After the People met
This question was asked in an official letter in February this year. The letter had a genesis: an unprecedented gathering of nearly 50,000 people from Meghalaya's tribal communities at Smit, West Khasi Hills. Heeding the call of chiefs, people endorsed on January 14 this year a historical "People's Budget". Filling up a large rolling meadow in the capital of the traditional khasi kingdom of Khyrim, people discussed, altered and sculpted into final shape a five-year financial plan to develop their villages. Among other things, they demanded -- radically -- that the Union government route the money it grants to the state directly to traditional institutions of governance, and not into the maw of the state government's coffers. The budget: Rs 93.2 crore, a pittance compared to the state's tenth five-year plan outlay of Rs 3,009 crore. "The budget was a democratic exercise and unlike the state government's budget, carried out under complete public scrutiny," says Robert Kharshiing, member of the Rajya Sabha from Meghalaya.
One and a half years ago, traditional chiefs of the state's tribes wrote to thousands of village heads to tote up a price for development activity in their villages. About 80 per cent responded. The budgets were detailed; even local public works department engineers were conscripted to firm up figures. Some headmen wanted only a tap or a water pipe. All these mini-budgets were then sifted through, in numerous meetings between chiefs and senior headmen. And unlike inflated official budgets the people's budget was trimmed: from an initial Rs 500 crore to Rs 93.2 crore. All along, the Delhi-based Tata Consultancy Services helped. Now the kings want the Union government to fund the budget of at least 800 of 8,000 odd villages, in the first phase of a unique experiment.
The gathering at Smit was also a show of political strength. Here was launched another salvo by Meghalaya's traditional heads, locked now in a five-decade old bitter struggle, with the state government and the autonomous district councils (adcs), over executive fiat.
19 of the 25 Khasi states acceded to the Indian dominion in 1947, merged then into Assam. After protracted debates in the Constituent assembly, an advisory committee set up in 1947 under Gopinath Borodoloi studied the administrative set up of the northeast states. It finally recommended the tribal regions of northeastern India be governed on the basis of regional autonomy in affecting their customs, laws of inheritance, administration of justice, land, forests and water. The report appreciated how sensitively tribal communities cared after natural resources; it was accepted and incorporated in the sixth schedule of the Constitution.
This provided for the creation of adcs in certain hill districts of (then composite) Assam. The first adc came into existence in 1952. Then in 1969 Meghalaya was carved out of Assam.
Today nine districts in various northeast states have adcs, envisaged in the Constitution as protectors of tribal practices, and possessing legislative and judicial powers. But adcs could never make any law repugnant to laws the state government made; adc regulations needed government's assent.
In Meghalaya, adcs also have the power to levy taxes on forestry products and give out licenses for mining. Judicial powers, on the other hand, are at the village level handled by traditional village heads, for all offences not of a very serious nature. Over this is the court of the traditional chiefs -- the subordinate district council court -- with judicial powers concomitant to the chiefdom. At the top comes the district council court.
Does this structure work?
No. Says L S Gassah, professor of political science in the North East Hill University (nehu), Shillong, "The adcs have failed in many aspects of their functioning and come into direct conflict with the traditional governance institutions."
The customary system of governance was quite different. "Traditionally villages have enjoyed autonomy in the organisation and management of their affairs and have exercised collective control over their natural resources," writes A K Nongkynrih, reader in sociology, nehu, on the Khasi system. The council of elders (dorbar shnong) maintains collective control. The village headman, manages under dorbar instructions. A cluster of villages form a 'raid'; it has its dorbar raid -- comprising members of the dorbar shnong. A conglomeration of raids becomes a hima, a principality headed by an elected chief or syiem and supported by a council of ministers.
This syiem is not a landlord. In the Khasi matrilineal society he is an agent of the villages, managing land on their behalf. The post is honorary, and he is allowed to collect taxes in local markets and a few other resources to manage all works in the hima.
In the Jaintia hills a doloi is the chief of an elaka, with the political structure similar to the Khasi. The Garo hills have a different political dispensation. A nokma heads a village with a laskar (or group of elders) managing a cluster of villages. The multiple tiers of governance are missing.
But, the advent of adcs completely changed the dynamics of customary institutions; they fell by the wayside of executive action, even though they retained a strong moral and social hold over people. adcs are now empowered to appoint, dismiss or suspend a syiem or doloi. The adcs, the state government and traditional institutions today overlap. All three fight to 'manage' the limited resources and the timid economy, creating confusion and socio-political chaos.