Monday, December 12, 2011

Chronic traffic jam: Government at wits’ end

In the last few months since the beginning of the peak coal business season in the state not a single issue of The Shillong Times was without any reference to the traffic jam on the national highway 44. It is a matter of grave concern that the honourable high court based on reports appearing in this paper took cognizance of the problem and took the government to task for failing in its duty to solve this chronic problem. It is another reason that the problem received much publicity because the state capital and the Guwahati-Shillong road was hit the hardest by the traffic jam and everybody from top government officials including the honourable judges to the hoi polloi in the street was affected by the same. It would have been different if only the Jowai-Shillong and the Jowai-Badarpur section of this highway were to have been clogged.

It is not that the Government is not doing anything to free the highway from the regular traffic jams. Our policemen from Khliehriat to Byrnihat have made all out efforts to free the road of traffic jams, but the solution seems to be short term in nature. The traffic branch in Shillong and Jowai have tried every known trick to ease the jam by controlling the entry the exit of trucks to Jowai and Shillong but to no avail. Policemen, particularly the home guards that the police have engaged in traffic management will continue to lose sleep till the summer of next year (end of the coal peak season) as long as the government is a not able to come up with long term solutions to the problem. It is nice to know that the PWD department has taken cognizance of the suggestion made in this column last winter and has floated tenders to revive the Nartiang-Nongpoh road. Hopefully it will help reduce the number of trucks plying on the NH 44. But the problem is the road was made as per state road specification and not according to national highway standards. This means loaded trucks cannot use this road; however the commissioning of the road will be of help to ease the traffic on the Shillong-Jowai section of the road because the police will have the option of directing the empty or unloaded trucks coming from Guwahati to take a detour from Umiam to Nartiang and Ladrymbai- Khliehriat thereby bypassing not only Shillong but even Jowai too.
The government seems to depend on the Shillong bye-pass as a saving grace for its failure to come up with a long term solution to the chronic problem, but the question is for how long? Of course it will be a long respite for the people of Shillong for they will be free of the monstrous trucks which pollute the air of the city with the smoke and noises from the (banned) air horns but the Shillong-Guwahti road from Umiam downwards will continue to face the same problem. The Chief Secretary has also made a statement that the government will increase the number of police personnel to man the traffic but this will also be a short term remedy only. The other pertinent question is also when will vehicles be able to start using this road? The government must complete the project within this financial year because the fate of many of its candidates in the 2013 elections (next winter) will be partly influenced by the traffic mess. Then there is a technical question too. Now the contractor is using limestone for metalling and blacktopping the road. The question is whether limestone give us a durable road?
No doubt the much hyped Lanka-Sutnga railway connection will help ease the traffic snarl but there are two important issues that we have to take into consideration before we even think of the proposed rail project. (1) Is the proposed project not going to have any impact on the Saipung I and Saipung II reserve forests? (2) Is the proposed project planned with due consideration for sustainable development in the state? Are we even thinking of sustainable development or are we in hurry to exhaust all the mineral resources we have? Mr. E.K. Mawkhiew Dept. of Geology KN College, Jowai in the second District level seminar conducted by the Kiang Nangbah Government College on November 29, 2011 in collaboration with the office of the District Planning Officer, Jaintia hills and the Meghalaya College Teachers Association, Jowai unit on the theme “Coal mining and its impact on the environment of the district,” shared some startling light on the facts and figures of coal mining in the state.
As per information collected from the coal directory of India, 2008-09, coal controller’s organization, Kolkata, the share from the three districts of Meghalaya to the total 576.48 Million Metric Tons coal deposits is as follows: 391.22 MMT in Garo Hills, 146.26 MMT in Khasi Hills and only 36.00 MMT in Jaintia Hills. According to records collected from the Directorate of Mineral Resources, Meghalaya from the year 2003 to 2010, Jaintia Hills has extracted 37,22,211 Metric tons, Garo Hills 15,62,008 Metric tons and Khasi Hills 4,82,798 metric tons. So by the time Sutnga is connected by rail, considering the facts and figure available, coal in Jaintia Hills would have been exhausted. But the fact of the matter is if the railway line comes through it will directly benefit the two cement plants in the Sutnga-Nongkhlieh area co-owned by the two Congress leaders in the district.
