“The new political gospel: public office is private graft” (Mark Twain)
It was not a coincidence that fifty years ago a few public servants were alleged to have drink the Royal Salute which is the expensive whiskey then and toady another public servant bought the most expensive car, the Lamborghini, which cost crores of rupees. It does not matter whether the Royal Salute or Lamborghini was bought from one’s own pocket or not, but what matter is that in both instances the public servants are involved. While way back in the 1970s the income per capita of an average citizen in the State was Rs 327/ which was the lowest and now in 2022 the Government could not pay the ASHA volunteers, Mid-day Meal workers, SSA teachers et al their dues, but the public servants have no qualms about showing off their wealth.
Tucked away under the mighty Himalayas, Meghalaya and its people are known for their simplicity and hospitality. However, simplicity does not connote meekness and that the tribals and other inhabitants cannot be taken for granted. The two basic tenets of tribal society of Meghalaya are, “kamai ia hok” and “tipbriew tipblei”. The former represents the idea of earning a livelihood through just and righteous means or by the sweat of one’s brows and the latter can be translated to mean a society which respects fellow human beings and its Creator. The society is said to be founded on the profound ethical principles of Justice and Equality.
Between 1972 and 2022, just a span of five decades, there emerged the two narratives of Royal Salute and Lamborghini. Perhaps, these narratives are also the manifestations of the insensitivities of the political class and the sharp rise of inequality in the State in which we keep on denying. Apparently, since the last few decades the political space in Meghalaya has been occupied by people whose sole objective is to engage in profit making business and they are also being facilitated by individuals or families with political lineage. While the stakes in politics and governance are brazenly high, the future and lives of the citizens get compromised and rendered valueless.
It was a Sunday, the 27 February 2022, and late in the afternoon the people in the City of God (s) witnessed the shiny red car sped through the localities. Instantly, people thought that it was one of those modified cars with exhaust silencer that sounds like a Ferrari, which Shillong is also known for. Only when the picture of a Lamborghini went viral in social media platform did we realize that what we saw in the afternoon on the streets is the genuine Lamborghini and it belongs to the Transport Minister Government of Meghalaya. What ensued was the barrage of critical comments in the social media and in some Facebook groups the responses tend to take an intra tribal communal turn that the hardworking and rich “pnar” is being criticized unfairly. Moreover, the other usual “don burom” or polite respond that the citizens are jealous of him and that he deserves the Lamborghini as he is the hardworking businessman.
In the period of fifty years there were sundry reported scams which had plaque the State, from irregularities in Health Department (The Massar Committee Report) to Housing (CGI sheets) to unscrupulous mining and illegal transportation of coal which has cost the State dearly, while on the other hand the citizens are struggling to make ends meet. Although, the State is rich in mineral resources but the concerned Department is plaquing with revenue loss every year. The Mining and Geology Department which is one of the biggest revenue generators in the State is suffering from serious deficiencies which has resulted in huge loss of revenue. The Auditor General had repeatedly and categorically stated that the Department needs an Internal Audit and monitoring system, but the Government pays no heed and no attempts were made to rectify the system. The revenue loss is due to various reasons -(i) under reporting of export of coal (ii) under assessing and non-realization of tax/royalty and (iii) systemic deficiencies. According to the CAG report 2018, “the systemic failure in preventing illegal transportation of coal out of the State resulted in loss of revenue amounting to nearly Rs 300 crores from 2013 to 2014 and 2017 to 2018”. On the other hand, the Citizens Report (2018-19) on the curse of coal mining has estimated that nearly Rs 1000 crores were loss in illegal mining and illegal transportation of coal. The hundred or thousand crores rupees which had been loss in revenue collection could have enabled the State to build state of the art public hospitals, public schools, colleges and universities, to give free health care and education etc to all citizens.
In the recent days we witnessed two massive protests by the SSA teachers and the ASHA volunteers respectively, who took to the streets to rightfully expressed their plight and sufferings. Both the Unions are essentially demanding that the Government must immediately release their unpaid dues which had been pending for months. It is appalling that the Government in her own wisdom decided to release the salary of SSA teachers for October and November 2021 only which will amount to Rs 58 crores. The teachers will have to wait for the rest or perhaps will have to hit the streets again as their unpaid dues get accumulated from month to month. Also, the ASHA volunteers were asked to wait till the month of June and no one is certain that their demands will be met. This ad-hoc arrangement or patch work tactic is unwelcoming. In Meghalaya nothing happens for the poor citizens, whereas the rich and the well-connected are being pampered by the State. Moreover, the wealth which is being generated from the shared resources are concentrated in the hands of a few and the gulf which separates the rich from the poor is getting bigger. In the near future, this may cause socio-political unrest and destroy the distinct communitarian social fabric of tribal society beyond recovery.
From the Royal Salute to Lamborghini and Bah Bindo’s golden reminder that Professor G.G Swell was highly critical of the then State Ministers of Meghalaya who spent lavishly on the most expensive whiskey. Today, the common citizens of the State are also making sharp and legitimate criticisms against the Lamborghini narrative.
However, the challenge must not end here, we have to take it further and provide a strong and sound alternative narrative. The new narrative should be a peoples’ narrative which originates from ground up, from various social movements and interfaces. The new narrative must speak the language- (i) of sharing, and that wealth must be shared equally and equitably amongst the people. (ii) of inter- generational equity, and that natural resources and mineral deposits must not be unscrupulously extracted and plundered for selfish gains, but preserved so as to sustain the generations to come. (iii) of respect, in spite of sharp differences and that inter-community and intra-community interfaces will override suspicion and prevent communal violence. (iv) of integrity and probity in governance and politics (v) of solidarity, and to empathize with the “anawim, the fallen and the weak. (vi) of hope, and that the new world is possible.
That the people’s narrative must challenge the profit and business driven politics as expounded by a few families. It is a great misnomer that a certain class/section owns or possesses not just the natural but the political landscapes as well and we must take them on. The walls of corruption and crassness must be broken down and the monopoly of a few must stop and it can happen only if we act together. The Biblical metaphor of the city of Jericho (Joshua 6:1-27) can be aptly used in our challenge. According to Joshua, “…And it happened when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with great shout, that the wall fell down flat…” The walls of Jericho fell after the people marched around the city walls once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day then they blew their trumpets.
By Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh