Whenever the issue of how to end pollution is raised, it hits a block: technology. Take the case of air pollution: among other things, the issue boiled down to catalytic convertors, an imported technology. Now that the spectre of contaminated water stares us in the face, a question emerges: who's making moolah out of the muck? The familiar answer: companies that use imported technology to treat water. India faces today a double challenge. It is poor and it is polluted. So could there be indigenous innovation that cuts costs and removes modern toxins poisoning our environment? NIDHI JAMWAL searches for answers
The Mahajans, a family of four who live in Vasant Kunj, South Delhi, daily waste 240 litres of water to get 30 litres from their reverse osmosis (RO) purifier six times a day. "I bought the purifier thinking it will end all our water woes. It gives us clean drinking water but I feel guilty about the waste," says Meenakshi Mahajan. 'Experts' have informed the family that the wastage is quite normal for such water-cleaning gadgets.
"I first had a candle filter for Rs 600 but there were problems. I then bought a purifier with ultra violet (UV) technology in the mid-1990s for Rs 5,500, but I was not happy because I noticed a white layer on top of the purified water. I then started buying bottled water for Rs 50 per 10 litre," says Meenakshi.
Bottled water didn't seem safe so the family changed their device again. "I bought the RO purifier for Rs 22,000. We have to pay the company Rs 3,200 each year for maintenance," she says.
The total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water Mahajans drink is now 20 ppm (parts per million). In other words, the family is drinking water as pure as distilled water, but which is also shorn of any minerals, and so nutritive properties. Is this the best the Indian water treatment industry has to offer?
Govt can't clean, companies step in
Water treatment is an upcoming business in developing countries like India. As water gets more and more contaminated, treating it has become an industry. Delhi-based consultant firm EQMS India (P) Ltd estimates that India's environmental service market is worth about US $2.5 billion to $3 billion, of which treating wastewater (including sewage) alone can fetch US $1.5 billion (Rs 150 crore).
"Municipalities have failed to provide clean drinking water and our water resources are becoming polluted. Pesticides seep into groundwater, which is then supplied to households. We keep hearing of drinking water mixing with sewage. People do not want to take any risk and prefer treating water at their end," says Rajesh Sharma, managing director of Mumbai-based Ion Exchange (India) Ltd, one of India's largest water treatment company. Municipalities provide chlorinated water but this only takes care of bacterial contamination. The new threat to drinking water, however, comes from chemicals, pesticides and other toxic compounds. Municipalities don't check for these, and the guidelines they follow for water treatment aren't mandatory (see: Down To Earth, 'Colanisation's Dirty Dozen', August 15, 2003).
The unsafe water supplied by municipalities has brought great business to private companies, which offer all kinds of water treatment solutions. The total market for household water treatment is India is estimated to be Rs 700 crore (see graph on next page: Unorganised sector). A market very lucrative to multinational companies (MNC), which don't have a household water treatment market in their own countries. So, they make tie-ups with Indian companies. The deal is: MNCs provide the technology and Indian companies use it in their devices.
"We started in 1964 as the subsidiary of a UK-based company but by 1984 we diversified and became an Indian company. Today we offer all kinds of water treatment solutions," says Sharma. Eureka Forbes, which launched its Aquaguard Classic in 1982, used to import the devices but then started manufacturing them in India. But the technology remains foreign.
Watching the success of these companies, many new ones have joined the bandwagon. "The unorganised sector has about 200 companies which manufacture household gadgets for purifying water. Most of them have imported the technology and assemble the units here," says Ajay Popat, vice president, corporate marketing, Ion Exchange.
B K Agarwal, chief of operations at Delhi-based Triveni Engineering and Industries Ltd, says, "We import the technologies from our parent company, United States Filter Corporation, in the US and manufacture the devices here."
Ceramic-based candle filters, ultra violet disinfection, resin filters and membrane filters are some of the devices which these companies offer for clean water (see table: Pick your water cleaner). "Three years back, we launched RO-based filters as pesticides in water have become a big challenge. Pristine, a four-column filter based on RO and activated carbon, is able to rid water of such pollutants," claims Sharma.