All the above remedial measures to ease traffic congestion are diagnosed and prescribed based on the symptoms of the problem; traffic jams are one of the many symptoms of a much bigger diseases – mining. In the same Seminar R Lamarr lecturer of KNG College who chaired the academic session II drew an interesting analogy in his concluding remarks. Reminding the audience that one of the immediate impacts of coal mining is the fact that our movement from one place to another is hampered by traffic jam, he also reminded the listeners of an incident in the life of Mahatma Gandhi. In spite of being a learned counsel educated in England, Gandhi was not always in favour using allopathic medicines to cure sickness. Parents of a boy who complained of stomach ache met Gandhi. He advised them against giving any medicine to the child and suggested instead that they should allow the child to suffer till he could figure out the cause of his illness which in all likelihood is gluttony. If the child is able to comprehend the cause of his illness he will be able to control his eating habit and will be free of stomach ache in the future.
The people of Meghalaya had suffered enough and hopefully we are intelligent enough to realize that the cause of traffic jams and many other problems like environment degradation and growing numbers of crime is due to mining. The crux of the problem is mining. This gives rise to influx problem, land alienation and increase in crime rate.
A permanent solution to the problem can only be by discovering ways to treat the heart of the trouble. Deputy Chief Minister B.N. Lanong’s procrastination on the draft mining policy will unfortunately not be able to help him save the land of his ancestors and ironically mining policy is the only medicine that can control and cure the problem. Lanong who is the president of the major regional party, the UDP is holding the magic wand in his hand and the longer we delay in enacting the policy, the longer people will have to live with all the problem that comes with mining and particularly the woes caused by traffic jam.
(The author is a researcher and environmental activist).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Last of the Tigerman

The legend of the Tiger Man is one of the articles published by the Shillong Times which has given me maximum numbers of feedbacks, and the responses to the write-up have poured in from all over the world. Apart from the local readers whose response also contributed to the work that I have done so far, there are two emails from abroad which also goes to show how widely read the Shillong Times is. I never knew there was so much interest in the subject until the article was published and I was not prepared for the kind of queries that were lobbed at me. The emails are from researchers, one of whom is an Indigo scholar from Italy and the other a folklorist and student of PhD from a University in Estonia. Both researchers wanted to get more information about the legends of the were-tiger ( as in were-wolves) in Jaintia Hills. So in this article I decided to include some information contributed by the local readers of the Shillong Times themselves and some more of my own collections.
Few days after the article appeared in the editorial pages of the Shillong Times, L. Nampui an officer in the DC’s office Jowai shared a legend that abounds among the Biate tribe in the Saipung area of Jaintia Hills. The Biates believe that the Thianglai Nampui clan of the tribe have a special relationship with the tiger since time immemorial. It is believed that whenever any man from the clan ventures into the forest there will always be a tiger around to escort the person from the Thianglai Nampui clan to protect him from any precarious eventuality. The Biates who live in the Saipung reserved forest close to the Narpuh reserved forest also believe that whenever anyone from the Ngamlai clan dies there will be a tiger who will guard the hut where the body of the dead Ngamlai is kept and the people of the area claimed that this still happens.
Cassian A Suchiang a secondary school teacher in Jowai who was born and brought up in Moochrot a small hamlet on the banks of the river Myntang shared another information. He said that in his village there is a locality called Moo-liang-khla. Moo in Pnar dialect is rock or stone, liang means ‘to lick’ and khla is tiger, hence the name of the locality literarily translated means ‘a rock that is licked and turns into a tiger’. There is a rock in the village and legend has it that in the days of yore people who could transform themselves to tigers licked the stone and instantly changed themselves to tigers.
