Monday, May 23, 2011

Corruption: The manifestation of u Thlen in the Khasi Pnar Society

Myths, legends and folktales are not merely stories to be told around the hearth of the Khasi-Pnar homes; the stories are not just myths but ways by which our ancestors pass on the intrinsic values and traditions from one generation to another. The stories are meant to be reflected upon in the light of the modern world and to appreciate the profound morals that were neatly woven into the fabric of the stories.

In a nutshell, the folktales have it that when u Thlen (a huge serpent) was killed a feast was made out of it and the entire community took part in the public feast. Legend has it that in a certain family the mother kept wee bit of the meat for her son. Next day, she was shocked to discover that it had turned to a little serpent. The serpent requested the mother to keep it and in return promised to bless the family with immense wealth. But I have another take for the story. U Thlen is a symbol of greed and people’s never ending desire to accumulate as much wealth as they can, using whatever means available without worry of the consequences that their actions might have or can cause to their fellow humans and the environment. U Thlen is a demon to which we are willing to sacrifice truth, justice, equality, integrity, honour, honesty and all the values we hold dear. U Thlen is a devil who kills the human conscience and the human person’s ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Since our ancestors have partaken of the serpent’s meat it has become our flesh and blood. We have all inherited u Thlen in ourselves, u Thlen is innate in each and every one of us; it has become part of our life. Hence in spite of so much talk against corruption it is still prevalent in the society, because u Thlen is within us. The Khasi-Pnar value to earn righteousness has been done away with since our ancestors gobbled the Thlen’s meat. U Thlen which we believe we have killed is still alive in society and it is alive in each and every one of us.

A simple fisherman who lived in a certain island earns his livelihood by fishing. His typical day starts in the wee hours of the morning when he ventures to the sea to catch fish. Every day he returns in the afternoon after catching just enough to feed his family and the rest of the day he slept on his boat. One day a rich man from the city came holidaying in the island. When he saw the fisherman sleeping, he asked him, "Why are you sleeping why don’t you go out fishing?" The fisherman replied "I have already caught enough for a day’s need for my family." The rich man again asked him, "Why don’t you fish the whole day to get more money?" The fisherman asked, "What for?" The rich man suggested, "You can get more money to buy a bigger boat." The perplexed fisherman then asked "Why do I need a bigger boat?" "You can go fishing further into the deep sea and get more catch" "Why do I need more catch?" again asked the fisherman. "You can get more money." "Why do I need more money?" "So you can enjoy and relax the rest of your life," replied the rich man." The Fisherman then replied "Why? What do you think I am doing right now?"

The honest, simple and generous Khasi Pnar who lives a simple life is no more. Greed has taken over the life of the simple Khasi Pnar and everyone is in the rat-race to become an instant millionaire. Like my friend said, "Our life is now ruled by everything instant, fast food, fast car and fast money. No, there is nothing wrong in getting rich by fair and honest means but accumulating wealth by infringing on the right of others or by flouting the rules for self benefit, by cheating and employing other unfair means to gain undue favour is wrong. Ka ‘Hok’ which has many meanings in English like (kaba hok) ‘righteousness/truth’, (ka hok) rights and (ka jingbishar hok) justice has lost its meaning in the contemporary society. A Khasi Pnar who lives by the cardinal principle to earn righteousness is no more; the last few of them live in the village far from the madding crowd.

There are regular reports in the news papers of those in power from MLA to officers who are involved in corruption. It seems we still believe that it is alright to steal from the government and we therefore have no qualms of stealing from what really belongs to the people. Even if we do not directly take home from office articles like registers, papers, locks, file covers and etc, there are those who do not attend office regularly and spend paid time for their own vested interest. Are they too not indulging in corruption? Their salary is being paid by the government and it is expected of them to attend to their duties and give their time to serve the public. We see government employees accumulate wealth beyond their known sources of income and are still proud of it. How else do you explain things when an engineer whose wife is also a government employee suddenly resigns and declare that he has wealth worth crores of rupees? Nobody questions where all the money comes from. Instead we shower accolades on the person. How can one earn so much money if one considers his known sources of income only? But people have accepted this new way of life. If anyone starts raising questions about it, people will say that he is jealous.