A guide to the gizmos
carbon and ultra violet (UV) disinfection
carbon and UV disinfection
filter, pre reverse osmosis (RO) carbon, membrane filter, post RO carbon, and UV
carbon and UV
Exchange (India) Ltd (Rs 200 crore turnover)
filter, resin, bacterostatic carbon
filter, pre RO carbon, membrane filter, post RO carbon
(Rs 100 crore turnover)
candle filter, activated carbon, UV
|Experts agree that both membrane technology and activated carbon can tackle pesticides (see box: Technology to clean). "Conventional treatment cannot treat pesticides but if one uses activated carbon and membrane technology together then they can be removed from water," says R C Trivedi, additional director, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
Today, marketing water treatment devices has become a science. "A gadget cannot be sold just over the counter. Water quality differs from place to place. It is important to first test water and then take a decision. Before selling a product, our engineers test the water quality at a household and then recommend the best option. If this isn't done, it can choke the membrane and supply unclean water," says Sharma.
These companies expect a huge business in membrane technology and activated carbon process, especially after the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) proved that bottled water and soft drinks contain pesticide residues. Discussions are on with Pepsico India Holdings Private Limited and Coca-Cola India to set up RO systems at their bottling plants, says Popat. Ridding water of pesticides will be next step in the treatment business.
Pesticides: Tastes like profit
Till now, treatment companies had never thought that they would have to deal with pesticides. Sharma says, "To be very frank, we had never tested if our products can deal with pesticide residues. It is only after CSE's report that we tested our Pristine filter." The tests in August 2003 found some reduction in levels of pesticides.
Indian Railways too claims that its bottling plant for Rail Neer -- bottled water served to passengers -- controls pesticides. "When we studied CSE's report, our first bottling plant for Rail Neer was ready, but we realised that pesticides were a big problem so we put another column of activated carbon at our plant," says S K Kaushik, director of finance, Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd (IRCTC) (see box: Pesticides: Rlys meets standards).
Not pure for sure
Companies claim membrane technology and activated carbon keep out pesticides and heavy metals, but experts would like to have concrete proof for that. "In the early 1990s, we tested candle filters and resin filters and realised that they disinfect water but don't remove pesticides. So, saying that these filters provide pure clean water is wrong," says Neeta P Thacker, deputy director of Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), a research laboratory of the Council for Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR).
"Theoretically, membranes can remove pesticides but no one can say for sure till a large-scale study is conducted. No one knows how pesticides react when they are in a mixed form in water. I do not know if one membrane can deal with all kinds of pesticides," says Thacker.
Sukumar Devotta, director of NEERI, and Thacker say research is needed on membrane-based filters and they are willing to do it. But companies claim they have their own studies and do not need a certificate from government institutes. But these studies aren't public, and the government hasn't set standards for these devices.
There is another concern: most membrane technologies remove the minerals required by the human body. Concerned over this issue, the Bureau of Indian Standards is debating whether to specify a minimum TDS along with maximum TDS.
Companies claim that the best membrane rejects 99.8 per cent pollutants and only a small fraction passes through. "So if the level of pesticide in water is very low, then the 0.2 per cent which beats the membrane does not matter. But if the water is highly contaminated, then even that 0.2 per cent could be very high," says Popat. Companies claim activated carbon traps the pollutants which escape the membrane, but experts demand studies to confirm this. And that cleaning costs a lot of water.
Clean a bit, waste a lot
A five-litre RO filter rejects phenomenally high amount of water: 80 to 85 per cent. "This happens because the pump attached to the filter cannot generate the high pressure a membrane needs. And a good pump, costs a lot of money," says Popat. The RO system at the Rail Neer plant only wastes 20 per cent water because of its pump, which costs Rs 50,000. And most of these pumps are imported.
"These technologies are only delaying the problem by a few years. The pollutants remain in the environment. What we need to do is minimise use of toxic compounds and protect our water sources. Once water resources are polluted, it is very difficult to clean them," says V Ravichandran, director of Chennai-based Enviro Energy Systems.
