Sunday, June 24, 2012

Time to protest is here again

Why is it that the election in the state is always preceded by protests? Is there any connection between the two? Or is it sheer coincidence that Meghalaya is now going to experience a numbers of protests and agitations organized by various NGOs and even by individuals and politicians? What is the reason behind the unexpected resurgence of protests and agitations during pre-election time?
The question with regards to the inter-state border dispute is; is it because of the Government’s lackadaisical attitude towards tackling vital issues which has been the bone of contention between Assam and Meghalaya for more than four decades now? And in matters relating to People with Disabilities, could it also be because of Government’s insensitive attitude towards the plight of the PWDs that the Government has time and again failed in its duty to provide PWDs their rights? What about the non-native voters’ enrolment process? What has the committee constituted to look into the matter done so far? Has it been able to come up with suggestion(s) to address the issues raised by the NGOs?
Last week, physically challenge people protested against the government’s attitude towards their problem, by taking to the streets in the State capital. If this State still has a soul, the protest whereby physically challenged people literarily took to the streets, should make this Government ashamed of its failure to address the problem of this very vulnerable section of the society. The photograph on the front-page of many newspapers of physically challenged citizens of this state crawling and walking with crutches, sticks and on wheelchairs in the streets of Shillong will be one image that will remain in public memory for a very long time. Many had tears welling in their eyes; others wept to see the plight of the disabled. It pains the heart to see PWDs march in protest for what is rightfully theirs. Why did they have to take to the streets to demand their rights? The Government should treat this section of the society with special care and see that rights and privileges due to them are fulfilled. But this is easier said than done. It takes days for PWDs to even get their identity cards and they have to move from pillar to posts to even get one (this is from a person who has helped people with disability get their ID). Then another vital question is how many PWDs are registered and how many of them are yet to be properly registered and provided with identity cards? Then there are government schemes or loans from the bank which is supposed to help PWDs gain employment, but it will be interesting if the Government tries to collect information of how many PWDs avail the loan? I tried helping 2 PWDs to avail loans from the bank, but had to abandon the idea when the bank asked them to provide names of government employees who are willing to stand surety for them. How many people in the village have relatives working in the Government? If the Government really wants to help PWDs, it should do away with the section on the form which has to do with the need of a guarantor for them to avail a loan. Why can’t the government stand surety for them? This column has highlighted the Government’s approach towards people with disability when the State Government did not even recognize Bertha Dkhar’s achievements of putting the Khasi alphabets in Braille.
The Assam-Meghalaya border dispute is an issue which is as old as the State itself. The issue known to the people as Block I and Block II has been hanging in the balance for so long. Politicians come and go and in Jaintia hills their brag of breaking the 12 machines lock (tala khat-ar kor) or solving the border disputes are but clanging of the cymbals. At one point of time certain politicians went to Khainduli/Khanduli and dismantled the border pillar put up by the then Assam government and brought a piece of the pillar to Jowai. A public meeting was held in the evening at the Loompyrdi Yongpiah hall and after the meeting the piece was left in the hall and the people of Jowai jokingly said that Assam-border with Meghalaya now starts from Loompyrdi Yongpiah hall. Is the boundary dispute with Assam again going to be an election gimmick which will provide politicians with an opportunity to shout empty rhetoric and fool the people once again? Many protests and agitations have been organized by various NGOs to demand that the Government solve this long pending problem; but so far no Government has been able to do so.
The Congress party in the state has once again missed the opportunity to solve the interstate border problem once and for all by not being able to capitalise on the rare occasion when the same party is in power in the two contending states and in Delhi. But perhaps the Congress does not want to solve the boundary dispute with Assam. It remains to be seen whether the planned agitation by the NGOs and individuals will be able to pressure the government to solve the boundary dispute, and another pertinent question is; does this government still have the time on its side to address the issue before the State goes to polls in 2013? The threat made by a young man from the Langpih area to take the recourse of fast unto death from June 30 onwards to pressure the State Government to come up with solutions to the problem is something that the Government has to take into consideration and cannot simply brush aside as a non issue.
The threat of the NGOs protest against the enumeration of doubtful voters in the state electoral roll also looms large over the state’s skyline. The Government is in a Catch-22 situation; whichever decision the Government makes is not going to be an easy one. If the government tries to please the NGOs, then it has to be against the election rules and vice versa.
