Dialogue  October-December, 2004, Volume 6  No. 2

Rural Development in Meghalaya

Toki Blah

At the very onset it should be made clear that the theme of this essay is to take a closer analytical look at the progress of development in the Rural Sector in the State of Meghalaya. Firstly this endeavour was partly motivated by the apparent and quite obvious evidence that the last 34 years of Statehood has not really produced the expected progress in the Rural Sector that everyone of us anticipated 3 decades ago. Lack of progress in Rural Development (RD) cannot be attributed solely to lack of effort as that would be unfair to many a dedicated officer of the Rural Development Department. Suspicion is however fast focusing on absence of a vision; dearth of a sense of direction as the prime suspect for the mess the Department is in. Secondly, there is growing concern that inspite and despite the provisions of the 6th Schedule, the establishment of the Autonomous District Councils and the recent 73rd & 74th amendment of the Constitution of India, we the people of Meghalaya have not been able to exploit in a satisfactory manner the varied and numerous rural development programmes, available from time to time and which have been taken up by other states of the Country. This is an anomaly that needs careful examination because inspite of the existence of such programmes and development opportunities, we in the NE continue to bleat against the persistent backwardness of the region which we also are wont to blame on assumed Central apathy and indifference . This write up will attempt as far as possible to pinpoint the cause for Rural stagnation in the region and the state. Thirdly, this endeavour was primarily prompted

*Shri Toki Blah, a former IAS officer, a former member of the Meghalaya State Planning Board and former chairman of the Meghalaya Economic Development Council Working Group, is presently working as consultant to International Fund for Agricultural Development.

by the Inaugural Address of the Prime Minister at the Chief Minister’s Conference on “Rural Poverty Alleviation and Rural Prosperity through Panchayati Raj” held in New Delhi on the 30th June and 1st July 2004. From reports of the media and the press on the response of NE Chief Ministers to the issues raised at the meet, there is a sneaking yet compoundable suspicion that inspite of the PM’s good and earnest intentions, NE leaders might not have fully understood what the PM was trying to say. Their minds may have been pre-occupied with more weighty matters such as the survival of their Ministers rather than the livelihood of the poverty ridden masses of North Eastern India. My apologies for transgressing from the topic but there is reasonable apprehension that the NE may once again miss the development bus. On the other hand these are serious matters of state that need and require the attention, consideration and comprehension they deserve. The evidence of the last 34 years has shown that such issues can no longer be left to the tender but often negligent mercies of our honourable self-centred leaders. These are issues that affect you and me; they affect our hearths and homes; they impinge on our day to day lives but most crucial they are issues that will influence and shape the destiny of our children and grand children. How much longer can we continue to be indifferent to the collective survival of our own communities while we debate and anguish over who or who won’t get a ministerial Chair?

Mention is made above of the 73rd and 74th Amendment of the Indian Constitution, the 6th Schedule and the Autonomous District councils. The 73rd Amendment relates to the passing of the Panchayat Raj Bill which speaks of devolution of power, especially in matters relating to governance and development, to grassroot institutions such as the gram panchayat. NE states where the 6th Schedule operates have been exempted from the perview of the Act. Dr D.D.Lapang, the Meghalaya CM has strongly reacted to suggestions on extension of the Panchayat Act to Meghalaya. From the Constitutional point of view the stand of the Chief Minister on this regard is commendable and correct. Meghalaya already has its own grassroot institutions in the shape of the himas, daloiships, nokmaships and the dorbar shnongs. They are community institutions richly endowed with our own Tribal traditions and culture. They are bodies revered and respected by the people. They are establishments that handled the governance of these hills since time immemorial and continue to do so in the villages of Meghalaya .There is evidently no justification in replacing them with new fanged concepts. As such, while the theoretical defence of these institutions is appreciated, the continued practice, on the other hand, of neglect and contemptuous disregard of these indigenous institutions by the political entity of the state is lamentable and deeply deplored. Under the best of circumstances Traditional Institutions are perceived as subordinate branches of which ever department has need of their services but at most times they are looked at askance by the political establishment. There has never been any attempt to improve, empower, capacitate nor enhance the socio-economic potentials of these bodies in spite of the fact that the primary duty of the District Councils has been towards this end. As they are today, the grassroot institutions of Meghalaya, continue to exist in historical vacum. Strong in governance, they stand bereft of any knowledge or basic skills in rudimentary legal jurisprudence. Strongly democratic by nature, they stand isolated from modern precepts of equitable franchise. Empathically rustic, they contribute nothing to the economic requirements of the rural communities they serve. Ethnically homogenous, they languish in our inability to mobilise their inherent potentials. In other parts of India, the 73rd amendment has made it possible to devolve power to the people and to come up with a Bottoms- Up concept in rural development. In Meghlaya, while we continue to theoretically defend our Traditional Institutions, we still have to come up with answers on how to meaningfully engage them as developmental partners so as to enable them to take up their destined responsibilities as the most appropriate developmental platforms of the people, by the people and for the people!