Religious orgnisations too are run by people so it is only fair to expect that they reflect their member’s thoughts, aspiration and action. Look at the educational institutions runs by religious orgnisations. Consider the school fees they charge. Even a prospectus of a reputed school costs three hundred rupees a copy. Only in Meghalaya would one find schools funded by the government on a deficit pattern which means that all the teachers are being paid by the government and they still charge exorbitant tuition fees. Educational institutions have now become the geese that lay golden eggs for the religious organizations. In Jowai religious organizations are even competing among themselves to run markets. Trees in the cemetery are cleared to give way to a market instead of converting the same to a memorial park. The church which has committed to abide by the law instead constructs permanent sheds after receiving the demolition order from the JHADC. An organization with an objective to preserve and protect culture and tradition has seen to it that the archery ground (madan-siat-thong) of the Pnar is done away with to make way for a super market.

The Khasi Pnars are now worshiping wealth and (ka hok) righteousness has no value anymore. U Thlen inside us has won the day; we no longer treasure the invaluable land, waters and forest for we have put a price tag on everything. The forests are not our perennial source of livelihood anymore, animals and trees are no longer our fellow creation. The land is no longer our mother or else how would we sell our own mother (mei-ram-ew). We no longer respect rivers and hills which we consider divine. Ka Umiam, ka Kupli, ka Myntdu ka Umngot, ka Kynshi, u lum Shillong u lum Bah-boo bah-kong are all under the hammer waiting only for the right price.

We worship wealth and we have disregarded that which the community considers to be a taboo (ka sang ka ma) and shame and feeling bad on account of our own wrong deeds and action (ka rain ka rem) is no more. We honour a person not because of the principle by which he lives and by how he carries himself but by how wealthy he is. U Thlen inside us even influences our decision making. Tell me of an MLA who is not a crorepati. We even elect our MLA and MDC based on their wealth.

Therefore a poor man does not stand a chance to win an election no matter what his credentials and accomplishments are.

A kind and caring society has now given way for a society in which a person is only concerned about his individual needs and his own vested interests. Gone are the days when a woman gave birth and relatives, friends and neighbours would come visit the mother and the brand new baby and also bring with them food (ja khon-boo) to feed the two. Among the Jaintias, during the mourning period, friends and relatives would visit and bring food for the bereaved family. During bereavement relatives and friends would visit the family to offer their service to help the family. Now that is gone forever particularly in the towns and cities. We are all busy now, busy to earn more money at the cost of a loving, sharing and caring community.

The Khasis believe they have no written script or no sacred book because our ancestors had accidentally swallowed the scriptures while crossing a flooded river on their journey en-route to the hills. But the Khasi Pnar does have their own un-written Bible in the form of myths and legends passed on from one generation to another and the holy book also extends to everything around us from the nature to the Universe. And by swallowing the book it also implies that the book becomes part of us. The holy text of the Khasi Pnar dwells in the soul of the individual and therefore the human soul is the ultimate authority in one’s life. It therefore calls on each and every one of us to do a soul searching, to introspect and find out where we have gone wrong and how can we rid off u Thlen from us? (The writer is a scholar, an elder of the Unitarian Church and a columnist) May, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Countdown to 2013: Prospect of regional parties in the state

The clock is ticking and in about 22 months or less than two years time, the state will go to poll again and in some way the next election will be a level playing field in the sense it will be fought on the new reorganized constituencies. Hence even if the various parties are yet to come up with their plan and strategy for the ensuing election, candidates have already done several rounds of visits to the new area to acclimatize themselves with their new constituencies. Having said that, one was reminded of the report that the two regional parties the UDP and the KHNAM already enter into negotiation to at least have a pre-poll alliance if not a merger in the near future. It seems like the regional parties already have their eye on the election and they are preparing for 2013.