But there is a silver lining in the dark sky. In spite of the threat of protests and agitations in the state, the people of Meghalaya can find consolation in the fact that the kinds of agitation the protestors have in the pipeline are not going to be the usual strike which hits the poor section of the society the hardest. The lone agitator on the Langpih issue plans to protest by going on a fast unto death; this is an honourable protest which will not affect the people in general. Then the protest planned by the NGOs and some individuals against the government’s failure to come up with solution to the vexed non-native voter’s enrolment process is also not going to affect the movement of the public as such. Are we seeing a change in the kinds of agitations that NGOs organize? If this is the shape of things to come then may be bandhs, road blockades, picketing are now consigned to the history books and the NGOs are embarking on new methods of agitations which are not going to affect the general public.
Whatever protest or strikes lined up for the state will definitely give the powers that be more sleepless nights. And can the protests and strike impact the prospects of the parties in power in the ensuing general election to the State assembly? Does election and pre-election protests have any connection?

Gambling through archery (‘Thoh tim’) and interpretation of dreams

Very often we associate ‘thoh tim’ with gambling and yes without the slightest doubt thoh-tim is a game of chance, but it is more than a number guessing game. It would be interesting to know how long the Khasi Pnar people have been practicing this game of chance. Perhaps very few know that this game also has some connection with the Khasi- Pnar’s milieu of interpretation of dreams. An uncle of mine, who represented NEHU at the University game somewhere in Punjab, told me that while in Punjab one CRPF personnel who was earlier posted in Shillong, on seeing the inscription NEHU, Shillong, on his tracksuit, approached him and exchanged pleasantries with him. But in course of the small talk the policeman told his fellow policemen, “In Meghalaya the State from where this man comes from (pointing his index finger at my uncle) if you are lucky to dream a good dream you have the opportunity to win big money.
In the seventies during our childhood days my parents owned a cloth shop at Yawmusiang market of Jowai. Those days in the entire district and even in the State readymade garments were not so popular; so every dress was made by the local tailor. There were women seamstresses for tailoring female dresses while men made dresses for males. So the local cloth store was also a tailoring shop. My father employed two tailors in our shop named Join and Moor and since both my parents were also working in the shop there was nobody in the house to look after me and my siblings. So we were taken to the shop every day. I remember that every morning as soon as we reached the shop, the first thing that both the tailors would do was to ask us, “What did you dream last night? (ym em u ymphoo mi?) And if the answer was in affirmative then we were asked to tell them the entire dream and they would then interpret the same and convert it to numbers for playing Thoh-tim.
I learned from them that in the Khasi Pnar tradition of interpretation of dreams, each individual is represented by a number. If one dreams of an ordinary Khasi Pnar man the number is 6 while a woman is represented by the number 5. The number 4 signifies blood. Four is ‘saw’ (pronounced saaw) in Khasi and since ‘saw’ also means red, the colour of blood, so 4 gets its meaning thereby. The number 7 is for a non tribal and 9 is the number for death. If one dreams of teeth the number is 3, and water is represented by 8, the number for money is also 8. All animal’s are numbered 7 except for the elephant whose number is 9. If one dreams of an elder like the daloi the number is 9 and a car is also represented by number 8. These are but few examples of the numbers used by the Khasi-Pnars to interpret dreams for playing the game of Thoh-tim.
There are instances where the numbers was arranged to rhyme with the incidents or the items it represents. For example number 4 ‘saw and soo’ in Pnar rhymes with ‘mynsaw in Khasi and mynsoo’ in Pnar; hence 4 is chosen when an accident or something which has blood in it occurs. It is the same with money ‘pisa or poisa’ and number 8 ‘phra’ was chosen because it rhymes with the above words. It reminds me of the time when as a young boy I tried to listen to my father’s tailors debate on our dreams. If the dream is about a woman who met with an accident the number to be played is 54 or 45, number 4 for accident and 5 for woman and if it is a man who met with an accident the number 64 or 46 and if it is a non tribal, the number is 74 or 47. The number for a dead man is 69 or 96 and dead woman is 59 or 95 and a dead non tribal is 79 or 97 and if one dreams of a man and a woman the number is 65 or 56.