Money down the drain
In 1995, NEERI studied two RO-based desalination plants in Melasirupodhu and Sikkal villages of Tamil Nadu which had brought down the TDS in water from 5,300-8,500 ppm to less than 500 ppm. The study called Performance Evaluation of Reverse Osmosis Desalination Plants for Rural Water Supply in a Developing Country _ A Case Study came to the conclusion that "plants shut down due to inadequate and erratic power supply... and inherent delay in repairs due to lack of adequate infrastructure...." Consequently, the recurring cost of water production shot up to Rs 25 per cubic metre at Melasirupodhu and Rs 17.5 per cubic metre at Sikkal, as against the estimated cost of Rs 15 per cubic metre and Rs 11 per cubic metre respectively.
RO and activated carbon filters have other problems as well. They have to be regenerated and changed after some time. The smallest membrane could cost US $15 and largest about US $700. "Developing membranes needs stringent quality control and very good infrastructure. So, it's better to import because the government has recently lifted the duty on membranes," says Sharma.
Popat says that nearly 350 Indian firms supply activated carbon but the quality is so poor that his company prefers to make imports from Netherlands.
Treating drinking water is just a drop. Strict environmental rules means that the sewage of entire cities has to be cleaned. Companies are just waiting to plunge in and treat. Till about the end of 2000, Delhi's sewage treatment plants followed the effluent standard of 20 milligram per litre (mg/l) for biological oxygen demand (BOD) and 30 mg/l for total suspended solids (TSS). But Yamuna is getting dirtier because of the 4,088 million litre of wastewater it receives daily. Keeping this in mind, the CPCB on January 19, 2001 asked the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) to follow new norms of 10 mg/l BOD, 15 mg/l TSS and 1,000 most probable number (MPN) per 10 millilitre of total coliform at its new plants. Soon after CPCB gave this order, a debate started over who can deliver these new standards.
Who can clean the muck?
The DJB claims only MNCs have the technology to achieve these stringent standards. About a year back, the DJB floated a tender for its 45 million gallons per day (mgd) Kondli sewage treatment plant. Few companies applied and of them many were rejected. The DJB is yet to decide whom to give the contract. According to a senior DJB officer, three MNCs -- Austria-based VA Tech Wabag GmbH, France-based Ondeo Degremont and US-based Utility Equipment Management (UEM) Group -- are in the race.
But VA Tech has financial problems and UEM has no experience in running a treatment plant in India. So Degremont is the only choice DJB has. According to government rules, this is a case of single tender and DJB has to put out a fresh tender again. But will another round help? "No, because we know it will again be a single tender. We did not realise that there is hardly any company in India which can give results of 10 mg/l BOD and 15 mg/l TSS for sewage treatment. Environmental rules have been made stringent but there aren't many technology providers," claims the officer.
Only us, say MNCs
MNCs claim sewage treatment requires the best technology, but most treatment plants in India follow the conventional activated sludge process. ASP is a technology which uses sedimentation tanks and microorganisms to reduce BOD and TSS in sewage to 40 mg/l and 60 mg/l (see box: Cleaning the muck)
Degremont, which operates three sewage treatment plants in Delhi, says it too uses ASP but then follows it up with biofiltration. At the 40-mgd capacity Rithala Phase II plant, sewage is first treated using ASP and then effluent from the tanks is taken to BIOFOR filters, a patent product of Degremont.
It is this biofiltration process which sets it apart from conventional sewage treatment processes. Biofiltration first traps fine floating materials in the sewage with the help of a screen. After this, the sewage passes through 20 biological filters. The complete process gives an end result of 15 mg/l BOD and 20 mg/l TSS. The left over sludge is used to produce biogas which generates electricity. "The Rithala plant daily generates 23,000 to 25,000 unit of power," says manager Sanjay Khadayate.
Give us a chance: Indian industry
Indian companies aren't impressed. "Degremont is not offering anything extraordinary. They follow the conventional ASP and then do biofiltration. But we have an advanced technology in which there is no need to go in for biofiltration. We can treat sewage to 10 mg/l BOD at the secondary treatment stage alone," says Krishnan Rajagopalan, of Thermax Ltd.
Yogendra Chaudhury, counsellor, Confederation of Indian Industry, says, "There are some very good Indian companies like Thermax and Paramount which can give as low BOD as asked for. They have set up plants but face difficulty in working with municipalities." Chaudhary claims that sometimes rules in tenders keep out Indian companies and then municipalities cry hoarse over lack of competition.
