Blues of Green

Imagine capital Shillong at 5000 feet elevation having to pump water from the mighty Brahmaputra in the plains of Assam in future! This is a very remote possibility. But a situation even somewhere nearby can spell doom for Shillong-like townships sitting at a higher altitude. What governments are focusing on is reaching more and more houses with water pipes to quench thirst of rapidly increasing urban population. But there is hardly any visible effort to ensure these pipes have water to reach the homes. Catchment areas in and around cities are depleting fast, thanks to the uncontrolled urbanisation. Shillong is no different.

Shillong, unlike other hill towns of North-east, has a lot of greenery left. One of its main reasons is existence of a number of defence establishments. The Eastern Air Command (EAC) headquarters which has covered hundreds of hectares of land in Upper Shillong has protected a huge catchment area above the capital city. There are other force headquarters like Assam Regiment, Gorkha Regiment and 101 Area of the Army, Assam Rifles, BSF and CRPF in the city. Having huge amount of land these forces can afford to keep most part of their campus green, using only small portion for building purpose. They deserve kudos for it. On the other hand, civilian groups keep on demanding removal of the forces from the city so that those areas could be used for ‘development’. These demands sound very bad music for the forces’ officials for whom Shillong is a very good posting without much to worry about. No doubt, they are always on the expansion mode, in Shillong.

The army’s alleged move to fell hundreds of trees in Raid Laban area of Shillong is condemnable. Besides being a violation of an earlier high court order, the defence authorities must have the basic knowledge of the need for protection of catchment area. The area concerned falls in Lum Shyllong, a critical catchment area, the birth place of several streams and rivers that flow through Khasi Hills before reaching the plains of Bangladesh and Assam. Even compensatory tree plantation in other places cannot repair the damage to be caused by the alleged housing project of the army. Government’s early attention on the issue is the need of the hour.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on March 31, 2017)

Passenger Trucks

Two back-to-back accidents involving ‘passenger’-carrying trucks in Meghalaya have brought to limelight the poor transport facilities in the developing world. Be it Africa or any developing Asian nations, trucks carrying people in the open is a common sight. In India, trucks are the only mode of transport for crores of poor villagers. Either there is no facility of bus, let alone car, or they cannot afford the fare. Trucks, which are meant for carrying goods only, ferry people in the rural areas at very cheap cost. Although it is not illegal – at least police don’t prevent trucks carrying people in rural areas – there is no insurance cover for such ‘passengers’.

Nearly 20 people were killed and dozens injured in the two accidents at Nongspung in West Khasi Hills and Raja Ronggat in South Garo Hills of Meghalaya. In the truck at Nongspung, there were nearly 80 ‘passengers’ going to attend a church service. Even if the truck owner takes half the fare from each passenger, he is likely to make more money than a bus which cannot carry so many people as there are seats occupying space as well! Even picnickers from rural areas sometimes board the truck instead of a bus. While most of these places do not have the bus service, truck is preferred due to the low fare.

The casualty, 17, in the mishap at Nongspung would not have been so high had it been a bus. The over-speeding truck hit the concrete road barrier, but stayed on the road upright, while all the passengers tossed off the truck into the gorge. The government is taking care of treatment of the injured people and in the process of providing ex gratia to the families of the deceased. But there is no word on checking the trend of trucks carrying passengers. It is a very difficult task, but a beginning has to be made somewhere to prevent such casualties. More government bus services in these areas can be a solution. There also must be police vigilance on such passenger-carrying trucks.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on March 4, 2017)

House Show-off

Meghalaya legislative assembly has proved how powerful an MLA is. A bureaucrat was compelled to bow before the 60-member House for breach of privilege of a member. The former chief executive officer of Tura Municipal Board (TMB) Zenithsky Sangma lodged FIRs against MLA John Leslee K Sangma in February 2015 accusing him of interfering in the matters of TMB besides disrupting an officer from conducting his official duties in the town. Following this, the legislator lodged a complaint with the Privilege Committee seeking action into the false allegations against an elected member of the Assembly lowering his dignity as a member. John Leslee admitted to have objected to the Board forcing traders to move in to a new building in the absence of a proper parking lot but that he did not instigate the traders.