There are quite a few families in Amlari village in the elaka Satpator of Amlarem sub division of Jaintia hills near Muktapur who are originally from Sutnga village. The story has it that out of fear for a tiger which has caused panic in the entire village these families fled from Sutnga in search of a safe haven a long; long time ago. The Tiger caused such a hue and cry that the people have no other option but to run away from the village and it was from this incident that the people of Sutnga are often called ‘ki Sutnga dait-khla’ or the Sutnga bitten by a tiger. This particular tiger has caused havoc in the entire elaka and legends have it that people of Sutnga who in panic fled from the place in hordes finally found refuge in many places; some settled in Jowai while others found shelter somewhere else in the District and even outside the district. And a section of the community that had escaped the wrath of the killer tigers of Sutnga reached Amlari village and settled there on the India-Bangladesh border. The people of Sutnga-origin who live in the village are believed to be the descendants of a section of the Sutnga population which escaped the fury of the were-tiger who went berserk.
The were-tiger of Sutnga was the last known tiger man in the Pnar folklore, precisely because the people of the area still have many things to associate the legend with such as the label that the people of Sutnga earned as Sutnga-daitkhla and the story about the people of Sutnga-origin who live in Amlari village are elements of the lore that still linger in the legend told from a long time ago.
Legend has it that a man (some believe belonged to the Phyrngap clan) from the Nongkhlieh elaka married a woman who lived in Sutnga village. The couple was loved and respected by their neighbours because the husband was a shaman and they lived a happy married live. The primary occupation of the husband is that of a farmer but he practiced traditional medicine just to help friends and neighbours who were in need of his help from the divine powers he possessed. By tradition traditional medicine practitioners are not expected to charge any money from their patients; in fact it is a taboo for a true spiritual healer to name a price (in any form) for the service provided. But people who came to seek their help more often than not offer a token of gratitude to the healer and the offering could either be in cash or in kind. The power to practice shamanism is believed to be divinely instilled in the person to enable one to help others; hence the Khasi Pnar shamans have other primary occupations to support themselves. I still remember a healer known to my late father who would not even touch the money given to him for providing medicine till he reached home.
Coming back to the story, the legend also has it that the wife of the shaman on knowing that her husband possessed the power to transform himself to a tiger, asked him to prove it to her and transform himself to a tiger before her eyes. The husband had categorically said that he could not do that for it is forbidden. He tried to convince her and make her see the reason that it is a taboo to even tell anyone about the special power bestowed on the person; but his wife kept on pestering him every night and day to compel him to do what she wanted him to do; finally he succumbed to her pressure. But before starting the process of transforming himself to a tiger, he gave her strict instructions to stay on top of the wooden beam of their house till he was re-transformed to human and never to come down; come what may. He put her on the beam and then started to lick the magic stone which would transmogrify him to a tiger. No sooner was he transformed to a tiger when he began sniffing around and saw a human on the beam of the house. The tiger jumped several times to get hold of the woman and the woman out of shocked of what she saw fell down from the beam to the floor of the house. The tiger man mauled the defenceless woman till she died. When the tiger man re-transformed himself to a human he realized what had happened and out of anger licked the stone again and transformed himself to a tiger again only this time it was out of rage for what had happened. The tiger man went haywire and ransacked every hut in the village. People panicked and fled the village empty handed in the dead of night.
No one knows what happened to the man who transformed himself to a tiger but the legend of the were- tiger of Sutnga is still alive among the Pnars of Jaintia hills and the people of Sutnga till date are called “ki Sutnga daitkhla” or the people of Sutnga who were bitten by the tiger.
(The writer is a researcher and an environmental activist)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Is 2013 Assembly election for change or change?

The next general election may be more than a year away, but hectic preparation for the same is going on at the every level. Contenders vying for party tickets are already busy making contacts to ensure they are allotted party tickets and at the party level negotiation is already going on to form pre-poll alliances and even merger like in the case of the UDP and the KHNAM. Well, as for the prospect of the merger of the main regional parties in the state; I can only say that it is not the first time that regional parties it the state enter into alliance or merged before the election and I will not be surprise if the supposed merger is not unanimous and new party may emerge out of nowhere.
