|Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi at a rally during the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council at Kokrajhar in Assam. A file picture
Who do councils serve?
The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution is an instrument that promises safeguards for tribal minorities under the composite state of Assam.
Subsequently, many of the hill tribal groups demanded for and got separate states. What triggered the demand for statehood was Assam’s exclusive politics, which refused to include the aspirations of the tribes in the larger scheme of things.
The imposition of Assamese as a state language was perhaps the last straw, at least for the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes who now are the majority tribes of Meghalaya.
The Sixth Schedule did not come without a struggle. Rev. J.J.M. Nichols Roy was the brain behind this protective piece of legislation. It was a bulwark meant to protect and promote the customary practices of the minority tribes from the onslaught of a mainstream Assamese culture.
The Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) are an offshoot of the Sixth Schedule.
In Meghalaya, there are three functioning ADCs — one each in Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills. Although there are clearly laid down norms within the Sixth Schedule, on which the councils operate an objective analysis reveals that they have failed in each of these functions.
This is true of all Sixth Schedule areas such as the Bodoland Territorial Council, the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Councils as well as those functioning in the three districts in Mizoram.
All the councils have become power centres in all their areas of operation. For instance, the BTC is known to play around with huge funds but without a shred of accountability. The very same tribal leaders who blamed the state government of neglect today face a serious credibility crisis. After the BTC was established, precious little has happened.
While the leaders have become richer and more mobile in their swish sport utility vehicles (SUVs), the people they vowed to relieve from poverty and ignorance have steadily slipped lower in the poverty ranking. Meghalaya is a fine example of this downward trend, though one suspects that all the tribal states are in a similar situation. When Meghalaya was born in 1972 there were hardly any poor people; poor in the sense of not having two square meals a day! Now, 49 per cent of Meghalaya’s population lives below the poverty line and our government does not even blink an eyelid!
Of course, one cannot blame the ADCs for this grave downturn, especially since in Meghalaya their mandate is certainly not development. They are more like custodians of culture and resources. District councils regulate the use of all forests, which are not reserved forests. So, while the state forest department with its humungous manpower looks after only four per cent of forests, the councils have nearly 96 per cent of forestlands under their jurisdiction.
After the 1996 Supreme Court ruling, which put a 10-year moratorium on the export of timber outside Meghalaya, the councils were directed by the apex court to make their working plans on the management of forests. Ironically, these working plans were put together by none other than retired forest department officials who know all the loopholes in the system.
In the absence of a monitoring agency, the plans were passed without confirming whether they adhered to laid down rules and procedures.
So despite the working plans and working schemes, forests were ravaged and timber continued to be illegally exported.
A cursory glance at the forests areas under the district councils, which have assumed the form of bald landscapes, are enough to tell us that the plunder of forests is complete. A deeper inquiry will reveal that forests are in fact a lucrative source of income for the councils and for individual members. Conservation, therefore, is contrary to their agenda.
At one time, the ADCs were running primary schools but messed things up so badly and could not pay the teachers their salaries. It is said that the money allocated for management of primary schools was diverted towards the establishment costs of the councils.
Here, the state government of course was the villain of the piece. The ADCs get their funds from the state. These funds trickle in as they usually do towards the fag end of the financial year, thus putting a lot of strain on the councils in running their administration. As a result, primary school teachers spent more time on the streets protesting than in the classrooms.
Finally, in 1988, the state government took over the administration of primary schools. This was a major disenfranchisement for the councils.
To raise funds, the councils levy taxes from markets and collect toll from all goods entering a particular district within their jurisdiction. They get a share of royalty from timber, coal and limestone and other minerals extracted from within their districts. They also get revenue from professional taxes paid by all in the formal sectors of employment.
A contradiction in terms is that the councils are empowered to regulate trade by non-tribals. Every non-tribal contractor/shopkeeper/entrepreneur/company doing business in Meghalaya has to have a trading licence from the respective councils. The idea essentially is to control monopoly of trade by non-tribals in that they could engage in a particular trade so long as there are no tribes competent to carry on that trade.
The irony here is that the very issuance of annual trade licences to non-tribal traders became the preoccupation of the councils and their prime revenue earner. So, instead of controlling the number of licences issued to non-tribal traders, it became more lucrative for them to be issuing more such licences.
This flies in the face of the notion that district councils are to protect the interest of the tribes. Of late, the councils have become playgrounds for toppling games where the chief executive members are virtually on musical chairs, not knowing when they will be pulled down. Since the ADCs have absolutely no role to play in the day to day life of citizens, they have become redundant. No wonder this time the ADC elections in Meghalaya were lacklustre.
One major function of the councils is to set up village and town committees and to provide a template for their functioning. The dichotomy here is that village councils pre-existed the Sixth Schedule. The Dorbar Shnong or village councils, which are predominantly undemocratic male-centric institutions, take their sanad or sanction from the syiems (chieftains) under whose jurisdiction they fall. The council only endorses the sanad.
The councils being the harbingers of democracy, never attempted to infuse democratic principles of gender inclusiveness in the dorbar. This is a major failure on their part.
Above all, this overlap among institutions creates ambiguities, which hinder their proper function.
The syiems are accountable neither to the district council nor to any constitutional authority. The village dorbar is also accountable to no one in particular. Their books of accounts are never audited. So the councils virtually have no control over the grassroots institutions that are directly connected to the people. In fact, ADCs have become standalone institutions.
In their current form, the councils cannot take up development activities because they do not carry the features of the panchayati raj institutions.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)