Last year the oldest vernacular daily U Nongsain Hima brought out a special issue in commemoration of the newspaper golden jubilee celebration. It was an honour to be asked by the Editorial board of the paper to contribute an article on the subject ‘Is there a future for the regional parties in the state?’ or if I may rephrase the question as ‘do the regional parties in Meghalaya have any future?’ My first point was the fact that the state of Meghalaya was created to fulfill the regional aspiration of the Khasi, the Pnars and the Garos; the desire of the communities to protect their rights, their unique customs and traditions and their expectation to be able to govern themselves according to their hope, dreams and aspiration. Unfortunately somewhere down the line after the goal of having the state created out of then composite state of Assam was achieved, like lion in the pride, the leaders spend their time fighting for the spoilt. That was the beginning of the imminent fall of the all powerful All Party Hills Leader’s Conference (APHLC). Some of the leaders went to join the Congress, while some alpha mail started to created space for themselves and formed new regional parties namely the People’s Demand Implementation Council (PDIC) and Hills State Democratic Party (HSPDP) and still some retain the APHLC (which the leaders of the hill state movement believed they had buried in Mendipahar) albeit in the shadow of its former self. That was the history of the origin of the regional party in the state in a nutshell; but after the unfortunate incidents of leaders tearing apart the colossal hills state movement, there were continued efforts to regroup the fractioned regional parties. One such incident was the three flags alliance (lai lama) a movement to unite the regional parties which culminated to the formation of the new party, the Hills People Union (HPU). Unfortunately the effort became futile because leader like H.S. Lyngdoh of the HSPDP refuse to join in the movement. Then the United Democratic Party (UDP) is again the latest outcome of that effort to unite the regional parties but again this move was unsuccessful not only the HSPDP remain adamant but another faction came out to light in the name of the Meghalaya Democratic Party (MDP).

It is ironic that a United Regional Party is the only answer to the Congress challenge in the state. If the regional parties remain divided; it will only make the Congress’ candidates chances of winning the next election much easier. Since the early history of the state, Congress party is viewed by the people as ‘ka parti dkhar’ even today there is still a large anti-Congress section in the population of the state. Hence a disunited regional party only splits the regional party vote bank and they will also not be able to capitalize on the anti-incumbency factor. Then there is another factor at play here, the National Congress Party (NCP), although the NCP is yet to make it presence in the Khasi, Jaintia and Ri Bhoi District, its candidate can play a spoil sport to either the Congress candidate or the regional party candidate. The only way regional parties can match to the might of the Congress is if they are able to have a pre-poll alliance or better still to unite and the reported move between the KHNAM and UDP is a step in the right direction.

The other argument is UDP being part of the government alliance is going to do more harm than good to the party; the party will share the wrath of the voter and like the Congress it will also be affect by the anti-incumbency factor. By being part of the alliance with a national party which has its own national agenda without discrimination between fellow Indians, the party therefore has to compromise its principle to protect the interest of the indigenous people of the state in the altar of coalition politics. But the factor that will hurt the party the most or rather it should embarrass the party workers is the role the party play in the coalition. In the never ending musical chair game played by the Congress MLA, UDP is playing a second fiddle to the Congress or rather it has become passive participant in the coalition. In the present dispensation the UDP has become like an ever-prepared, always-willing-bride waiting for whoever grooms the Congress bring forth from Delhi and any groom will be fine as long as the party is accommodated in the coalition.

The message the UDP leadership gave by act of commission and omission is also confusing to say the least, at one point of time the leadership were vehemently against the transfer of land to the companies particularly the cement companies and then the same leader gave a statement in the press that he is supporting Lafarge mining in his own constituency. One would expect a seasoned politician like Dr Donkupar to reserve his statement on the subject since the matter in still in the court. One would also expect Dr Don to take into consideration the development in the case that was obviously unfavorable to the company but rather than doing that he chose to support the multinational company which in turn could affect the local indigenous people of the area. The other unique tradition of the people of the indigenous people of the state is their respect for the environment, and one would expect Bindo Lanong minister in charge of mining who is also a leader of a regional party to see that the mineral policy is passed thereby upheld the tradition of the people and protect the environment but he too failed to do so and failed the people.

