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Debananda S. Medak
Date of Publish: 2018-01-07

Colonial Economic breakthrough and the forbidden fruits of Meghalaya


The provincial as well as the tribal chiefs’ autonomy questions in Meghalaya to maintain customary laws, rights and practices over the consumption and usage of existing natural resources has no more been a consideration at least to the post independent Indian state.

The logic obviously was the fact that in the last 42 years of unregulated commercial exploitation, either the legislators or the parliamentarians, none of them educated the indegenous people who are simply electorates in the eye of the Indian state about various central schemes and law among other universal enforcements. They considered the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution as their lifebelt to exploit the existing natural resources without considering the future implications.

As a result, the perceived economic opportunity speculated on the natural endowments like black gold, boulder stone and limestone is experiencing a polar opposite in Meghalaya. The Supreme Court ban on timber logging in 1996 and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on mining in 2014 barred not only the customary privileges of the communities over natural resources but also indicated the end of the colonial way of unruly exploitation over wealth in northeast India. Apparently, the halt on the exporting of boulder and the limestone has raised a serious concern, would the indigenous people of Meghalaya survive?

Thus, the form of provincial economy and a new migrant labour class emerged in Meghalaya based on mining which was inherited from the colonial economic legacy in the last 19th century that caused natural imbalance and human sufferings came to a shocking end.

Ever since the ban, from empire to the breadwinners, people once adaptive and rooted in mining of coal in Meghalaya are incessantly breathing between the curse and opportunity. Head laden minors coming out of the makeshift bamboo stairs from rat-hole pits, locals collecting rent from the dumping depot and quarries has no more been a usual narrative. Migrant workers from Nepal and Bangladeh are no more destined to Meghalaya. The land custom stations (LCSs) in different interstate and international border points are reduced to almost zero transactions. Presently, one normally gets to see in the countryside of Meghalaya is the visual that of a still, deserted and devastated landscape.

Moreover, the NGT also made a halt and restrained any person, company, authority from carry out any mining of limestone, sand stones, boulder, and sand or removal of sand from riverbeds without obtaining license or permit from competent authority.

As was expected, starvation remains the only means for the breadwinners of Meghalaya. With the days passing on, their crying goes even unheard. Growing in a poor-ridden dwelling, if becoming a rat-hole minor was their compulsion, after the ban starvation has remained only the destination for a breadwinner in Meghalaya. In spite of formulating an alternative men-environmental friendly mechanism to resume mining in Meghalaya, the state government simply succumbed to the ban. This resulted in the loss of revenue in the state exchequer, as it was the highest revenue generator in Meghalaya. Moreover, the interdiction also put approximately 1.5 lakhs people in great misfortune and uncertainty.

No doubt, the trend was not conducive, and favourable for a healthy environment, but what sadden the people engaged in the mining is the fact that, the state government is neither rolling out a proper rehabilitation programme nor an alternative livelihood policy until date.

As of now, natural resources and autonomy over it in northeast India has been the pivot of countless debates throughout the recent decade particularly after the ban. However, we often forget to realise that the lacking of a coded provincial policy to exploit these resources either commercially or customarily fuelled this aggressive appearance of the NGT. Because, the Meghalaya Mines and Mineral Policy, 2012, was in conflict with the Mines and Mineral Development and Regulation (MMDR) Act, 1957 and Coal Mines Nationalisation Act, 1973.

Gradually, the communities in the periphery of these resource locations are alienated from their traditional access and pushed back to their early poor ridden dwellings solely due to their great ignorance on the damages caused by unregulated and unscientific mining. Hence, the pendulum of opportunity is healing towards a great misfortune in Meghalaya.

Since 2014, it would have been an ideal time to forget the aftermath of the ban, but what pains them is the fact that the state government could not work out the modality that ensures or restarts the whole thing, keeping the environment in mind. Rather, it entirely failed to provide any alternatives for many who are left without a substitute for their livelihood. Moreover, it also deserted the cross border trade particularly with Bangladesh. The LCSs at Balat, Dalu Mahendraganj and Dawki have lost their regular transactions. In this regard, referring to the aftermath of the ban, Tashi Bhutia, Inspector, Tamabil LCS said, “Due to the strict vigilance on mining, the volume of trade has comparatively decreased.”