Mergers or alliances are made with only one intention in mind and that is to grab power and more power after the election, the welfare of the people was never in the radar screen of our leaders when alliances were made in preparation for the election. To the question why is the proposed UDP-KHNAM merger hitting the rock? The answer to the question is again a glaring example of the fact that the leaders only think about themselves and not for the betterment of the party and the state. Leaders are not willing to sacrifice their personal interest for the sake of a united regional force, a force that the Congress party will have to reckon with. A united regional party will be able to help the state have a successful democracy. Ultimately the question in every leader’s mind; it is not what good can it brings to the state, but rather what’s in it for me? Politicians of every hue and colours share this common trait. In their order of priority; they would first look for what is of interest to them, then may be the interest of their relatives, friends, supporters and the last in their order of concerns is the public.
The more worrying trend in the state politics is the increasing number of businessmen joining politics. The tendency of rich people with little or no education joining politics which started in the Jaintia Hills District is now making inroad into the hallowed hall of the state assembly. If the government in both the state and the central government accord top priority to providing education to children; I don’t see any reason why we should not insist that candidates to the legislative assembly should at least be a degree holder from a recognized university. One’s worst fear is that the numbers of MLA with no university degree but plenty of money will only increase after the 2013 election.
There are two reasons which will help increase the numbers of rich people joining the state assembly, number one; the neo-rich with little education from Jaintia Hills has already occupied seats in the august assembly and their numbers will only increase. This brand of politicians has only one interest and that is to expand their business and being in power in the government will definitely help. This will only inspire more coal mine owners from other areas of the state to plunge into election fray and try their luck in the next general election because loss or win, they have nothing to lose. Don’t be surprise if a business tycoon from West Khasi Hills with lots of money and with little or no education; dare to take on the might of the alpha male lion right in the lion’s den. I don’t know much about West Khasi Hills but my guess is there are plenty rich-semi-literate potential candidates from the District who will try to buy their ways to the assembly. With forest cover dwindling in the West Khasi; it will not be surprise if the election 2013, will be the last time people will hear the lion roaring “ha u sing” in the last bastion of the lion (HSPDP)- the West Khasi Hills. 
In Garo Hills too, coal mine owners or business tycoon will be inspired by their counterpart from Jaintia Hils and try their luck in the next Assembly election. While 2013 will be the time when the neo-rich from elsewhere in the state to test the water of state politics, for the rich, the semi-literate but powerful people of Jaintia hills; it is time to increase their power of influence and control. There is saying that does the round in the district now that, Jaintia will have 11 MLAs after the 2013 election. If you think that is absurd and ask how a district with 7 constituencies can to produce 11 MLAs? Well; if everything goes as the rich politician of the district planned, then there will be 11 MLAs of Jaintia origin representing the different constituencies of the state in the next assembly. 
While the people are as usual busy with their daily chores and the election which is still about a year and three months away is not in their radar screen, the prospective candidates to the ensuing general election already has understanding and even made some arrangement among themselves. In the new reorganization of constituency Sniawbhalang Dhar new constituency includes new villages from Nartiang to Khanduli and Draison Kharshiing ex MDC and MLA from the area is expected to be a strong contender against Sniawbhalang, but the young rich politician already made sure of securing the seat by having an understanding with Draison. Kharshiing will no longer contest from this constituency and with the backing of the rich-man’s club in the district will now contest from Nongkrem constituency. As for ECB Bamon the lone NCP MLA who represent the area now and won the last election with the support of the same club, he has voluntarily run away from Nartiang and will now contest from Mowkaiaw/Laskein constituency. Even before anybody realized it, Sniawbhalang has already made sure that no strong contender is in the fray against him in the 2013 election.
If everything goes as planned Draison will be the 9 MLA from Jaintia hills but the 8 MLA from Jaintia is JU Nongrum MDC of JHADC who is going to contest from Sohryngkham/Mawryngkneng constituency. But the biggest gamble that the rich-man’s club of Jaintia hills made will be in the Umroi constituency. Ngeitlang who is Sniawbhalang Dhar’s elder brother and proprietor of N.Dhar Construction Company is planning to contest from this constituency. If we are to remind ourselves Ngeitlang was the person found with money in his possession somewhere in Umroi during the last bye election to the same constituency. He will be the tenth MLA from Jaintia hills and like Nehlang they both are non-matriculate.
