18/07/2016 11:14 AM IST | Updated 21/07/2016 8:40 AM IST

Caught In A Time Warp: Meghalaya's Forgotten Minorities

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In a recent visit to a private clinic in Hallidayganj, a village in the plains belt of West Garo Hills in Meghalaya, I had a terrible encounter. A lady who had complications in childbirth and was in urgent need of blood had to be driven almost 130km away to Goalpara, a town in lower Assam that has in recent years seen a proliferation of private hospitals. The family had believed the doctor in his little clinic in Hallidayganj would offer a miracle, but he could only give the patient a few injections and advise for her to be taken to a hospital at the earliest.

At a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is busy campaigning for Smart Cities and Digital India, people in the plains of Meghalaya have to make do with abysmal roads, poor electricity, dysfunctional schools and a neglected health sector. The only district-level hospital in the West Garo Hills is located in the district headquarters of Tura, about 53km from Hallidayganj. In the case of an emergency, people in the plains belt have little choice but to find their way to private hospitals in towns like Goalpara. But that is only when they have the money to afford privatized healthcare. Many people do not have that choice.

People in the plains of Meghalaya have to make do with abysmal roads, poor electricity, dysfunctional schools and a neglected health sector.

The plains belt of the West Garo Hills, bordering the Dhubri, South Salmara and Goalpara districts of lower Assam and the neighbouring Bangladesh, remains one of the most neglected regions in Meghalaya. Stretching from Tikrikilla to Mahendraganj over the Western plains of Garo Hills and housing two non-reserved constituencies -- Phulbari and Rajabala -- the region is marred by wide-scale unemployment, poor educational and health indicators, unchecked crimes such as kidnapping and extortion, and river erosion-induced displacement triggered every year by floods in the Brahmaputra river and its tributary, Zingiram.

Earlier a part of Assam, the state of Meghalaya was created in 1972 under the State Re-organization Act of 1971. The All Party Hill Leaders' Conference (APHLC), a conglomerate of political groups from the Garo and Khasi-Jaintia Hills that was formed in 1961 to push the mandate for a separate hill state, also included non-tribal communities. As The Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim observes, ''The argument at the time was that genuine non-tribals whose antecedents date back to about three generations should be given a share of the fruits that accrue from a separate state.'' However, the plains belt of the Garo Hills, because of its historical, social and cultural proximity with erstwhile Bengal and parts of Assam, and its largely non-tribal population, continues to be a blot on the landscape.

Restricting the participation [of non-tribal communities] in the affairs of the District Council cannot be in the best interest of the Indian democracy.

There have been consistent demands in recent years by various Garo organizations in the region, such as the Garo Students' Union (GSU) to bar non-tribals from contesting and voting in the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC) elections. The GHADC, one of the three Autonomous District Councils in Meghalaya, was created in 1952 under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, and has executive and judicial powers relating to governance of ''tribal areas''. Given the demography of the state, which has had a significant non-tribal population for several decades now, restricting their participation in the affairs of the District Council cannot be in the best interest of the Indian democracy.

According to the 2011 census, the percentage of Muslims in Meghalaya is 4.40%, with a significant portion of them (16.60%) residing in the West Garo Hills. The Bengali-speaking Muslim community, often configured in mainstream media and political narratives as "illegal Bangladeshi immigrants" or "outsiders", comprises a major chunk of the population in the plains belt along with caste Hindus: Bengalis, Biharis, Nepalis and Axomiyas. Forty-four years since the creation of Meghalaya, the plain belt of the Garo Hills remains socially, economically and educationally backward.

As per the 2011 census, the average literacy rate of the West Garo Hills is 67.58% against the 74.43% total average for the state. A Baseline Survey of Minority Concentrated Districts conducted in 2008 by the Indian Council of Social Science Research observed:

''Religious wise literacy rates in the district (West Garo Hills) reveal that Christians have highest number of literates among the religious groups. The literacy rate of the Muslims is much below the average rural literacy rate of the district especially the Muslim female literacy rate. This low level of literacy and consequent educational attainment has its bearing on the employment and livelihood opportunities of the Muslims. The main reason for educational backwardness of Muslims is poverty due to which children are forced to drop out after the first few classes. This is particularly true for Muslim girls.''

The Annual Report of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Meghalaya for 2014-2015 puts the average school dropout rate at 10.34% for the primary level and 6.82% for the upper primary level in the state. A greater number of female students drop out of schools at the upper primary level due to the lack of basic infrastructure (such as toilets) and stereotypical gender norms around care and domesticity. Issues of health, finance, migration, child labour and gender disparity form a complex web leading to an appalling school dropout rate.

For a non-tribal and a Bengali-speaking Muslim to be the Speaker of Meghalaya is indeed historic. It signifies... the generational leap of a community against grave odds.

While the case is different for urban centres, most primary and upper primary schools in rural areas are run by unqualified and untrained teachers. More often than not, students end up struggling with the basics of education. With a poor literacy rate due to higher school dropouts, and lack of access to government jobs or trade opportunities, most Muslims in the plain belt are pushed to the unorganized sector. A Sample Village Survey conducted in the rural areas of West Garo Hills in 2008 shows that while 67% of Christians and 7% of Hindus had government jobs, only 3% of Muslims in the villages were government job holders. A major part of the total Muslim workforce in West Garo Hills is engaged as agricultural labour.

It is interesting to note that the current and the first ever non-tribal Speaker of the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly, Abu Taher Mondol, is a legislator from the Phulbari constituency and a resident of the plains belt. When I first heard the news of Mondol being appointed as the Speaker of the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly under the Mukul Sangma-led Congress government, I was filled with a sense of pride. For a non-tribal and a Bengali-speaking Muslim to be the Speaker of Meghalaya is indeed historic. It signifies not only Mondol's personal grit, determination and leadership skills, but also the generational leap of a community against grave odds.

A different version of this article appeared in The Shillong Times on July 13, 2016.

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