8 of them) in the PWD are all toppers since our high svhool days in Jowai. The poor quality roads or buildings come from the politician- contractor-technocrat nexus. It is an insidious connection. On one hand we have thousands of contractors of various classes and on the other the construction companies. All contractors and companies have political patronage.
The letter writer has correctly observed that there are few big contractors in the PWD who treat the department (especially officers in the helm of power) like their business partners with whom they share the spoils. The contractors, particularly the three construction companies, have a symbiotic relation with the government. These companies with all the money and the machinery at their disposal, treat the PWD staff like dirt; they sideline those engineers who do not comply with their whims. These companies owned by politicians and semi-politicians, think that because they own the machines to execute the work, they no longer need any monitoring or supervision. According to them the SAs SOs SDOs etc of the PWD and even engineers are dispensable like toilet paper. A sectional assistant once confided that when he complained that the road was not made as per specifications in the estimate, the contractor who, about a decade ago was only a coal-miner, a driver or a cow herd, rebuked him rudely saying, “What do you know?” We need to remind the contractors and the companies that the staff of the Department are eyes, ears and voice of the people, and that whatever they do is in public interest.
The November 8, letter pointed out that instead of 10 percent profit, the companies are now trying to get 90 percent profit for 10 percent work done. How else would the owner of a company or engineers be able to become instant millionaires if not by looting the public exchequer? There is nothing wrong with making profit but the question is how much returns do we expect from one job? Or are we still of the opinion that it is alright to steal from the government? The companies want big profit and fast but how much is too much or enough for them? This is one problem that the engineers are facing; they have to comply with the dictates of the semi-literate owners of these construction companies who have all the necessary political backing. Since they own the necessary equipments, at times the companies also hold the engineers and even the department to ransom. The Department is at the company’s beck and call. A recent example is the repair work of the Jowai-Badarpur road where the engineer had to literarily beg the owner of the company to execute the work since other companies were unwilling to do so. It is high time that government encourages companies from outside to operate in the state and prevent monopoly over big contract works by local companies.
“It is a common grouse of contractors that they do not break even,’ said one staff of the PWD. “The contractors now demand more than 50 percent profit and don’t care a damn about the quality of work. And if we don’t toe their line and revise the estimates then the next thing is we get calls from MLAs,” he laments. It did not take long for me to verify the allegation. Last Friday, E Khyriem Headman of Tympang Club, Iamusiang and I met the contractor to complain against the sub-standard repair work of Jowai-Amlarem-Muktapur road. The contractor, Pyrkhat Dkhar nonchalantly told us, “I am, in fact doing the Department a favour here because I will not get any profit from this particular work”. He also added, “To compensate for the loss in executing this work the Chief Engineer SB Chyrmang has allotted me another work on the Nartiang-Nongpoh road”. After he had finished I said, “Are you trying to say that the engineers who did the estimates are so incompetent that they did not even include the ten percent profit? Or is it because you want to be a millionaire instantly and ten percent is not enough?” He kept quiet.
Engineers who earnestly want to do good work express despair at the state of affairs in the department; they feel hamstrung and have no option but to flow with the tide. These are engineers who would not bribe for plum postings and therefore would not be given charge of any section or division for many years for not coughing up enough money to pay the politicians.
There are other engineers who are puppets of politicians. When tenders are floated, they don’t allot work without the confirmation of their political masters. They do not behave like professionals who are qualified to do the job, but bend their spine to please their political masters in lieu of a choice posting. Sometimes these engineers stoop so low and behave like political agent of the MLAs. They would insist that a contractor get a recommendation note from the MLA for allotment of work. They even check the antecedents of a contractor; if he is a supporter of the opposition candidate they will make sure he does not get any work. This is happening in Jowai. In fact, these engineers are hands in glove with the MLA or minister to manipulate allotment of work in the department. They treat the department like the MLA’s personal fiefdom.
There is another category of staff in the PWD. They are engineers, sectional officers and sectional assistants who are themselves involved in government contract work. They execute the work using ‘benami’ names of their close relatives. Now if the same person is to execute, supervise and monitor the work, then what quality of work do we expect?
The letter writer rightly mentioned that there is no point in promoting tourism while our roads are in tatters. The state’s development depends on the kind of the roads we have. Farmers face difficulty to transport their products because of bad roads; the health departments’ delivery of services is hampered by poor road conditions. Roads are indeed the backbone of the economy of the state and our engineers know they are shouldering a huge responsibility. The people of the state have high expectations from them. It’s time that the entire staff of the PWD rises to the occasion and works for the development of the state. Engineers in the PWD should unite and break the contractor-politician-technocrat nexus and set themselves free from the mental-shackle that has enslaved them. Then only will they be able to give their best service to the state.
People may have lost faith in the political system, but still trust some engineers and the staff of the Department.
(The writer is a social researcher and thought leader)