There are a number of allegations against the political leaders coming up every day. Dozens of FIRs are perhaps lodged against politicians every day in the country. While some of these allegations are genuine some are false or partly true. But there is hardly any instance of an accuser in a ‘false’ allegation being made to seek apology in front of an entire legislative assembly, in front of live cameras. The exception here is that the accuser is a bureaucrat, meaning servant of government. Although he is a servant of the people who elect the MLAs, his apology has not carried the message that the he said sorry to the people. The only message it gave was the ‘power’ of an MLA. In guise of ‘breach of privilege’, the House actually showed off its power and almost scared and humiliated the entire bureaucratic class.

The House was so prepared to get an apology, which the chief minister said happened once in 1972-73, a dock was built for the particular purpose. The former SMB chief stood on the dock like a criminal and bowed to all the MLAs and said, “I profoundly and sincerely express my apology to John Leslee K Sangma and to the members of the privilege committee and this House.” Even hardened criminals who surrender to join ‘mainstream’, are not compelled to face such embarrassment. The MLA, if so offended, could have taken legal course against the official by filing defamation suit or whatever legal provision is available. He would have been less embarrassed. This has actually set a precedence which would prevent sincere bureaucrats from pointing out mistake of their political bosses. The MLAs also now run the risk of being misled by or ignored by the bureaucrats. Had one single MLA been compelled to seek public apology for his or her misdeeds.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on March 25, 2017)

The Infamous Inn

Police dilemma in acting promptly in high profile cases is blatantly caught once again in Meghalaya. The Marvelene’s Inn at Rilbong in Shillong is not yet sealed just because it belongs to the family of home minister HDR Lyngdoh. Although it is registered in the name of his son, who is too young to own such a posh property, the person behind pulling the strings is obvious. Almost every MLA in Meghalaya is into own business, albeit in the name of wives, children, relatives and friends. The critical case of the Inn in view of its owner may also have restricted the police in going all out against other places of ‘entertainment’ that were named by a 14-year-old girl who was sexually exploited by many including militant leader turned MLA Julius Dorphang. Julius currently being lodged in jail is a saving grace for HDR as the former could spill the beans, if any, once he comes out.

Prostitution – banned or not – exists everywhere in the world. It is an urban phenomenon. For its prevalence, it does not matter if a country or city is rich or poor. There are over a thousand ‘active’ prostitutes in Shillong. Obviously, they have to get places to ‘work’. The ‘customers’ ranging from teenagers to middle-aged married men, the latter’s homes are not an ideal location while most prostitutes live in rickety houses. That leaves both the parties to hunt for hotels and guest houses, which have all the amenities and ‘ambience’. The hoteliers don’t mind as such clients hire the room only for a few hours keeping the vacancy open for the day. On most occasions, the customers book the room and the prostitutes come as ‘guest’. But when the client frequents the same hotel it becomes increasingly difficult for the management to entertain him as police might suspect seeing the name of same person in the entry register, which the hotel is bound to submit to police every day. Then comes the nexus with the hotel management, which also allegedly happened in case of Marvelene’s Inn. Such ‘special’ clients are allowed entry without having to enter their names in the register. It works both ways, for the clients as well as the hotel.