Popat gives an example. "The Chennai corporation recently floated tenders for desalination plants of 100 million litres per day (mld), 200 mld and 300 mld capacity. Only companies, which have set up plants of 15 mld, 30 mld and 45 mld, can apply. The tender asks for a turnover of Rs 250 crore for a 100 mld plant, Rs 500 crore for a 200 mld plant, and Rs 1,500 for a 300 mld plant. To add to all this, companies have to deposit earnest money of Rs 50 lakh and Rs 100 lakh. No Indian company can meet these requirements. Only MNCs have that deep pockets to meet these demands."
"There are several technologies offered by Indian companies that can achieve 10 mg/l BOD in sewage. The only issue is initial cost and high power consumption," says Trivedi.
A senior DJB officer says Thermax had applied for the Kondli plant but was disqualified because the company did not have experience. Companies say this is a typical Catch-22 government policy.
'Plants, not stories'
Working with 'progressive' municipalities, Ion Exchange and Thermax are setting up model treatment plants. "Ion Exchange is setting up a 12 mld plant for Goa corporation for Rs 4 crore. The treatment plant is based on advanced cyclic-activated sludge technology, which gives a BOD up to 5 mg/l and removes nutrients from the sewage," says Popat. Ion Exchange is also talking with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and Jammu and Kashmir government to set up similar plants.
Ion Exchange says it has another technology called C-MEM (submerged membrane bio-reactor) which uses membranes to treat sewage. The membranes are submerged along with the sewage in a tank which is continuously aerated. The company uses this technology to treat sewage at its factory in Rabale near Mumbai. "Sewage, which has a BOD and chemical oxygen demand (COD) of 250 mg/l and 550 mg/l, is treated to get a result of less than 5 mg/l BOD and about 30 mg/l COD. The treated sewage looks as good as the drinking water supplied by Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation," says Nitin Umbralkar, marketing manager of Ion Exchange. The Rabale plant uses eight membrane modules, with each module costing about Rs 2.5 lakh. Ion Exchange also manufactures INDION, a sewage treatment plant which can be packed in a container and transported.
Thermax Ltd, which is based in Pune, Maharashtra, says it too has the best technology which can function quite efficiently in Indian conditions. "Our company believes in decentralised treatment of sewage because pumping sewage from one part of the city to another doesn't make sense. It involves huge investment in the conveyance system. That is why we bid for smaller plants and have already set up a few," says Rajagopalan.
Thermax recently set up a sewage treatment plant in Sangvi town near Pune for the Pimpri-Chindwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) based on fluidised aerobic bio (FAB) reactor technology. Four years ago, when PCMC floated a tender for 12 mld STP it wanted the conventional ASP technology. But the land wasn't big enough and people complained that the proposed plant would stink.
Thermax won the contract by impressing the corporation with its FAB reactor. "The total cost of the treatment plant is Rs 5.6 crore but we have designed it in such a way that the running cost is minimum. For instance, we do not need to pump out the sewage. Sewage flows out because of gravity. If we were to use conventional technology, it would take us at least eight hours to treat sewage. But the FAB reactor enables us to do the job in just 1.45 hours," says Rajagopalan. The company says it has already set up 72 treatment plants based on FAB reactors.
Tested, not tried
But all these technologies -- membrane or FAB reactors -- which Indian companies flaunt are foreign concepts. The government and companies have little to show for technologies that have worked under Indian conditions. The government has spent Rs 320 billion in 50 years on rural drinking water supply. Under the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, more than 77 research projects have been sponsored, out of which 15 have been conducted by CSIR laboratories. But a paper presented during last year's National Workshop on Priority Research and Technology Programme for Rural Water Supply and Sanitation, says: "It is an area of serious concern that most of the completed projects have not been able to demonstrate a proven technology which can have effective application for solving water and sanitation problem". Most technologies have failed in villages though they gave promising results in labs.
"A large number of water treatment plants installed in various states to tackle toxicity in drinking water sources have not met with much success. The complexity, high cost and inconvenience of these technologies, compounded by lack of trained manpower in villages, have constrained their implementation and sustainability," said Annasaheb M K Patil, Union minister of state for rural development, at a workshop organised by NEERI in 2003.