If the UDP which is a major regional party is hoping to be a strong contender in the 2013 election, they first of all need to relook at the party’s ideology and decide on its future course of action. The need of the hour for the party is also to completely revamp the organization especially in the leadership level. The current leadership has failed the party as common people are now of the impression that the UDP is directionless and it’s only interest is to remain in power come what may. If the report of UDP-KHNAM merger is true, one would expect bah Bindo and bah Don to hand over the mantle to a younger generation the like of bah Paul, bah Ardent and bah John Kharshiing. That will give a new lease of life to the party workers and hope for people of the state who are longing for change. The hope for a united regional party is also brighter given the fact that the HSPDP now looks like a spent force. It leader’s long battle with age now seems to be waning, add to that Reverend Basaiawmoit is now caught in a catch 22 situation, the party’s hope to be a king-maker after the election 2013 is dwindling. In the recent past the party has not been able to have any influence beyond the border of the West Khasi hills; it is therefore in the interest of the aspiration of the major tribes which has driven the hills state movement 4 decades ago and in the interest of the state in general that HSPDP also merge to form a united regional party. A united regional party and only that can pose a challenge to the Congress party; HSPDP also has a young female aspiring politician in the person of Finola Lyngdoh Nonglait who can contribute immensely to the new movement. It is up to the regional parties to rekindle the flame and revive the regional spirit of the hills’ people, if the hills state movement can unite the entire region, what stops the regional party from having its own resurrection? In the light of the recent state Assembly election result, where we see the rise of the regional parties, it is high time for the state regional parties to introspect and decided on their further course of action.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Of Apples and Potatoes

(The article that The Shillong Times did not carry but find space in some other English dailies of the state of Meghalaya)
The statement of my friend Dr Richard Ford of Clark University, New York that ‘all politicians in world are the same, it looks like they all graduate from the same school’ is once again prove right. No matter how highly educated or how refine the person is, he will surely one day show his true colour - that he is politician. The statement made by non-other than a respectable member of the house bah Manas Chaudhury comparing teachers and legislators as potatoes and apples is one such instances that brought to the fore the true colours of a politician.  
I respect bah Manas not because he owns the Shillong Times but because he is one of the most outspoken members of the house and he is also one who speaks sense in the floor of the house, but I fail to understand why he has to justify the enhancement of legislators pay and pension by comparing the politicians as apple and the teachers as potatoes. The question is why comparing them with teachers; why not comparing politicians with engineers, doctors or accountants? I personally do not see the relevance. It is wrong in the first place for bah Manas to rate himself and his comrade in the house. In the interest of justice and fairness he should let somebody else to rate the legislators, how can he ascribe marks in his own report card. Of course there is nothing wrong with the self-aggrandizement; but it is only fair if someone else did the rating let somebody else decide whether politicians are apples, allu or ullu.
The fact that the disparaging comparison between the legislators and the teacher was made by non-other than the former minister of education; also speaks volume about the attitude of the legislators towards the teachers. It reflect our leaders collective attitude towards the teachers, perhaps it is because of this attitude that the legislators have towards the teaching fraternity that teachers has to take to the street even to get the salary which is rightfully theirs- because they are just cheap potatoes. One seldom sees engineers, doctors, accountants or people of other profession having to hit the street to demand their rights, but one sees teacher association of every hues and colours from lower primary level to college level having to hit the street every now and then.