Recalling the days gone by, I understand that for the people who play Thoh tim it was a pastime which gave them some money if they were lucky. During those days there was very little or no entertainment in the towns and villages in the region. Initially the game was organized privately. Later Thoh tim was considered illegal. Later on the government legalised the gambling game of Thoh-tim and that was also when it became commercialised. In Jowai the game was uniquely organized in such a way that localities like Loomyongkjam, NGOs like the Kiang Nangbah Iasiat Khnam Memorial Fund and even individuals were allotted a day of the week to organize the game. But once the state laid its hands on the game, Thoh-tim was no longer part of culture. It became pure and simple gambling. Later it became a bad habit that was difficult to get rid of. Some became addicts of the game. This compelled lyricists to compose the popular folk song, ‘La shet u 57′ (betrayed by number 57, meaning that the person invested his all on the number but lost)
Perhaps if one understands Thoh-tim and the number associated to it then one can also have a little insight into numerology or people’s understanding of numbers and its usage in the Khasi Pnar tradition. For instance we already see the link between the number 9 and the dead and their abode. But then when we call the Khasi Hills ‘Ka Ri ki laiphew (30) Syiem,’ it does not mean that there were precisely 30 chieftainships only in the Khasi hills. The number 30 is associated with something that is uncountable or innumerable because we also say, ‘Ki laiphew mrad’ which means innumerable numbers of animals. Then there is also something unexplainable with way the Khasi Pnar use the number 12, we say ‘Ki rang khat-ar (12) bor’, ‘ki 12 daloi’, ’12 snem pynthiah,’ ’12 snem lynti’ and so on and so forth. The Khasi Pnar’s understanding and usage of numbers is an interesting study that one could pursue.
It would be interesting if the department of folk studies of the Universities in the state conduct a study on this unique tradition of the Khasi Pnar. Where did the tradition of Thoh-tim start? Was it Jwai or Shillong? When did the Khasi Pnar first play the game of Thoh-tim? If Thoh-tim has its origins among the Khasi Pnar, then how did our ancestors link the game of archery which is another favourite pastime game of the Khasi Pnar with dreams and numbers? And the most important element is the interpretation of the dreams to numbers. How are incidents, individuals and other parts of human life linked to the numbers? There are still a few elderly individuals who gather everyday at Yawiongpiah, Loompyrdi, Jowai who still while away their time interpreting dreams and converting them to numbers to play the game of Thoh-tim. Unlike the now big time players in Jowai and Shillong who play with big money, these few individuals still play the game the usual way they used to a long time ago. They do not buy big stakes. Unlike the big time players who spend a lot of money in the game and are sometimes accused of manipulate the game in their favour, the elderly individuals play the game just for the sake of playing it.

Its about protecting the environment

By HH Mohrmen
Since the incident of my being detained at the Laitumkhrah Police Station was reported in the press, one out of every ten people I meet would greet me differently. Even before enquiring about my health, which is customary practice in Khasi Pnar society, the first question that people ask me is, “What happened to the case?” Some would venture a wee bit further and ask, “Has anything happened to you after that incident?” Well, there were also letters and articles of support and my name or the unfortunate incident found mention in many articles, speeches in seminars, debates and even panel discussions and I am grateful for the generous support. But all the efforts of trying to bring to light the adverse effects of unregulated mining on the environment will be futile if instead of debating the real issue, the unfortunate incident takes precedence.
The issue is about the government ensuring sustainable use of mineral resources and protecting the environment and not about anything else. As we debate about the need to immediately enact regulatory mechanisms to regulate and monitor mining activities in the state, our environment is being destroyed day in and day out. And if the current rate and the free for all mining system that is being practiced in the state continues, many more rivers will be polluted and larger tracts of land will be in danger of becoming deserts. The threat of the earth caving in is imminent in the mining areas. The Shillong Times June 13 issue carried a report of coal being mined in the area where the famous stone bridge on the river Thlu-mu-wi near Chkentalang village stands. The Stone bridge is not only the remnant of the monolithic culture of the Khasi Pnar society which falls in the ‘mawpoon, or mawkjat’ category of the different types of monoliths that we have, but the same is under the protection of the Archeological Survey of India and a signpost to that effect is found dotted all over the place in that area. But that does not deter the coal miners in the area from mining even in the heart of an important heritage site.
The mawpun at Thlu-mu-wi is one of the many stone bridges on the ancient trail which starts from Nartiang the summer capital of the Jaintia Monarch to Jaintiapur which is the winter seat of the Kingdom and the fact that the bridge is on the Jowai-Amlarem-Dawki road and the miners still continue with the illegal activity in broad daylight is astounding to say the least. Where is the law enforcement agency in the Amlarem Sub Division? On the same day a prominent vernacular paper carried another story relating to mining and it was about the collapse of a portion of the National Highway 44. Part of the National Highway 44 in the Wapung Chnong area in front of the petrol station caved-in and the land owner immediately hired a JCB and two dumpers to fill the huge crack. Without obtaining any permission from the Executive Engineer PWD central division, Jowai or even informing the authorities concerned, the landowner adjacent to the road took it upon himself to fill the cracks on the road before anybody from the government could see it. The effort to fill the portion of the road which collapsed was to cover up for the mining that is going on under the ground horizontally and which has reached the portion of the road and caused the side of the road to cave-in.