When citizens claim the state back

By HH Mohrmen

None of the members of the Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum (MTDF) would have ever thought that their decision to down the curtaisn of the autumn fest 2011 on Sunday the second time around, would spark an important debate in the state of Meghalaya. The outcome of the is going to determine the policy of the government with regards to Sunday and most importantly change the attitude of the people towards recreation and keeping the day holy. Let us not get into the debate with regard to the origin of observing Sunday as a holy day, but what is important to remind ourselves is Sunday is not the only holy day observed by the citizen of this state.
For so long our state has been run by politician who wore their religion on their sleeves and flaunt their church credentials as tymmen basan, nongialam seng rangbah, nongialam seng longkmie and rangbah balang at will and with pride. Leaders in the above mentioned category sometimes even forget which hat to wear and when? It reminds me of an incident in Khliehriat some years ago when police had to resort to firing in a land dispute case which involved the local church. An important minister in the cabinet then declared that he would take to the streets if the government did not take action against those responsible. I immediately sent a letter to the editor of an esteemed Guwahati-based daily in the state and basically asked two questions. If a cabinet minister second only to the chief minister has to take matters to the street then who going to govern? The second and the most important question I asked JD Pohrmen the minister in question was whether as a minister he owes his allegiance to the constitution he swears to every five years or to the church in which he was then an important lay leader? The issue died down. Obviously Mr Pohrmen knew where to place his allegiance.
Even now we have many politicians who wear different hats, I am not saying that it is wrong to be an important member of a church, but the important point for the leaders to know is when to wear which hat? Take a recent example; the MPCC President also sends a letter to protest against closing the Autumn Fest on Sunday. I don’t know how the MPCC functions because in my life I have never joined any political party but I assume that the President is entitled to issue a statement in his capacity as a President. If that is the case then it is not difficult to arrive at the conclusion just by the very fact of knowing who the current President of the Congress party in Meghalaya is. Mr Friday Lyngdoh is not only an MLA and President of the MPCC but he is also a tymmen basan of a church. Again don’t get me wrong; I am not saying a tymmen basan cannot be an MLA (although I have my reservations with their age of retirement) but the question is, am I wrong to say that in this case his allegiance is obviously tilting towards the church than to the state and the party which also claims to be a secular party? No wonder the BJP dismisses the Congress’s secular claims as – pseudo secularism.
Ever since the Meghalaya was created there have been situations when church and government have got entangled in almost every strata of the government. We have cases of various government departments’ involvement in church conferences, synods, religious festivals or processions. There is even a saying that does the rounds that if a village wishes to see instant development, then it only needs to play host to a conference, a synod, a festival or important religious gathering. Why? There are two answers to the question. First it’s vote bank politics and second, because the MLA himself is the leaders of the church and being a leader of a religious group in an important decision making body of the state; he is bound to incline to something that will benefit his religion. In the western world before any faith group plans to construct their house of worship they have to prove to the government that the church also has ample parking space. Unlike in Meghalaya, church goers cannot just park in any available space on the road and cause traffic jam. The church is responsible for its own actions and is taken to task if it is found to fail on its obligations.
In Meghalaya we have leaders who wear religion on their sleeves and these leaders walk tall to the church pulpit or altar saying they have full faith in the church and trust in God but at the same time have their armed personal security guards close by. This is the kind of trust on God our leaders have even in the place of worship. Citizens have the right to question why our leaders have to bring security personnel to the place of worship. Or, can they in the first place use government vehicles to go to church when it is not even an official function? And these same politicians are calling to postpone the closing of the Fest because it falls on Sunday! Does that mean politicians will not squander government resources like using government vehicles, using their PSOs etc on Sunday? The fundamental question is separating state from religion.
It is time that the government separate state activities from religious functions. Perhaps the state should start asking the church to pay for using government resources for religious activities. Like paying for using the state machineries like the police for religious mega gatherings, pujas or festivals and use the money to pay bonus to our hard working policemen who sometime have to forego their day off to attend to the call of duty even on Sundays.
Why this obsession with Sunday? Does it mean that our being religious starts and ends in the church and only on Sundays? If Sunday is the only holy day of the week does it mean that week days are less holy hence we can do anything during the week except Sunday? It is too shallow an understanding to limit our being Christians only to one single day – Sunday. Do we also need to remind our Christian brethren that everybody knows Sunday is their holy day but that other faith groups too have their own holy days – the Sabbath of the Jews and the Seventh Day Adventists, Friday for those who follow Islam and Tuesday for Hindus? Will the NCP and the NGOs protest if the festival concludes on Saturday which is the holy day of our Seventh Day Adventist brethren? Will the same people protest if it is pre-poned to Friday which is the holy day of our Muslim brethrens (and FKJGP don’t tell me there are no Khasi followers of Islam) Or by implication are we trying to say that only Sunday is a holy day and that the holy days of other religions is not as holy?
Let us for example see what Jesus has to say about keeping the Sabbath. (KJV Mark 2: 27) “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”, (KJV Mark 3: 4) “And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?” (NKJV Luke 6:9) “I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy?” These are few verses in the gospel in which Jesus talked about the Sabbath. And mind you he was not even talking about Sunday.
Meghalaya is a secular state; it belongs to its citizens irrespective of one’s caste, creed or religious affiliation. No one has the right to impose his religious views on others. Democracy does not grant those in the majority the right to impose their will on the minority. Democracy is about respecting the right to freedom of the citizen and will function well only when we all respect one another’s rights. Even among Christians those (supposedly) good Christians who are of the opinion that is unchristian to close the fest on Sunday, have no right to impose a ban on those they believe are ‘not so good Christians’ who think that it is within their right to decide what to do on one fine Autumn Sunday afternoon.
And finally, thank goodness, at long last we have a Chief Minister who is a citizen first; a Chief Minister who does not wear his religion on his sleeves and with Dr Mukul Sangma in the helm of power, the citizens of the state are beginning to claim their rightful place in the government.
(The writer is a researcher and social thinker. He can be contacted at