“How does governance work at the grassroots level in India?” To examine this question, we decided to pick one village anywhere in India, become a part of the community, see how individuals interact with various bodies of the government and examine its impact on their lives.
I knew the answers to this question would be further complicated if the village didn’t identify as ‘India’, or simply didn’t care about that label — as is the case in large parts of the Northeast. In a region where ‘the outsider’ is a constant threat to a way of life, how do locals navigate a system where ‘outsiders’ are an explicit part of governance?
It was to delve into these issues that I ended up living and working out of a village called Smit, in Meghalaya. This six-part series documents my time in Smit.
2. Village Tour
On market days, the village of Smit, in Meghalaya, feels like the setting for the British detective drama series, Midsomer Murders. A moment that might seem right out of one of its episodes is the fishing competition held in the village.
The crowd that gathers to watch and participate is unbelievable. The road leading to the largest ponds is jammed with vehicles; there’s no parking space to be found. Only the skilled can catch the biggest fish, and the prize money is a neat Rs 5 lakh.
The day I witnessed Smit’s fishing competition, there was a steady downpour, but it didn’t dissuade the people, who turned up in their Wellington boots, raincoats and umbrellas, seemingly inured to the rain, cold and mud. Small stalls sold hot tea and snacks.
The swarm of people sitting absolutely still around the ponds, not an inch to spare on the shores, was a comical sight. Funnier still was that an entirely stationary ‘sport’ had garnered such a huge number of spectators.
Throughout the day, the organisers kept up a steady stream of announcements over the loudspeaker in Khasi, declaring who’d had the biggest catch until that time, for the benefit of the villagers. I couldn’t understand a word.
On another occasion, Rilum Foundation, a local NGO, and the village’s autonomous council, planned to clean up the river. Water was blocked at the last check dam before Smit. The entire village gathered around and the youngsters participated in the clean-up. Little children took advantage of the shallow waters to fish. A small distance away, people lay around on the riverbanks, basking in the sun. The event had turned into entertainment for the village.
Smit is the biggest village in Mawryngkneng block of the East Khasi Hills district. Since Meghalaya falls under the Sixth Schedule, local autonomy is preserved — according to which, Smit also lies in Khyrem, one of the biggest principalities of the state, and the seat of the local syiem (chief).
Right before you enter the village, you get a great view of it from a particular vantage point. From here, the village seems set amid bumpy meadows-like hills. There’s an idyllic air to it. You see small patches with vegetables growing in neat rows, the occasional farmer tending to the field, shepherds with cattle and sheep, and in the distance, pine and other local trees lining the hills.
Driving straight from this point, the road leads to the village square — the hub of all activity in Smit. This is where the shops are, and the taxis, and the start and end points of all the bus routes. There is an SBI ATM, tea stalls, shops selling stationery, toys, groceries, agricultural implements. There is a cement and construction shop too, along with one that stocks fertilisers and seeds, a clinic and a pharmacy, the local Presbyterian church, and a line of women selling vegetables and fruits. In short, everything you need for village life.
On proceeding, you reach a T-junction: to the right are the syiem’s palace and a huge ground; to the left is the government senior secondary school; further up are the houses, and the Catholic church. A narrow road goes still further up — all the way to the local river. One reaches there through a small passage among some trees and houses. Over time, the river has been dirtied, but next to a small hillock with thick vegetation and pine trees, it looks like the ideal picnic spot. There is also a natural spring here, from which the locals fill up drinking water; there are many such springs in the village.
The hillock is protected by the syiem and his clan, so it’s still lush and verdant, with towering old trees. My landlady Mei Tew (meaning ‘mother figure’), the syiem’s cousin, told me the hillock was sacred to the family “because it has many relics”. (She wouldn’t tell me what those relics were “as it’s a family secret”.) Since the family keeps an eye, this means the hillock has been protected from tree felling, or bonfires that may result in disaster.
According to the 2011 census, Smit had a population of 5,037 — 2,481 males and 2,556 females. About 99.52 percent of the population is Khasi (Scheduled Tribe). Mei Tew told me about 80 percent of the populace is also Christian, under various denominations. Since it is the biggest village in the area, Smit is the site of the weekly market for many villages deep in the south of the Khyrem principality.