But the eleventh MLA from Jaintia hills when the first analysis was done is Nehlang Lyngdoh MLA from Rymbai who will now contest from Umsning Constituency. Lyngdoh has decided not to contest from Rymbai/Khliehriat and another non-matriculate candidate and ex CEM of Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council Hambertus Nongtdu who is also brother of another mining baron and owner of another construction company has declared to contest from the constituency. Unfortunately; many of the current non-graduate MLAs and even Minister from Jaintia Hills District are yet to make their maiden speech in the august house. So it is for the people to decide if they are going to let rich people with minimum education buy their way to the assembly. Should they vote to bring change or satisfied with keeping the change rich candidates dole out during election?
The good news is that a reliable source has confirmed that Nehlang Lyngdoh is going to quit politics and call it a day. It is good news precisely because it was ma Nehlang who had started the trend of rich man with little education contesting election; the trend has overwhelmed the JHADC hall and had even started to make inroad to the assembly. Ma Nehlang’s decision to retire from Politics will serve as a deterrent for other aspiring rich-semi-educated candidates to jump in the fray. By retiring, Nehlang is only stating the obvious fact that is does make a good business sense to invest lakhs and even crore of rupees to win an election. Nehlang is not doing himself a favour by joining politics, he stand to lose more by being a politician than by remaining a businessman. If he would have remain concentrated on his business he will still be the richest man, and his business will only grow exponentially but it took him ten years to realized that politics and business does not mix.  
Ma Nehlang Lyngdoh is a good man and a good businessman and that does make him a good politician, one hopes that the rich prospective candidates with little or no education will realized before it is too late that it is not worth to waste money during election, it just don’t pay.  

The living-root bridge the symbol of Khasi Pnar benevolence

Have you ever tried google search or binged the three words “Living-Root Bridge”? If you haven’t, you will be amazed the amount of information that is available on the internet on the subject. My google and bing search took me to more than 20 pages of information which link me to blogs, websites, news report and even video documentary about the bridges that were build without using any nails or any man made building material but living root of two trees attached to one another.
Most of these links were write-ups, travelogue and even tourist information sites about the living-root bridges of Nohriat village in the Sohra area. So far the living-root bridges in the area are the most sought after destination for travelers and trekkers in particular. It reminded me of my childhood days when our grandmother would take us to our Orange orchard in the place call Shmia-ladiang in Nongtalang village and during our winter sojourn, we did crossed certain living-root bridge on the way from village to the orchard. I immediately start using an old natural search engine which is most reliable and involve human. I first started posting Timothy Allen of the lonely planet’s blog and also shared a link of a video documentary about the living roots bridge in the area. No sooner did I shared the information on the Jaintia4u facebook page and a blog on the same name hosted by, Remika Lanong a scholar in the NEH University and a dear friend of my late sister immediately responded to inform that there are two living-root bridges in Kudeng rim a village near Sohkha where she live. One of the two bridges in Kudeng Rim village is on the river Amlamar and another is on the river Amkshar and information start pouring like the proverbial summer rain. A young friend from Shnongpdeng village informed that there is one living-root bridge in Darang village on the river Amsohmi. Another from Khonglah shared more information that in the Khonglah village there is one bridge over the Amsohkhi rivulet and another over the Amlunong stream. In Nongbareh village there is one living-root bridge over the stream Amlaye and this particular bridge is a double-decker bridge like the one in Nohriat village. A close friend confirmed that in Nongtalang village there is one bridge over the river Amrngiang on the way from Nongtalang to Amlympiang, another is on the river Amladiar on the Amtyrngui River and there are two more root bridges one over Amdap Sohpiang and another over the Amdoh stream. In Padu village I was informed by another friend that there are three living-root bridges very close to Padu which is again less than 10 kilometers away from Amalrem. All the three living-root bridges in the village are on the Amdep creek which connects the farmers to their farm land.