‘Respect cannot be acquired; it has to be earned’ so goes the saying, do the general public respect the politicians? Well; one only has to look back at the recent Anna Hazare movement and the kind of placards or slogans the people carried to arrive at the conclusion whether people in this country respect their politician or not. The most popular placards are those which condemn every politician as corrupt, it is the kind of image people have of their politicians. Although I do not subscribe to the idea that all politicians are corrupt but since majority of them are, I don’t think it is over generalization either. Few good apples will never be able to change the basketful of bad apples, in fact the other way round will happen and in no time we will have a basketful of rotten apples, if I may use bah Manas own analogy. I think it is basically because our politicians has huge respect-deficit that they rely on the artificial factors to impress people of their status by having their vehicle attached with beacon lights, big security presence and a long motorcade to follow them. In fact the longer the convoy of cars that follows the politician, the more the importance is given to the person. As a matter of fact the respect that politicians have is short-lived, and to some extend is artificial, people respect politicians as long as they are in power, once they are defeated, people’s respect for them also fade away.
On the other hand, teachers have the respect of their students as long as they live. On many occasion one can still see elder people; well placed in the society, and if they happened to meet their former teachers they would bow in respect and if one is a smoker one would immediately extinguish his cigarette as a mark of respect.  If I wore a hat, I would immediately remove it from my head if I meet my former teacher, similarly I will remove my hands from my pockets if I am to speak to my teachers. Till now I wish I can repay for what my teachers had done for me but that is not what our teachers expect from us. Like the famous poet I feel, ‘I have a promise to keep and miles to go before I sleep.’ It is said that we cannot compare the trouble our parents has to undergo for our upbringing with our care for them when they are old. When our parents nurture us to grow they raise us to grow and bloom like a flower; they prepare us for the future, but our care for them when they are old is our effort to help them journey towards the end. There is a big different here, the former is the journey of hope and the later is the journey of hopelessness. Like our parent our teachers too; spend their lives to see us grow and become success in our lives and that is their reward. Most of the teachers are not wealthy, but they are happy because they consider the success of their students as their wealth. They smile when the meet their old students and you know that is a genuine smile a smile that says I am happy for you. I don’t think they call teaching a noble profession for nothing, so bah Manas; not only the analogy is wrong but the two professions are incomparable.
I happen to know quite a few former politicians; I was fortunate to live in the same neighbourhood with some of them. I admire late ma Edwinson Bareh, late ma H.E.Pohshna, late ma B.B.Challam and most of all late ma Larsingh Khyriem but I am sorry they did not get the same respect I give my teachers. The present generation of politician needs to work harder to get even close to the respect we gave to the former politicians. Going back to bah Manas analogy how can we compare teachers with politicians from Jaintia hills and call them apples? Some of the MLA have not even graduate ‘kot sim rit’, another is not even matriculate, while one is a mere matriculate and still one only passed his twelve class. Of the 7 MLA representing the district only two hold a bachelor degree and another MLA hold a PhD. Now look at the list of the recently appointed government LP school teachers and one will find that the list not only comprises of majority of teachers with bachelor degree but even few with postgraduate degree. I am sorry bah Manas I beg to disagree, giving a choice; if I have to compare politicians with teachers; I will still hold teachers in high esteem nobody can take that away from them. They are the mother of all the precious stones.
Well as for apple and allu, in Meghalaya apple is the fruit of the rich and a potato not only goes with everything but it is one of the important items in the stable diet of everybody- rich or poor.

