One can empathise with tribes living in states ruled by non-tribal elites. They suffer the travails of everyday life with having to live in areas where roads are never repaired and travelling between one place and the other is an arduous task. I am speaking about Karbi Anglong and the road from Doboka to Manza and Dimapur. That’s an awful stretch of back-breaking road not recommended for those with a weak constitution. But what do people in those areas do? They have to keep travelling in rickety old buses to Diphu, the district headquarters, and beyond. People are poor and set up small shops with a few lemons; some bunches of bananas and a few leafy vegetables they have plucked for the day. They hopefully wait for passengers to stop by and pick up some of those fruits and vegetables and then leave for the day to buy their daily needs. That’s a subsistence level of existence.
Schools are very far away from the villages. Some with two-wheelers drop their kids to schools but have to carefully negotiate the huge craters on the road. The whole journey looks precarious but imagine this happening day in and day out. It really is a painful sight to see such daily struggles of people going unnoticed by public representatives once they are safely and comfortably ensconced in their comfort zones for the next five years.
The least they can do is follow up with the government of the day about the road conditions. But even that seems like an impossible dream for millions of people living in Assam. And I find it rather strange that all shades of journalists that have parachuted from distant parts of India only have time to cover news related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the politics behind this exercise. It appears that covering news on the aspects of under-development that continue to be blight in the tribal districts of Assam is not interesting enough. We have a media that seems to conspire against the weak and the voiceless and one that captures the voices of only those that are savvy enough to make a political point to embarrass the government. The politics behind the media and which brand of politics drives it is a subject worth studying.
However, this is more about Nagaland and its never-ending effort to construct a road between its commercial capital Dimapur and its political capital Kohima. Nagaland is a state of extreme variations in wealth ranking. Some are extremely rich and some pathetically poor and living in the outback of the state. For a person from Mon district, travelling a distance of 345 km to Kohima takes nearly 13-14 hours. Tuensang, which is 230 km from Kohima, takes nearly 10 hours of travel.
So for people from these distant districts reaching the capital Kohima for any work means travelling for more than a day, staying back at Kohima, visiting the necessary office/s and travelling back only on the third day because the means of transport are scarce. Is it fair for people to have to put up with such disadvantages in the 21st century? Yet they continue to do so. Only people living in Kohima, Dimapur and Mokokchung seem to have enjoyed the fruits of development and also to have a voice to raise a stink in case their grievances are not addressed.
The aspect of under-development has been subsumed under the narrative of the foot-dragging Peace Talks which started in 1997. People of Nagaland or at least a section of them have been led to believe that the end of the peace talks would also be their journey of deliverance. But deliverance from what? Is it possible to get a completely new set of leaders with unshakeable morals that will ensure that every penny of the money allotted for road-making is put into the project and not a single penny leaks out into private pockets? That’s a mirage we have all been fed.
What I find rather enigmatic is that there is a complete disconnect between Christianity and governance. There is no sign of Christian principles in governance which should be predicated on accountability and transparency (both of which are principles that even the secular world believes in) or of truth and righteousness and justice and equity being preached day in and day out in our churches. Why this huge disconnect? Is Christianity just an external manifestation of an adapted civilised lifestyle which has not touched hearts and minds? This is a question that should challenge the youth of Nagaland in whose hands lies the future of this state.
For the first time perhaps, Nagaland has a governor in RN Ravi, who has graduated from being interlocutor for the Naga Peace Talks to his present post but continues to remain the discussant between the government of India and the Th Muivah-led National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) with the suffix (I-M). Ravi has broad-based the talks to include other Naga groups under the banner of Naga National Political Group (NNPG) so as to solicit their views as well as their expectations which might not necessarily be in alignment with that of the NSCN (IM’s).
It’s time for the underground outfits to also realise that people have moved on and they despise the current lifestyles of the armed cadres that roam around with guns and that survive on taxes from different business establishments and individuals for simply guarding an ideology that is well past its time. The Nagas have been ruling themselves ever since they were given statehood. The amount of money poured in by an insouciant central government of all political hues has only reached a few pockets including that of the armed outfits. Nagaland has hardly any revenue generating capacity hence every symbol of development in the form of palatial buildings and businesses accrue from public funds. This is a fact that is undeniable.
It is intuitive that the Right to Information is hardly used in Nagaland because of the close clan and kinship ties and because no one wants to embarrass anyone. Hence all spending is without scrutiny and observations of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) are not taken note of. It’s business as usual year after year. The rich become richer and the poor, poorer. The rhetoric of development continues unabashedly even while the road between Dimapur and Kohima speaks otherwise and is a monumental symbol of depravity and corruption.
There are several social media groups and the Naga people are very articulate in expression of ideas but the arguments begin and end in the virtual world. No one will take the lead to challenge the decrepit political system that has exercised authority like a Colossus for decades together. I have often wondered why. Then recently, a driver who took me from Dimapur to Kohima said everyone takes money for votes. Those with more clout to convince others to vote for a certain candidate get more money. When money is taken for service the force of a moral authority dissipates. One wonders whether things will ever change and who will lead that change.
And yet in that darkness and despondency there are sparks that light up the world of Nagaland. There are young entrepreneurs who have struggled their way to the top of the economic order and are competing with the best in the world. In terms of arts, weaving and crafts, Nagaland leads the way in Northeast. Spinning their yarns with exotic designs is a lot of hard work and dedication. Some women have been involved in this trade for decades and earn an honest living. Such entrepreneurs have been able to attract buyers from across the world. They need to be given due respect and recognition.
Young entrepreneurs need training and financing and have to understand book-keeping before they try and scale up their businesses. We don’t want young entrepreneurs to hit an unresponsive wall and take their own lives. This has happened once and should not be repeated. The youth have to see some light at the end of the tunnel so that they are not despondent and turn to drugs. Political leadership is about showing the way; not about blocking the path ahead with their big, burly shadows.
Governor RN Ravi has decided to monitor the infamous Kohima-Dimapur road-making project regularly and has refused to take the chopper from Kohima to Dimapur airport, despite much insistence by those in government. He has also taken it upon himself to visit the far-flung areas of Nagaland to get a first-hand account of life beyond the state capital. We can only hope he succeeds in bringing about a change of attitudes towards governance and a ray of hope for a beleaguered populace in the back of beyond.
(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of The Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2000 by the government of India. She tweets at @meipat. Views expressed above are her own)