All the living-root bridges are located on the southern slopes of the state on the Indo-Bangla border, the area where the “War” community of Khasi and Jaintia hills districts lives. In many cases two trees Ficus elastica orFicus Indicus tree (dieng jri in local parlance) were planted on each side of the river, and once the tree start growing human manipulated the roots of the trees to connect each other across the span of the river. Once the main roots connected each other across the river, then people start to direct more root to make the bridge’s rails so on and so forth.
The making of the bridge was a community effort because it took years to complete the bridge and the work for building the bridges was done voluntarily. I don’t know much about the War Khasi but at least amongst the Wars Jaintia it is a tradition that the farmers themselves jointly made the path to their respective orchards or beetle nut and beetle leaves plantation and they are also responsible for keeping it. The bridges are part of the trail towards the terrain where they farm and making the root bridges and keeping the same is by tradition the responsibility of the farmers. The contribution of an individual farmer in the making of the bridges could simply be by way of helping tie the roots while walking down to his plantation; if one found the tendril wander away from the planed handrail.  It could also be by using a sliced bamboo to tie the roots together and put it on the right direction. Hence the farmers who use the bridge in the course of many years contributed in whatever way they can in making the bridge. Since it is also a living bridge, it still needs care and protection hence farmers are not only the makers; they are also the keepers of the living bridges.
The living-root bridges were made by the community and on voluntary basis and the job was also completed without any one to supervise the work. Notable neither was there any blueprint prepared or community planning done before they start working on the bridge. It was made out of human’s own natural instinct with one clear objective to make a bridge out of the root of the trees across the span of the river. The goal is to make it convenient for the farmers to cross the river even during monsoon when rain causes the river to overflow. The process or rather the tradition of making (or should we say growing a bridge) is bio-engineering at its best and a living testimony to the genius of our ancestors particularly the “Wars” of Jaintia and Khasi hills.
To some a living-root bridge may looks spiky; like snake big and small entwined each another or like Anaconda in the mating rituals.  The sheer sight of the bridges is awesome and it has attracted and will attract many visitors who will be enchanted by the marvel of this bio-engineering. People in other places can boast of majestic bridges of ten or twenty kilometer long made of brick and mortar, and of steel, but the living roots bridge of the Wars of the District of Jaintia hills and East Khasi hills are wonder of nature helped created with human intervention without causing any harm to the tree.
All the information on the living-root bridge subject available on the net are from Meghalaya, the blog entries, news reports, documentaries or information on travel sites are stories about the living-root bridges of Meghalaya. This goes on to prove that the art of making a bridge out of living root of trees is unique to the people of Meghalaya and the particularly the Wars of Khasi hills and Jaintia hills.
My dictionary description of the word benevolence is ‘desire to do good, kindness and generosity, it also means ‘doing good rather than making profit’. The desire to make the bridge for the common-good rather than individual profit is the spirit that goes in the making of the living-root bridge among the Wars of the Khasi and Jaintia hills. The spirit that puts common goods (ka bha-lang/ ka bha ka imlang sahlang) before selfish interest (is sad to say) a lost spirit among the Khasi Pnar today. Now people are into making as much profit as one can possibly can in any available opportunity and the good of the society has taken a backseat. This is more prevalent in the implementation of NREGS in which funds for making footpaths and other community needs is being misused for personal gain it.
It is sad but true that the southern slopes of the state bordering Bangladesh is lime stone deposits and people have now started mining in the area which will definitely have huge impact on the fragile eco-system of the area. This same greed is threatening the very existence of the living-root bridges because once the forest is cleared and water level recedes, the bridges will also be affected. The question is, is the Khasi-Pnar benevolence loss forever? What remains of a Khasi-Pnar society if the spirit that built the tribe is lost? The Khasi Pnar community needs to do an immediate retrospection, the question is do we want progress at the cost of the environment and our tribal value system? Are we going let greed takeover benevolence which is the pride of the community? Ironically the living-root bridges are the only remaining link that connects the pass with the presence, it is for us to decide if identity is just like a badge we put on, or continue with the value system on which our ancestors build the tribe.