Environment talk but no action in Meghalaya

(This article was carried by The Shillong Times (TST) on the 25 of April 2001)

Perhaps it was the first the time in the history of the state Assembly that environment issue popped up for discussion for the maximum number of times during the last sitting of the house. If the recently concluded budget session is to be chronicled in the history of the state, it should be for the reason that environment issue figure in the busy schedule of the house. A member of the august even question the way environment clearance was issued to some cement companies to established their units and mining areas on forested area which is against the Indian Forest act. But the issue of land grabbing by the cement companies is perhaps one subject that took even some of the season MLA by surprise. It was this unpleasant discover that made a major coalition partner of the government to demand for a cabinet order to stop transferring land to any company before the land transfer act is duly amended.  
In fact our MLA should not be surprise of the fact that the entire elaka Narpuh in now in the hand of the prominent cement companies. This writer had once written an article on the editorial page of this paper wherein it was categorically mentioned that in Lumchong village; the only plot of land that the villagers own is where their houses is (The last of the farmers of Lumchnong). This writer had trekked on the entire stretch of the Lukha River from Sunapyrdi (Sunapur) to Khatdum only to find that entire land has been surveyed and mapped and survey marks of many cement companies can be found dotted everywhere which indicates that the land is owned by certain company. I was not surprise to read in a regional newspaper (Guwahati edition) that a certain cement companies has claimed that it now has limestone reserve of more than 300 million tons in Meghalaya. But the big question is not how can a huge plot of land be transferred to a cement companies which is a non-tribal entity, the question is how on earth can these companies exploit the mineral when the entire stretch of land is still covered with green forest! When this question was asked in the house, the honourable minister of Forest Dr. R.C. Laloo’s replied was that the state depends on the information supplied by the JHADC. What technology or expertise does the JHADC has in its disposal to do the job, when even it’s CFO is only a pure science graduate. Why didn’t the government call for remote sensing data from the North East Space Agency in Umiam? The blame for illegal transfer of land to the companies lies squarely on the shoulder of the so called ‘local directors’ of the companies who are paid by the companies to act as a stooge or front for the companies whenever there is a problem with the locals. The modus-operandi is the companies paid their local directors to buy land from the villagers in their names for a song and then transfer the land to the companies and by power of attorney the land is at the disposal of the companies. Many of these local directors cannot even recollect the numbers of land holding that they help acquire for their respective companies. It was a greats relieve to read of the recent government official statement that the present government has decided against permitting any new cement companies in the state, but the question is for how long? Or will this government last for daring to do so?
Once while walking on my way to the church, a young advocate who came out of the DC’s office court in Jowai on his way to the District Council court, while walking along with me (referring to my writer’s-block during his last few months) said, ‘I do not see any of your article lately, anyway the one I like most is about the facebook (I think he meant the article entitled ‘How facebook help save the caves in Nongkhlieh’). My answer to the young man was ‘it is true we have been able to rid off a multinational cement company from creating havoc in the Nongkhlieh area, but I am sorry we have not been able to save Nongkhlieh from the destruction made by our own people’. It is true that coal mining is going on full swing in the elaka Nongkhlieh, very soon the famous caves with all its fantastic formations and the unique cave creatures found only in this area will vanish, and who are we going to blame for allowing this to happen? The buck must stop somewhere and in my opinion the buck stops on the table of the Deputy Chief Minister who is also minister in charge of mining for the delay he made in enacting the Meghalaya mineral policy. Mr Bindo Lanong is to be remembered in the history of the state for allowing the destruction of the caves in the Nongkhlieh ridge, by not doing what he should do. By act of omission he is responsible for the damage and Lanong and his party will have to pay a huge price for this in 2013. Had he been able to enact the draft policy and use a provision in the draft to declared Nongkhlieh ridge as Ecological Sensitive Area (ESA) the caves can still be protect from destruction. But the deputy chief minister chose to keep it pending and sit on it despite the promise he made to make sure the policy sees the light of the day by the beginning of this year. I am afraid by the time, the policy is enact it will be too little too late, as a matter of fact there is not much to save in Jaintia hills even now except for the caves on the Nongkhlieh ridge.
And then there was Salman Khursheed’s clarion call to the miners to stop mining near the river, obviously, nobody will pay heed to what the minister said. I doubt if the minister himself is serious when he made the statement, it looks like the minister made the call just because it is now a day fashionable to talk about preservation and protection of the environment particularly the water bodies of which he is in charge. Even his junior minister seems to have forgotten what his senior said minute after he utter those words; everybody knows that for ma Vincent H. Pala the occasion is only a photo op. It is suicidal for him to speak against mining for it is also like biting the hand that feed.
After visiting many of the big rivers in the district, I wrote an article on the condition of the rivers in Jaintia hills district which was carried by an English monthly magazine published from Shillong (Jaintia hills: the land of the dead rivers) way back in 2007. In Jaintia hills it is easy to count the number of rivers that has not been polluted because there are very few rivers that are still safe for human use; in fact there are only a handful of them. The four major rivers that are still free from pollution are the Myntang, the Mynriang which is a tributary of Myntang, the Umngot and the Mynkhen, these rivers were fortunate enough not to suffer the same fate the other rivers did, simply because there were no mining activity along their courses. Perhaps it is only in Jaintia hills where one can even change the course of the river to enable a person to do mining on the public land. As for Salman Khursheed’s call, well for a start our honourable minister seems to be ignorant of the topography of the land, the fact is no matter where one mines, once the monsoon rain falls, the effluent from the coalmine will gradually flow to the rivers. So it does not matter whether one mine near the river or far away, the sewage will flow downstream, this is a simple law of gravity even a young kid know. Not only active mines cause pollution, even exhausted and abandoned mine continue to cause environment degradation because coal owners do not think it is their responsibility to close the unused mines. 

Many rivers downstream of Kongong and and Phramer including Myntdu has been polluted not because there are mining activity upstream but because Kongong and Phramer are stockyard of coal and water runoff from the area polluted the river downstream. There are coal stockyards everywhere where coal is stored and these stockyards too; cause pollution. So, it is not as simple as Salman Khusheed think it is, pollution is not only from the active mines.
What is the government waiting for? Or rather what is the honourable Deputy Chief Minister Bindo Lanong waiting for? Another Anna Hazare like agitation? The department already has the mandate of the stake holders which include mine owners, environmentalist and the District Councils to go ahead with the policy, why delay?