In Meghalaya the primary department of the Government endorsed with the responsibility of development of the rural sector is the Community and Rural Development Department, popularly known as C&RD. Let us be perfectly clear in our perceptions. There is nothing remotely connected with the community in all activities of this department. The supposed cutting edge of this department is the Community Block manned by the Block Development Officer (BDO) and his staff of technical officers. The community aspect of the Block is represented by political entities whose interest in almost all cases has nothing to do with development per say but rather with their self or the development of their near and dear ones. If past performances are any indicator, the apparent Term of Reference for these vague developmental resource personalities is to convert as far as possible any developmental scheme, especially those with a large component of grants and subsidies, into closely guarded secrets to be confided to only a selected few! So much for participatory development! On the other hand the Rural Development side of the C&RD is currently spearheaded by the District Rural Development Agency ( DRDA). If ones memory is not remiss, Smti Sonia Gandhi had once threatened to do away with this much publicised programme of the Central Government and one hopes she does not forget. The reasons for such a threat are not far to seek but suffice to say that the Top Down approach and Target Driven strategy to this programme has already made it as Government Friendly and as Anti People as any other past developmental programmes. Rural Development, its schemes and programmes, have always remained an Agenda of the Administration never that of the community. Insensitivity has always been the hallmark of all our approach strategies and we continue to blunder and stumble over the Developmental Tombstones that dot the NE countryside, evidence of noble intent that was repeatedly sacrificed at the altar of callous indifference. It is in this context that the dour comment on whether the NE Chief Ministers really understood what the PM had to say, was made. The comment has no intention of deriding the intelligence of NE Chief Ministers nor their commitment and capability to the heavy onus of the chair they occupy. The comment was directed however at a mindset that still believes that all rural NE people are ignorant, lazy, laidback and stupid and that the planners of Yojnna Bhavan, NEC or the state secretariat know best. This is the mindset responsible for the plight of Rural Development 34 years after statehood. It is a mindset that has to change if we are really serious of giving to the rural people, especially the rural poor; the weak; the marginalised; and the rural women the economic empowerment through a paradigm change. That I think is what that the PM really wanted to convey.

In conclusion of this piece, after the Official wisdom on Rural Development has been challenged and criticised, it is but fair to expect that I should not only present a problem but should also be prepared to offer a solution to the problem. It is the contention of this writeup that a skewed developmental mindset feeding on an insensitive approach, that is the main cause for the unsustainability of past interventions in Rural Development. Perception of the people on ownership over development is vital and crucial for sustainability. The concept of ownership over developmental interventions must change from a Pro Govt Agenda to that of a Pro People approach. Communities can feel the sense of ownership far easier when it comes through Institutions that they regard as their own. In Meghalaya if we are honest with ourselves, Govt has never really been seen as belonging to the people. It belongs to Ministers and Officers of the Secretariat. It is the institution of the Durbars, the Nokmas the Syiems and the Dalois that are seen as belonging to the people. Administrative Blasphemy no doubt, but it happens to be the truth however much we dislike it ! The paradigm shift in sustainable Rural Development shall come the day we are prepared to amalgamate the old with the new in so far as our developmental institutions and strategies are concerned. Let us not discard the wisdom of the ages nor should we reject the energising stimulant of 21st century technology. How we do this shall depend entirely on our ability to come up with a vision and a roadmap on development for Meghalaya. As far as Rural Meghalaya is concerned, poverty, absence of appropriate technology, lack of credit, poor primary health care, poor primary education, gender insensitivity and absence of value addition and marketing of local produce are the main causes for Rural stagnation. This is common knowledge, yet are we able to perceive these problems, their causes and their solutions from the point of view of the jhumia sitting on a remote hillside in Garo Hills? In our ability to do so shall lie the key to the enigma of Rural Development in Meghalaya


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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