Several research institutes under CSIR, such as the Lucknow-based Industrial Toxicology Research Centre and NEERI have developed indigenous water treatment technologies after decades of research. But most of these technologies have only worked in labs. "We have a tendency to ignore issues. These technologies aren't checked for performance. We must have a performance test for all technologies and a national organisation to verify them," says M V Nanoti, deputy director of NEERI.
In the 1970s, NEERI developed the Nalgonda technology for defluoridation of water. It was a simple method which added aluminum salt to water and followed it by flocculation, sedimentation and filtration. The technology was launched with much fanfare and it worked well initially but now most plants using it have failed (See Down To Earth, 'The Dark Zone', Vol 11, April 15, 2003).
NEERI, with funding from the Union urban development ministry, in the mid-1990s developed a pesticide removal unit which could be attached to household taps. The system, which was filled with granular activated carbon, claimed to treat water for lindane, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and dichloro-diphenyl-dichloroethylene (DDE) in concentration below 5 microgramme per litre. NEERI claimed that the unit could remove 60-90 per cent pesticides, 99 per cent organic carbon and 100 per cent faecal coliforms in two cubic metre of water. But the unit was never marketed, and today it can't be used because we have new kind of pesticides.
Devotta says, "We need to differentiate between technique and technology. Not all techniques are technologies. NEERI has developed both, some of which have worked and some have not. We will now revisit all the technologies developed by us to understand the problems and challenges."
Many institutes have developed technologies to extract activated carbon from coconut husk. The Guru Jambheshwar University in Hisar has developed coconut coir pith carbon for removing fluoride. Tamil Nadu's Annamalai University has developed low cost carbon for removing dyes released by textile industries. The carbon, which absorbed 92 to 95 per cent of the dye, was developed using palm nutshell, cashew nutshell and broomstick. But all these technologies have just been experiments.
"The problem is that a research institute thinks its job is to develop technology; a company only thinks of marketing and the government only funds pilot projects. All the stakeholders are working in isolation. There is no one to take these technologies to commercial scale applications," says Devotta.
Companies say they do invest in research. "We invest one per cent of our Rs 200 crore turnover on research. We have indegenously developed resins to treat fluoride, iron, nitrates and arsenic," says Sharma.
But while Indian companies have mastery over resins, membranes are still way off. Only Chennai-based Membrane Technologies Ltd manufactures ultra-filtration membranes in India. All other companies import, claiming that they need infrastructure and demand to manufacture membranes. "We were making membranes with Hydranautics of Netherlands. But the MNC shut down and we stopped manufacturing the membranes," says Popat.
Government agencies claim to be doing research on membranes but companies are doubtful of their products. "Bhavnagar's Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute took 20 years to make a membrane. But it has a rejection rate of 95 per cent only as against the world best of 99.8 per cent. Who will buy their membrane?" questions Popat.
Worldwide the environmental services market is growing, and if India wants a share in the pie it needs quality technology. The environmental services market is now worth US $280 billion and is expected to grow to US $640 billion by 2010, with an annual growth rate of eight per cent. This will place the environmental services industry at roughly the same size as the pharmaceuticals or information technology industries. The market is presently in the industrialised world, but the demand in developing countries is expected to shoot up soon.
The environmental consulting market in India is growing at 15 per cent per annum and is expected to touch US $13 billion to $14 billion by 2005, says a 2003 report, Potential and Opportunities: Indian Environment Market, prepared for the Union ministry of environment and forests.
Under the World Trade Organization, negotiations on environmental goods and services are on. If water and wastewater treatment technologies are classified as 'environmental goods', then they could get preferential treatment on duties. Industrialised countries, whose companies have the best technology and are comfortable with strict standards, are eyeing this market. Indian companies need to invent indigenous solutions. Watching what the world does can't be a policy.
With inputs by Vikas Parashar
In a mess
Meghalaya's chief minister admits the state is in a mess. Among states in India, it ranks 24th in the country's Human Development Index and 21st on the index of social and economic infrastructure. "The state government and the adcs have floundered a bit," concurs a cabinet minister in the present state government.