A few days later newspapers reported the findings of the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board with regards to the mass death of fishes in the river Kynshi. The report has clearly stated that it has evidence to prove that the cause of the death of fishes in the river of West Khasi Hills District was due to the contamination from the acidic runoff from the coal mines in the area. Ironically I had predicted that the rivers in the coal mine areas of West Khasi Hills will suffer the same fate as that of the rivers in Jaintia Hills, in the same article where an FIR was filed against me, but it is sad that this happened so soon. While the government is yet to decide on the fate of the State Mining Policy, mining is being carried on in the area where there are exotic and famous caves of Meghalaya. Who will be responsible for the loss of these unique caves and cave systems some of which are yet to be properly surveyed and mapped. We should thank the Meghalaya Adventurers’Association (MAA)for mapping and photographing much of the cave systems in the state and even filming them. These photographs and films will be the only evidence of the presence of these extraordinary caves in the state that we will be able to pass on to our children!
Funnily the Dorbar Shnong has now become an expert in mining. They are now the authority to permit mining in the area under the village’s jurisdiction. Take the example of Nongtalang village which has a headman who is not even a high school graduate and whose position as the headman is only by virtue of the tradition that the Lyngdoh of the Niam Tynrai in the village will also be the headman. He along with the local committee arbitrarily decided to allow lime stone mining in the area. One wonders if the village elders have consulted any expert in area of mining and environment to arrive at a conclusion that mining will not have any adverse effects on the environment. Nongtalang is also a peculiar village in the sense that large tract of land are still owned by very few clans and they call themselves ‘the Jamindars.’ The Jamindar inherited the thick green forests from their ancestors who have kept it intact. But the present generation has decided to lease it for mining to the highest bidder. The tradition of keeping the land for the future generation has been done away with by the present generation of Jamindars and unlike their ancestors they have leased out the land without thinking of the future generation.
The absence of the mining policy is one reason that the mining in the state is in a complete mess and there is chaos everywhere. But having ineffective government agencies has only add fuel to the fire. The office of the SDO Civil Sub Division which is supposed to ensure that the law of the land prevails in the area turned a Nelson’s eye to all illegal activities going on in the mining areas in the Amlarem sub division. The miner use explosive in the mines, and the explosives are illegally procured. The question is, isn’t the office of the SDO by its act of omission also party to the illegal act?
The Chief Forest Officer of the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council, has also by his act of omission failed to stop the illegal cutting of trees which is a breach of the court order and thereby liable to be booked for contempt of court. The State Forest Department Jaintia hills too has not done anything to stop the clearing of large forest areas for limestone mining which is again in contravention of the National Forest Act. The Office of the SDO Civil Sub Division Amalrem Sub Division needs to put its act together and see that the law of the land prevails in the area and the government of day should see that the environment is protected.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Plugging the loopholes of state revenue collection

Meghalaya generates very meager resources; hence the need to rush to the national capital to seek funds for any development programme. Even with centrally funded schemes like the MGNREGS, National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) etc, the state government is often reported to be trying to convince the centre to do away with the state’s share of the programme or to at least consider Meghalaya as a special case and change the funding pattern with respect to the state. The argument more often than not is because Meghalaya is a poor state which on its own can generate little revenue.
It was also reported that the State Government had some months ago sent some of its MLAs to Gujarat to learn from the Narendra Modi government on ways and means to increase revenue collection in the state through the integrated check gate system. Till date, the citizens of the state are yet to hear anything from the MLAs who visited Gujarat, but, while the people of the state are waiting for the report and recommendation of the MLAs who had visited Gujarat, we might as well look into and examine the way the Meghalaya Transport Department weighbridge at Ynniaw-mer is run. This particular weighbridge caters to the needs of the largest numbers of trucks exporting coal and lime stone from the State. This particular weighbridge in Jaintia hills is perhaps one of the busiest in the State. It is busy because it weighs not only trucks which carry coal, lime stone and now even half-finished cement products to Guwahati, but more importantly it is also responsible for weighing trucks which export coal to Bangladesh.