Sharing their grievances to this writer, Brightsatr Ainam Synrem, a local exporter turned a laid off from Dawki said, “We spend uncertain days ever since the ban on mining of coal, boulder and limestone. We do not know when similar ban will come up next. NGT has become unpredictable and heavier on our survival. There are 120-households in Shnong Pdeng village near Dawki alone. Most of them have shifted from mining work to commercial fishing in the river to run their families. During summer, they hunt wage works. Our good earning with mining work has become a forgotten dream now.”

There are villages like Dangardop, Lalpani, Barmanbari and Panden Borsora near Balat. Residents in these villages are mainly Garo, Bengali and Barman. These households gained a lot until ban. Iirrespective of young and adult, now we put our bodies under strain engaging in tiny manual labour. Presently, the day starts with dragging boulders from the local rivers, crushes them into stones and ends the day loading it into a pick up van. Altogether, a minimum five-member family earn Rs 150 a day. Running a family with a meager Rs 150 is equal to starvation,” said Niranjan Barman (58), a villager of Lalpani, Balat.

At a time, when the ban stormed the state exchequer and deserted the livelihood of the majority of the masses in Meghalaya, cross border trade, particularly the import was supposed to compensate the loss. However, it appeared more contradicting to the notion. Reportedly, it is mainly because of the administrative procedure.

“In order to get clearance we need to go through different administrative procedure, which is very difficult for the local people. To import food items we need to be certified by Quality Control Board, Guwahati. The procedure is very lengthy and expensive. Moreover, to import garments from Bangladesh we need to get a trademark certificate that is issued from Banaras which is again a mere impossible task for the small traders from this area. I also had an offer to supply fish from Bangladesh but I denied since there is no storage facility in our state so far. I applied for a license to open a storage facility in Dalu and I was directed to deposit Rs. 50 lakhs by customs department, which I did sincerely in time. However, the government did not co-operate and denied the license without any reason. We have been pleading the BSF for allowing us to meet and talk our Bangladesh counterparts in the check gate. What we receive is a continued denial. Out of no reason, the traders and a huge labour force are starving now. In such a condition, import trade can never compensate the volume of earning came from export,” said Utpal Marak (52), President, Dalu Export and Import Association, West Garo Hills, Meghalaya.

The fertile land of Meghalaya has high potential to produce Cashew nut, Rubber, Beetle nut, Orange, Ginger and other seasonal vegetables in high quantity. However, due to lack of a desired market, produces are either wasted or confined to the local market. An organised marketing chain is the greater challenge to export these produce to the targeted buyers.

We do realise that these local produce are organic and bear relatively high quality and taste. At the same time, agri-horti and allied vegetable produce are always seasonal. Hence, the prerequisite to facilitate marketing of such seasonal produce to meet even the local Bazaar demands basic infrastructure like a cold storage, godown, all-weather road connectivity, uninterrupted cellular and internet services and quality-testing lab. Without these facilities, exporting of such produce will simply be wastage of money, time and the valuable produce. The absences of infrastructure in the border points are not supporting the perishable items to trade.

The coal, limestone and boulder stone were the only non-perishable items that were boosting the economy. It was these resources, which paved the way for greater economic output through external trade in Meghalaya.

It is literally true to the popular notion that the Meghalaya government being a tribal state having autonomous district councils should have full autonomy over forest and its land resources. However, it is very difficult to understand who actually the real owner of the resources is in the present political circumstances. Following the ban, people of Meghalaya are now left with no autonomy over their resources. Thus, the role of the provincial tribal state, and the central government and its agencies appears quite conflicting to each other. As a result, local stakeholders are only the suffering end. Resources above the surface like forests and the resources beneath the surface like minerals are no more a potential for the state. How the Indian economic legacy is going to rescue the Meghalaya state is a much-awaited question now.

Debananda S. Medak

All photographs used in this feature were taken by the author

( Debananda S. Medak is a Research Associate at the OKD Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati. He is also the recipient of the Him-Kai Excellence award in Journalism. He can be reached at +91-8812822851 or debanandatimes83@gmail.com. Views expressed are the author's own)

"All materials including the interviews and photographs and field inputs used in this write-up have been collected as a part of the project Pivot to the East: Building Sustainable Economic Corridors in Northeast India undertaken by the Institute in collaboration with Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Japan."





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