This isn't due to lack of funds. "The central government has been pumping money as grants and loans to the state, yet the money has failed to reach the villages," points out Sanat Chakraborti, editor of Grassroot Options, a Shillong based magazine (see graph: Money pours in). The effect: as traditional ways of earning a living crumble, people find it tougher to get work.
Jhum, or shifting cultivation -- once effective and sustainable in the undulating and small valleys of the region -- is on its way out: only about 50,000 families practice it in Meghalaya today. Jhum cycles have reduced from 8-10 years to 5-7 years, points out P S Ramakrishnan of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Consequently its ability to allow land to regenerate has reduced, rendering the process increasingly unproductive. People can only shift to cash crops like ginger and potatoes. But the shift implies a level of integration with the mainstream economy that Meghalaya has never seen before.
The net sown area has remained static -- it is a meagre 0.09 ha per person -- whereas pesticide usage has increased by 2 tonnes annually. Foodgrain production has only marginally improved in the past two decades (see graph: Cereals are out). "While much of the state government machinery continues to run its research putting down jhum as it is practiced today, research groups studying the impacts of cash cropping on the ecology or improved jhum technologies are rare," says Toki Blah, former director, International Fund for Agricultural Development (ifad) that's running a programme to revitalise livelihoods in jhum villages. ifad has made a minor beginning in the Garo hills, but the state government is yet to assimilate its lessons.
Customary land ownership patterns bedevil this situation. Although the various Acts related to the land tenure system -- the United Khasi Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Transfer of Land) Act, 1953 and the Meghalaya Transfer of Land (Regulation) Act, 1971 -- have significantly departed from customary practices, the latter are still followed and enforced. Land in Meghalaya is held by a family's matriarch, or by the community in trust. Each village in the Khasi hills has its known lands, in which rights of private ownership are recognised. The village council distributes and allots community land for use.
In the Khasi hills, a member can cultivate a patch as long as required. If the land is left fallow for more than three years, it reverts back to the community and can be utilised by another member. Intrinsic to this style of land-use is the absence of land records, or codified customary laws. Thus, borrowing money from banks becomes tough, for banks demand documentary evidence of ownership. And, while the male member of the family manages the land and the family resources as an agent and transacts the daily business, ownership resides with the woman. The banks find it tough to manage around this fact. This is reflected in the fact that the state ranks 30th in per capita utilisation of credit available to it, a debilitating trap.
The circle of militancy
The Planning commission estimates that 33.87 per cent of Meghalaya's population still remains below the poverty line (1999-2000). But as Robert Kharsiing points out, "Imagine, 45 minutes from Shillong, in Smit where the people conglomerated -- the capital of the biggest Khasi hima -- there are villages without electricity." (see pie chart: Darkness) While the voltage dips, unemployment peaks. Official figures show that out of the state's 9.56 lakh workers, 2.14 lakh are marginal (they work for less than 180 days in a year). This number is hotly contested.
What is not is that Meghalaya's educated youth has turned increasingly to militancy. Two major militant groups -- the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council and the Achik National Volunteer Council -- operate here. Their cadre strength, political observers say, is an index of employment levels. And as the guns boom, a vicious circle -- militancy keeping development at bay, underdevelopment, and so militancy in return -- repeats itself.
Forests -- the last hope
Meghalaya's forests used to be a crucial source of income. A Supreme Court order of 1998 to stop logging in the northeast brought to a halt the large-scale felling of trees. Yet, in a state where 90 per cent of the forests are owned by the people, very few people benefit substantially from the trade. "A study based on a survey of at least 20 villages of the West Khasi hills," writes Chakraborty in Impact of logging ban on livelihood, "Found how the entire logging activities were organised in remote villages and in what ways the timber trade influenced people's lives. Interviews and discussions with village elders, traditional heads, women, logging workers, mill owners, timber contractors, traders (malik diengs), government officials and others suggested there was no concept of organised tree farming in villages. None of the people could confirm they had specific harvesting and replanting schedules for their forest. They were just buying new forests and clearing them off." He mentions cases of malik diengs buying large tracts at Rs 60 per tree, then selling them to bigger contractors outside the state at Rs 165 per cubic feet. It was a pittance, but thousands of families did depend on the trade. Since the 1998 order, many joined the ranks of the unemployed.