The home minister’s statement pleading innocence about anything that have gone wrong in the guest house holds little water especially when several prostitutes already divulged police about frequenting the Inn. Most suspicious is police not getting custody of the arrested manager was lying in the hospital bed for ‘illness’ before beings sent to judicial custody. It would not have happened had he been the manager of any other erring inn. It remains to be seen if more skeletons would come out of the cupboard or this case would be another victim of police reluctance in going against high profile people as it happened with the infamous white ink scam involving the then education minister Ampareen Lyngdoh.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on March 24, 2017)

Uranium Imbroglio

Reports of hazard of uranium mining could not be untrue. Most of the reports are from Jaduguda in Jharkhand where the first uranium mining took place in the 1960s. The reports of human health hazards could be the impact of mining from those days or a few decades later. There is a vast shift in the technology of mining since. Although uranium as an ore or a radioactive material remained the same, technology must have been developed over the years to reduce human exposure to it. While the property of uranium cannot be changed and would remain as hazardous as it was, technology can reduce the radioactivity impact, the main concern in Meghalaya. The other concern is the nuclear waste to be generated from the processing plant.

As the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) has not yet planned any nuclear power plant in Meghalaya, there is no accidental hazard about which the entire world is worried. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster many western countries have decided to phase out nuclear power. Germany has permanently shut down eight of its 17 reactors and pledged to close the rest by the end of 2022. Italy already stopped all its nuclear power plants. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new reactors.

However, developing and populous countries like India and China are still going ahead with nuclear power to fulfil the ever growing energy needs. In this context, it is unlikely that government of India will slow down it hunt for uranium to generate nuclear power. But, given the world trend, it is also unlikely that from Meghalaya is going to earn sustainable revenue mining of uranium. Even the booming coal mining industry is stuck for the past four years, thanks to the ban imposed by National Green Tribunal due to the rampant unscientific mining causing severe pollution in water bodies and agriculture lands.

While the whole situation over uranium mining in Meghalaya is still murky what is clear is that UCIL is not yet prepared to abandon the state project as yet. At the same time, the PSU is lacking in its effort to address the concern of health hazard. The UCIL has not been able to present before the public the steps it is going to take to prevent any kind of reported or possible hazard. Or is itself not confident about the ‘safety measures’? Either they should clear the road ahead or pack its baggage from Meghalaya.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on March 18, 2017)

Spare Public Energy

It’s humane to love sensation. But we should know its implications. Bodily sensations may not harm anyone, but mental sensation has both strong positive and negative impacts. While having sensation by listening to good music can be a good mental exercise, getting exited with anger has little good to do with us. Although the latter kind of excitement might be necessary in places like war, it is useless or rather harmful otherwise.

In Assam, the latest sensation is Nahid Afrin. She is making headlines for being ‘threatened’ by some religious gurus among others not to perform in a function, which they see against the Sharia law. Everyone in Assam and even some Bollywood celebrities expressed ‘solidarity’ with her and she ‘vowed’ to continue her singing despite the ‘threat’. Her television excerpt has gone viral. One popular national TV channel went to the extent of saying that she was banned from the show for singing anti-ISIS song. A top police official is even quoted saying that they are probing the angle of banning Nahid for singing songs against ISIS.

Now, the truth: A ‘gohari’ (memorandum) was circulated among the public with a plea to boycott a musical nite being organised on March 25 at Udali, Hojai in the Muslim-dominated Nagaon district of Assam. The first reason given by the Islamic clerics and organisations is that such ‘cultural nites’, dance show, magic show, drama and theatre are against the principles of Shariat. Besides the function is being organised in the vicinity of mosque, madrasa, graveyard etc. The memorandum stated that the forefathers of the locals of the area worked very hard for decades to make that once ‘barren’ land livable. ‘And Udali area, with the blessings of Allah is now as advanced as any other areas of Assam,’ said the memorandum. It also expressed ‘concern’ over the fate of the present generation that is embracing anti-Sharia practices like dance, song, drama etc.

