Twenty years ago, even 10-15 years back, I would have placed Shillong, my home town, as one of the prettiest hill stations in the country. Not any longer. The city is an absolute mess, a concrete jungle with a few pockets of green. Its streets are overwhelmed by the stentch of vehicle fumes and traffic is one long nightmarish jam, especially around school opening and closing times.
In the daytime, trucks ply unhindered through these crowded streets carrying coal, consumer goods, vegetables and heavy machinery, because for a quarter century, the state government, the National Highway authorities and private land owners have been unable to agree on the routing and compensation for the “Shillong bypass,” so appropriately named for it is only a bypass that could save the city from a massive coronary attack.
Shillong, once the “Scotland of the East”, with its valleys and hills, its streams and golf course, its wonderful old wooden bungalows and striking natural scenery in the districts around, is gasping for breath, and no one seems to be bothered – not the government, editors and civil society.
In fact, this is a key campaign that civil society organizations – and there are so many of them in the North-east need to launch, in partnership with the Government. Shillong may be the capital of Meghalaya but it is the pride of the North-east. To restore it to health will take a joint effort. For that to happen, concerned citizens, professional bodies, researchers and individuals from across the North-east with connections to Shillong – and they will be elsewhere in India and across the world -- need to pool their ideas, resources and plan on specific, sustainable strategies.
How is this to be done: first document, research (although many already know the reasons and it’s rooted in human greed) and strategize on the problems of the city in separate sectors – traffic management, stopping destruction of the trees and scientific replanting, curbing the rush to build, better water and sanitation, cleaner streets with proper dustbins and regular clearing by municipal trucks.
But opposition by influential groups has successfully blocked plans for municipal elections. However, even to clear the garbage, the city needs a specific, responsive and responsible government – neither the Autonomous District Council nor the traditional dorbars nor a bunch of bureaucrats nor the State Government can deliver. Politicians spend time feathering their own nests.
This needs to be thought through carefully. Without a stake by the people, can a city be governed? There is a solution: the Constitution has enough flexibility to legislate a permanent majority for the Scheduled Tribes in the governance of the city. This should be ensured. But it cannot happen by depriving some residents of representation on the basis of their ethnicity. This would violate the principle of equality before the law and the basis of the Constitution.
Across the world, city and town councils work well because they function on adult franchise. Gangtok, Shimla and other hill stations are competently run, clean and pleasant to walk around in with are pedestrian zones where no vehicles are allowed; tourist traffic is growing. But Shillong is growing without planning either for the present or the future.
Thousands of tourists crowd its shops, lanes and markets and dash to Cherrapunji of the fabled rain and falls and elsewhere and congregate noisily for food and fun. But with its carrying capacity failing, without a sense of ownership by its people and visitors, the city is on the verge of collapse.
Apart from the crisis facing the city, the highway from Guwahati to Shillong is pock marked with long patches of dusty broken road. Drivers careen crazily across bends and race each other in a mad rush, endangering passengers and villagers. And now I have seen the future of this once green and pleasant road – the National Highway of India is smashing its way through hill sides and old jungles to build a four lane. The NHAI can’t maintain the existing two lane, the bypass for Shillong isn’t in place and won’t be for some time. The four-lane will choke the city to death?
Jairam Ramesh, our lone environmental warrior in the Government of India probably isn’t aware of this. His office in Shillong should brief him and he should pay a visit to see what is happening to one of the most beloved hill stations of our land. This reckless destruction must be challenged.
The goal is simple, the slogan is clear: Save Shillong.
by Sanjoy Hazarika