Any thinking commuter on the National Highway from Ynniaw-mer to Guwahati would question the accuracy of the process of weighing on that weigh-bridge and whether it really permits only trucks which carry load up to the permissible limit of nine tons as per the Supreme Court (SC) directives. If this weigh-bridge were to have strictly implemented the SC directives then how can truck drivers still sell excess coal from their trucks to coal vendors on the national highway 44 starting from Yalong village in Jaintia Hills to villages in Ri Bhoi District? If the official manning the weighbridge allow trucks carrying only the specified weights to pass through then the question is where does the excess coal come from? Talking about efforts to plug the loss of revenue that is due to the State, this is perhaps one of the weighbridges that needs to improve on its revenue collection, but the question is whether the government is willing to do that?
This column has time and again mentioned about the overloaded trucks that carry coal from Lad Rymbai to Bangladesh despite the fact that all the trucks carrying coal to Bangladesh are weighed at the Ynniaw-mer weighbridge. The truth that the overloaded coal laden trucks are exporting coal, limestone and boulders to Bangladesh without hassles was confirmed by the recent letter of the Superintendent of the Land Customs Station at Dawki, Jaintia Hills which was copied to all the exporters’ organizations in the area. The Superintendent as per letter no C.No.VIII (48) 5/CUS/LS/DK/04/123-125 dated 24/5/2012 has categorically stated that the Land Custom Stations in the area on both the Indian and Bangladesh side of the border has found that there are incidents of trucks carrying loads beyond the specified 9 tons limit permitted by the Court. Now, again the same question arises, if all the trucks carrying coal to Bangladesh were properly weigh at the same Ynniaw-mer weigh-bridge, there would be no need for the Superintendent of the Land Customs to even send this letter to the exporters in the area. The letter, a copy of which was also send to the General Secretary of the Foreign Trade and Commerce Meghalaya, Secretary Meghalaya International Exporters Chambers of Commerce, Dawki, Jaintia Hills and President of the War Jaintia Limestone, Boulder, Exporter Miners Association, Dawki has informed that the office of the LCS has received a complaint from the District Forest Officer, Jaintia Hills, the Directorate of Mineral Resources, Meghalaya that the officer in the station allows trucks to pass through this custom station carrying load beyond the 9 tons limit ordered by the court. The Superintendent has in the letter sought the support of the coal, limestone and boulder to regulate and streamline coal, lime stone and boulder exported from this station. Information about this letter was first brought to light by a premier vernacular daily of the state.
The illegal operation as noted by the Superintendent of the Dawki LCS has brought huge loss to the state government in terms of taxed from the minerals exported from this port. Each truck carries more than double the 9 tons capacity while carrying papers claiming that the load the truck carries is only 9 tons. The question is how can this happen and why was this allowed to happen? Why did the district administration turn a blind eye to the illegal trade that has brought immeasurable loss to the state exchequer? What about the police? They are very prompt and active in implementing the hounourable Supreme Court order prohibiting cars from using tinted glasses but have done nothing to stop this looting of the state resources (which is again another of the Supreme Court’s directive), thereby depriving the State the revenue that is due to the public exchequer?
The whole Indo-Bangla trade from Dawki LCS has not generated as much revenue to Meghalaya as it should have done. In fact the way the manner in which trade is conducted through this station causes more revenue loss. The trucks load more than double the 9 tons capacity but the tax paid is only for 9 tons. This is the case with all the minerals exported from Ynniaw-mer weigh bridge which includes coal, limestone and boulders. The reason is because the dots throughout the route on which the trucks travel, starting from Lad Rymbai area to the Dawki port are well connected. From the person who mans the weighbridge to the police in Jowai, Amlarem and Dawki, the DMR, the custom officials and the police officer in the Tamabil gate- it is a very well-oiled machine running smoothly with clockwork precision. No wonder then that despite the fact that the term of contract allotted to the firm which runs the weighbridge now at Ynniawm-mer is over, the government is yet to call on a fresh tender for the same. When everything runs hassle-free to achieve one sole objective, it makes one wonder how this can happen. I am not implying anything but is this not a case of short-selling the State? And if the whole system is so well connected than are the big-wigs in the Government including the chief minister not aware of this broad daylight looting of the State’s legitimate resources?
If the government is really interested in generating revenue for the state, it need not send MLAs to Gujarat. All it has to do is to apply its minds and send the MLAs to all the weigh-bridges and toll gates in the state and let them observe what is going on in the weigh-bridge and toll gates and maybe even the entire route and report on the ways and means to improve revenue collection from the toll gates and the weighbridges. But the question is who will bell the cat? Or rather allow me to rephrase the question. ‘Is there anybody in the government who dare’s to bite the hand that feeds?’ (The author is a researcher and an environmental activist)