Every bit of the memorandum is objectionable. But what is also objectionable is dragging Nahid’s name into the controversy. There is a remote possibility of the letter, signed by 46 people including some top leaders of leading Islamic organisations like Jamiat Ulema and even a local madrasa teacher, targeting Nahid. But the fact remains that her name was mentioned there. Sadly, it was not the function but Nahid that became the centre of the controversy. She was one of the performers in the function. In an interview, the 16-year-old said she saw on TV the ‘threat on her’. Nobody should blame her for believing what is being believed by millions of people within a couple of hours. Millions of Indians — in India and abroad — lost hundreds of hours discussing something baseless behind the four walls, in television studios and the social media. Spare the public energy for constructive criticism and introspection.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on March 17, 2017)

Saffron Surge in NE

Another north-eastern state is going the saffron way, if the exit poll results turn out to be similar to that of the real one. The BJP has been projected to win 25 to 31 seats. Even if it remains on the lower side, the saffron party will be able to hold the reins in a small state like Manipur where there are only 60 MLAs. In the CVoter exit polls, the ruling Congress is trailing second at a probable 17 to 23 seats. It’s going to be a big turnaround for BJP as the party failed to open its account in the 2012 elections. On the other hand, it will be a major downfall for Okram Ibobi-led government which came to power with a stunning majority in 2012. Congress is now comfortably placed in the House with 42 seats.

With Assam already in its kitty, it’s going to be the BJP’s third state among the eight north-eastern states. And Congress will be left with Mizoram and Meghalaya only. The prospect of Congress is not very bright in Meghalaya either. The state is going to polls next year. The Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) and National People’s Party (NPP) have already joined the fold of North East Development Alliance (NEDA). Although NEDA is said to a group for development of North-east, the political objective is blatantly clear. It’s just a matter of time when these parties would declare their alliance with the BJP. It’s not surprising that regional parties in the North-east always tend to ally with the party at the Centre.

If exit polls are on the right direction, the saffron map is going to expand further across the nation. In Uttar Pradesh too, BJP is said to be winning the maximum number of seats. However, Punjab will be a big loss for the SAD-BJP alliance government, and huge feat for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Overall, the BJP is not going to gain as much as it expected. But, it’s another disaster for the Congress. Only solace the Congress can have is that the party was not projected to win any of the states and after three terms Manipur results would have the impact of anti-incumbency. Let’s wait for the final verdict on March 11.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on March 10, 2017)

Need for Renewable Energy

Energy efficiency has brought a lot of change in our life. Especially fossil fuel changed the human civilisation altogether in the last 200-300 years. Before that we were using renewable energy only. There was no coal to be used then. There were no petrol or diesel. Half of Europe’s forests were burnt after invention of glass, till people came to know about coal. As soon as fossil fuel came the world started changing rapidly. Not only did we have roads and cars and beautiful clothes and whole lot of appliances, but some fundamental changes in human habits took place. Sun was the clock for people before the era of fossil fuel. People worked only in daytime. Night was for sleep. Even now people go to bed very early in interior villages where there is no electricity and no TV. Schools also have made it necessary for students to study at home and families to keep awake till late.

The time current parents went to bed when they were young must have been at least two hours before than their wards’ sleeping time now. And the time of waking up is also changing accordingly. However, many ‘modern’ people, who earlier used to sleep very late either working or entertaining themselves, have nowadays shifted their timetable and started having dinner just after sunset, sleep early, and rise early like their forefathers.

Our forefathers made maximum use of the solar energy or which we call renewable. After 200-300 years of making most of the fossil fuel or non-renewable sources of energy we are now afraid that the sources will dry up. Besides, there is concern of pollution, climate change, global warming etc. which can result in severe health hazard and natural disasters and even cause extinction of human race the same way a number species had already vanished from the planet.

Energy should not be looked at only from the perspective of the appliances we use in our everyday life like petrol in cars, LPG for cooking and electricity for lightning. Energy is behind every matter, living or non-living, and every matter can be converted into energy. Without energy, we not only cannot cook the food but also cannot grow the food. There is energy in a bouquet of flower as well as the roofs under which we sleep, be it concrete or tin or thatched. A solar installation replacing conventional sources, does not only lead to saving in the monthly budget, but also supports life on the earth. The ‘conversion’ from non-renewable to renewable contributes toward having lesser demand of fossil fuel or some renewable sources like hydro power and nuclear power which have larger environmental impact.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on February 29, 2017)