The adcs, responsible for making new management plans (along with the forest department) to allow sustainable harvest, have not moved on the case. Admitted M R Lingwi, former executive member of the Khasi Hills adc, in a September 2003 interview, "The adc has not taken any action on this front. We know that many lives depend upon forest resources and this should be done on a war footing." But the fact that the central government funds for afforestation and forest management were routed through the state government and not the adcs created problems, notes B Datta Roy in The Seventy Third Amendment Act 1992 and the State of Meghalaya.
This is not the only issue on which adcs have come a cropper. They simply haven't used their legislative powers to benefit the region. Instead, they have enacted the United Khasi-Jainita Hills Autonomous District (Appointment and Succession of Chiefs and Headmen) Act 1959. The act provides for removal and suspension of chiefs. It also debars them from participating in any elections of the parliament, state legislature or district council unless certain strict conditions are met. "The act has been misused on several occasions and syiems and dolois removed at the whims and fancies of the district council," says Neindro Syiem of Maharam. A senior state bureaucrat agrees: "Very often the chiefs are appointed or removed on the basis of their political affiliations and the new incumbents then work in cahoots with the members of the adc." Many traditional chiefs have taken to party politics to keep their new masters happy, admits one syiem. Interestingly, the Supreme Court too has upheld in a case that the chiefs are only officers of the councils under the Constitution and upheld the validity of the 1959 act. The sixth schedule was amended in 1969 to empower state governments to entrust autonomous councils with functions relating to agriculture, animal husbandry, community development projects and cooperative societies. adcs have failed to deliver on these fronts, says Datta Roy.
Perhaps the most glaring example is that the adcs, till date, haven't carried out the cadastral mapping of the region -- the only way to ascertain land-holding rights and demarcate boundaries. "In the absence of such mapping, much of the data we have related to agriculture, land and productivity for the region sure seems unreliable," admits a senior officer of the North East Council, Shillong.
The elite within
This lack, and the fact that traditional rules haven't been codified -- the adc can undertake this, too -- means neither government nor concerned institutions can quantify the changes in land holding in the last 40 years. Says Patricia Mukhim, a senior analyst and journalist based in Shillong, "A new elite has risen in Meghalaya. A class of land-lords that did not exist before in the egalitarian land holding system. When community lands are distributed individuals own them. Poverty forces people to sell off land. Land may initially be distributed in the name of a woman but the subsequent buyers are timber merchants or other male businessmen, who buy the land for when their children need to look at farming as an alternative, since they know that scope for employment in the city is virtually non-existent." No data exists on this. But as Kharsiing says, "Yes, there is a very rich class in Shillong today, a certain politically influential elite group which seems to prosper regardless of the condition of the rest of the state, but that is not true in rural Meghalaya; there is no land alienation." S S Syiem, a former syiem of Nongstion, says, "Our traditional system of land owning and the clan has always provided for the poor. But we now have to quickly adjust to the new regimes or the the situation will worsen."
Social scientists today question whether these institutionas are democratic, and whether they can tolerate the presence of large numbers of non-tribals in the state. Their method of working is suited to manage composite and homogenous groups, says Apurba Barua, professor of anthropology at nehu, Shillong.
Also, "Traditional institutions lack ability to handle the new economy," says John F Kharshiing, spokesperson for the Federation of Khasi States, a broad umbrella group of all traditional institutions in the Jaintia and Khasi hills. A section of them have been tainted with corruption, too. "But one cannot dismiss the entire tradition because of a few bad examples," defends P R Mawthaw, a minister at the hima level.
Let them adapt
Irrespective of the party in power, Meghalaya's government has either turned adcs into mere advisory bodies, or conveniently withdrawn financial support. adcs have also been used as a political springboard for hopefuls to reach the state assembly. adcs, in turn, have meted out the exact treatment to customary institutions. A comparative look at the Panchayati Raj institutions under the 73rd amendment to the Constitution makes it evident that the entrenched structue aches for an overhaul (see table below: More complicated today). The National Commission reviewing the working of the constitution has presented a consultation paper saying as much (see box: Roadmap).