The weekly markets are always something to look forward to. Smit is a vegetable haven on market day; people from Shillong come here to buy their weekly requirement. Bantei, a local activist who runs the Rilum Foundation, says, “Our vegetables are more expensive than the ones coming from Assam because the quality is much better. But we are losing our indigenous heirloom seeds, and that’s a problem.”
The weekly markets are about much more than buying vegetables. People meet each other, exchange notes on agriculture. Snacks and sweets stalls pop up. A huge variety of vegetables and fruits which you won’t get on regular days, meat (beef and pork in large portions), betel nuts, betel leaves, bamboo and cane baskets, agriculture tools, utensils, bakery items — are all to be found on market day. The ground before the palace is full of people selling clothes, flowers, seeds. Stalls are put up even in the alleys.
Every eighth day of the week is market day; if the eight day happens to be a Sunday then the market is held on Monday. Everybody is in church on Sunday, and you’ll see people headed for the service in their finest clothes in the morning.
On Sunday afternoons, the men gather in the ground by the palace to practise the Khasi’s traditional sport of archery. Bets are placed, based on the various archers’ skill and luck.
“Archery is part of Khasi culture, but not gambling,” says Mei Tew. “Somebody had the grand idea 30-40 years ago, to make people shoot arrows and gamble.”
At one time there were competitions held amongst the various dongs (blocks) of Smit. To be named the best archer was not a matter of winning money, but gaining prestige.
Mei Tew tells me that the bow and arrow were used for protection and hunting. She narrates that when the British first came to the region, they thought “we will easily subjugate…these ‘barbarians’”. “But a week, a month, so many years, with only the bow and arrow, we kept fighting [sic],” says Mei Tew, who keeps a bow and arrow herself as a part of her family insignia, her identity and a symbol of her culture, tradition and roots.
Change has come to Smit, slowly but surely.
According to Khasi tradition and the Sixth Schedule, the autonomous councils should be in charge of all functions, but in practice, it is a little more complicated. A village is divided into dongs (blocks), each with a headman and executive council, overseen by a bigger village council, and the sordar (headman) controlling an entire village. Clusters of villages in a principality are further called raid and the raid is controlled by the lyngdoh, and everyone is eventually under a syiem. Traditionally, this was the system of governance of a principality.
Now there is a general council, whose members are elected through a ballot, and it can overrule a sordar, lyngdoh or syiem anytime. Local activist Bantei says, “There was a movement to remove the general council a few years ago but it died down. It is a preparatory step for people who want to become Members of Legislative Assembly eventually — that’s how it is.”
Governance may have reached larger villages like Smit, but in a conditional manner: usually schemes that benefit the government are the ones that reach the people. For instance, Smit is availing the Ujjwala Scheme, under which people get a free stove. Whether or not they have enough money for gas refills is another matter. Age-old issues like water, electricity and roads remain. It is delightful to get a free new stove, but people have become used to toiling for water and living without a steady supply of electricity.
The government has installed two hand-pumps in the village, just before the Presbyterian church. The entire village is supposed to get its water from here. There are no house-to-house pipes, community taps hardly work. Throughout the day, you can spot young men and boys using makeshift wooden rollers, which can carry about six big cans in a go, to fetch water from the natural springs. Women do laundry at the local streams, polluting the water. Electricity is available sporadically; the colder the weather, the greater the frequency of power cuts. Those who can afford to, have their own bore-wells for water and inverters for power supply.
Government schemes and plans are implemented without thought and consideration, as is the norm in India. Villagers who have the knowledge to guide and advise, are not consulted. For instance, this World Environment Day, on 5 June, the new Chief Minister launched a drive to plant the maximum number of plants in a day. The programme seemed, on the face of it, very thoughtful, focusing on planting indigenous varieties in critical areas. Alas, the programme didn’t take into account the planting season, which starts here in the last week of July and ends in the second week of August.
Not one plant sowed that day survived.
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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2019 16:47:48 IST