Mundane Politics

Politics is still very backward in India. Laying foundation stones and inaugurating school buildings to bridges is still a phenomenon of pre-election activities. After five years, the political leaders want to remind the people of their existence. They want to convey the message that they are concerned about the people’s needs. Most of these activities are kept pending till a year before the election so that they are not wiped out of people’s memory; so that they don’t lose relevance. The plaques and ribbon cuttings are also an answer to questions of political rivals as to what the incumbent representatives have done in their tenures. The political leaders think – may be rightly so – such activities can cover up for all their misdeeds and inactions in the past five years.

The plaque-and-ribbon spree is back in Meghalaya, once again. Political leaders in the ruling side are utilising every little opportunity to make their faces visible. Hundreds of public functions are being organised at government cost ostensibly to fulfil their political objectives. Chief minister Mukul Sangma is leading the race. He is laying foundation stones of community halls. Even single ambulances are lucky to be launched by none other than the chief minister. He is also there in ‘dedicating’ foot bridges costing a few lakhs ‘to the people’. A few days ago, he was there in inauguration of community of rural development blocks across the state. He was also there in launching of agar and bamboo plantation projects in every nook and corner of Garo Hills, the region he belong to.

It seems the chief minister has very few deputies to do the inaugurations and foundation laying. Or he wants to send the message that it was only doing the ‘good work’? Or he does not trust his deputies on their ability to send the message to the public. Obviously, a fact that chief minister ‘gracing’ such functions gets maximum publicity has to be taken into political consideration. Any ruling MLA does not get similar coverage, even if he cuts the ribbon of a big project. But politicians should also keep in view the fact that people are much more aware than they were a few years ago. Most of them can see the real ‘objective’ of such activities before election. It’s time the politics graduated from such cliché and leaders don’t depend on stone plaques and ribbons to decide their political fate.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on February 24, 2017)

The Double Standard

Elections are hardly fought on real issues. The best person always doesn’t get elected. But, the elected person is one who the people, as a whole, ‘deserve’ to lead them. The last US election was the best example of how people in even a developed country can be swayed by racial emotion. A ‘great wall’ – at a time when nations are opening up borders to the world – has fancied the minds of American public. In the current Uttar Pradesh election, the person of the stature of a Prime Minister made an issue out of electric supply during Eid versus in Diwali.

Meghalaya will be no different, in 2018 assembly elections. With parties brainstorming as to what to be made election issues next year, the controversy over proposed uranium mining has once again cropped up as a major issue in the state. The issue was dormant for years after the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) almost abandoned its plan to mine uranium in Meghalaya. UCIL had earlier identified uranium-rich areas in West Khasi Hills region and conducted exploratory drilling, which had led to massive protest. But a road project sanctioned by the Central government with an ‘objective’ to facilitate uranium mining has stirred the hornet’s nest once again. While a few groups belonging to the area wanted the road, others who thrive on promoting regional sentiment have opposed it. The latter had such huge support base that even political parties have joined the bandwagon.

At the centre of an irony is a senior politician, who made a volte face on the issue. Hispreaching Son Shylla, a newly-elected member of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), was the chief executive member of the Council in 2006 when the UCIL got clearance from KHADC to mine uranium. Shylla is now opposing uranium mining, tooth and nail! Shylla’s double standard has even caused embarrassment to his United Democratic Party (UDP). All regional parties including UDP are opposing uranium mining while the Congress and BJP kept a safe distance from the issue. Catering to the regional sentiment, the KHADC agreed to fund construction of the ‘uranium road’, in single lane, from a Central grant issued to the ADCs of the North-east. But the locals are pained that they are losing out on a double-lane road to be funded by the Centre. The local MLA Diosstarness Jyndiang has lent his support to a movement for the double-lane road with a condition that he does not support uranium mining. It remains to be seen how far the issue of road and uranium mining dominate the next year’s assembly election.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on February 22, 2017)