"The customary governing institutions are still enmeshed in the moral and social fibre of the society. This is specially true of rural Meghalaya where clan-based affiliations are still strong," says Mawthaw. "Well, the state government and the adcs have stunted their growth, ensured they never develop as institutions. Not an iota of capacity building has been done," says John Kharshiing. "Besides other factors, the constant haranguing matches between these three -- state government, adcs and traditional setups -- have kept Meghalaya trapped in a dole-based economy," laments a senior officer of nec, Shillong.
Sanjoy Hazarika, of the Delhi-based Centre for North-East Studies, says, "The way ahead is to create a three tier system, with the traditional village councils in each of the three hills performing the same functions as the village councils do under the panchayati raj in the rest of the country." He admits this is easier said than done. The first step obviously would be to build capacity in the traditional institutions to help align them to the demands of a new economy. Simple issues like financial robustness and accountability in a written format will have to be taken down to the village level; high literacy levels should help in this task.
The adcs were initially meant for tribal hill districts within Assam, so opinions float about their relevance today. The councils were meant to be a surrogate for a state government. experts raise doubts about their relevance now that Meghalaya is a separate state. "Maybe they have outlived their present format, its time to reevaluate their working and powers," says a senior minister in the present state government. But it's a political cat that few can afford to bell.
Back to the people's budget
The initiative of the traditional chiefs to seek direct funds from the center alters the stratagem. Robert Kharshiing agrees, "If it works, this is the first step. We need to take it slowly, look at the results of the expenditure after one year, evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, go back to the people with our financial reports and let them also judge our efficacy." Tata Consultacy Services, that helped in this process, plans to set up a secretariat in Shillong to help manage, oversee and regulate the expenditure. But Kharshiing knows, in the long run, that "We will have to create livelihoods, if our economy has to self-sustain." Robert Lyngdoh, home minister of Meghalaya, says, "The tourism sector holds the key besides opening up the trade with neighboring countries." The shift towards the tertiary sector of services is visible in the recent past, too. But what no one has looked at is the consequences of shifting away from a natural resource-based economy.
|More complicated today
Traditional Khasi governance was a simpler affair
A: By constitution
B: Traditional institutions
|Dorbar Raid (cluster of
||Block level institutions
|Dorbar Kyntoit (village
|Dorbar Shnong (village
|*Valid for other areas; **Valid
for Schedule VI areas
Source:Juanita War 1997, Panchayati Raj and Traditional Khasi Institutions: A
Comparison, Power To The People in Meghalaya, Regency Publications, New Delhi, p72
"Admittedly, a natural-resource based economy cannot sustain the growth levels that current economics demand," the nec
official says, "but it can become the firm backbone to bring a degree of self-reliance back into the rural population that is slowly eroding."
In the absence of sustainable exploitation of forests, people have begun to shift to mining coal. Rat pit mines dot the route to Cherrapunji in the Khasi Hills and Raliang in the Jaintia Hills. "Here too a few shall monopolise the trade as it turns lucrative and reaches a certain scale," warns Bidhayak Das, a Shillong-based journalist. Also, the challenge lies in ensuring that the mining does not reach proportions where it threatens the already fragile ecology. "Cherrapunji's bald landscape cannot take more," says Donkupar Syiem, Department of Zoology, nehu
. "But the potential surely exists in the natural resources. We are trying to document the potential of medicinal plants and their chemical extracts. We have tied up with the Reliance group, where the community shall have the first rights over profits that are made from marketing their resources or extract, we are aware of the Kani tribe's example and want to replicate it successfully here," says B Kharbuli, of the same department. Neindro Syiem wants to know the potential that plants in his hima
's sacred groves hold and how to systemise the traditional herb practitioners. But he is wary. "We shall tread carefully. I know our region can turn our age old traditions into profitable businesses but we have to find ways by which it is ensured that the money reaches the people. We don't want our resources to be exploited by outsiders."
The danger is if the political class does not wake up in time to realise the potential before the gusty winds of a liberalised economy reach Meghlaya, then neither the new political dispensation nor the traditional institutions will be able to find their feet or save the only asset that has kept the people going through the turmoil of the last 40 years -- natural resources. The traditional institutions can fulfil the need for a grassroot democratic set up that delivers development, but only if empowered. The big questions are: Will Meghalaya seize the day? Or go the troubling way of its neighbouring states?
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