BHOGTORAM MAWROH REVEALS THE TRUE FACE OF #SHILLONG
Every day when I walk to my Office in Lummawrie (commonly known as Fire Bridge because of the presence of a fire station), I would stop near a momo stall on the roadside where one can have a sumptuous snack for ₹ 30. The delight is available after 2 pm when most of the college and school students have returned from their places of study. Shillong has for a long time been known as the education centre of North East India, with students from different parts of the region flocking to it every year. Most of the renowned educational institutes like St. Edmund’s, St. Mary’s, St. Anthony’s, etc., are based in and around Laitumkhrah, the locality adjoining Lummawrie. After the classes get over, the young people would flock to this tiny stall treating themselves to momo, egg roll or soup. The customers, however, are not limited to young people. People of all age groups, also enjoy the meal, especially when they don’t have the money to eat in the fancy restaurants that dot the whole area.
The owner of this small establishment seems to have some kind of mutual agreement with the shop keeper from under whose verandah he operates. Presumably he has to share whatever profits he makes with the shop-keeper. Also, since the momos are hot and spicy, people would often end up buying a bottle of water from the shop behind after a meal. I myself used to do it in the beginning. However, lately I have got used to the spiciness and feel no use to buy any more water. Therefore, the shop-owner does not always seem to enjoy my ubiquity. From time to time he would remonstrate to people not to stand in front of his shop in spite of their being non-obstructive. There is an uneasy alliance between him and the momo-seller which, however, is not replicated across the city.
In other parts of Shillong, street vendors like the momo-seller are being harried by the Municipal and the Police. Goods would be confiscated and not returned or if they are ever returned most of the products go missing. Recently, a women vendor with two young children was asked to go to the High Court and pay a fine for selling edibles on the footpath. However, when she reached the Court, she was told that she is not among the witness list, i.e., there was no need for her to come. The farcical nature of this whole episode was made more tragic by the fact that the people who picked her were the ones who often buy food from the roadside. There is a whole disruption of livelihood and trust which the anti-hawker attitude of the current government has produced. The repercussions of all this disruption has been devastating for the hawkers.
Outside the Civil Hospital, there is a 70+ years kong (lady) who has been selling goods out of her small basket for the last 50 years. When I asked her how she started, she answered “My mom used to sell kwai (beetle nut) on this spot. The moment I began to learn counting money, I started helping her and eventually I also starting doing the job.” Her sister who is above 60 herself also used to sell kwai and newspapers sitting alongside her. She also joined her elder sister in protesting against the eviction drive of the government. They stood outside the hospital gates with signboards asking the government to recognize their right to earn a livelihood. The most remarkable thing is that under the Central Law passed by the Parliament in 2014, they have been given the right to do business with proper certification subject to a survey. Before the completion of said survey no hawker can be evicted. The state government, however, has decided to ignore the Central law and come up with their own state law which gives no such protection to the hawkers. These old ladies were joined by other ladies, young and old, khasi and dkhar who have been prevented by the authorities from doing their business.
For three days, hawkers in different parts of Shillong stood with a placard where their name, items of sale and the years spent on their particular spot of business. They stood there waiting for the Government to send officials to conduct the survey and take their names for record. However, the administration sent SOT (Special Operation Team) squads instead, armed with automatic weapons and accompanied by the Police and Municipality to see to it that no hawker could do business on the footpaths. One hawker was detained in front of me. He was selling clothes on the staircase on the way up to Dreamland Multiplex. I watched as they took the items, stuffed them into gunny bags. At the same time, the cops and the magistrate berated the onlookers and asked them not to make a crowd. I stood my ground and retorted, “Can’t I just watch?”, “No!” was the answer with a stern look on their faces. The power to snatch away an important part of people’s life and still be arrogant about it was on full display. As for many of the hawkers, the loss was not just about a few goods but the loss of “bread” for their family, rent for their house and fees for their children.
The hawkers stood in different locations around the city for three days waiting for the administration to come and take their names for registration. The High court had directed the Government to identify the ‘genuine’ hawkers and start the registration. Since the government has driven away the hawkers from their place of business it has become difficult to recognize them. Therefore, in order to aid the identification process, the hawkers stood in their place with their details written large on placards. But the government officials never came. I stood with a group of hawkers outside the Reliance Shopping Mall in Khyndailad. Sometimes some people would come and ask the hawkers about their problems while many would have a look at the placards and continue on their way.
My group was composed entirely of dkhars, mainly from Assam and Bihar. One kong came and sympathized with the group but also commented that khasis should be given preference. She kept asking about the residential status of those ones standing; when somebody answered that he/she has an EPIC from outside Meghalaya, she got agitated. I tried explaining to her that “more than 70% of the hawkers in Shillong are khasis and according to the calculation given in the Central Act, more than 5000 hawkers can be accommodated in the city. Currently, the potential number of hawkers will not exceed 2000. There is place for everyone”. The paranoia of being overwhelmed by an alien population is so intense that oppression on the poor (mostly Khasi and women) is tolerated and sometimes applauded.
After the protest got over in the evening, I went down to Polo to get a cab to go back home. I was very tired and just wanted to get back home as soon as possible. So I decided to pay extra for two seats and got into a cab. Suddenly, a traffic policeman thrust his hand inside the car and snatched away the key. Apparently, the car had lingered a moment too long. The driver got down and went to talk to the policeman. He came back angry, slammed the car’s door and drove away in a huff. As he was driving he told us that the policeman had actually asked for a bribe of ₹ 100. Fortunately he had a spare key which he could use. But he would still have to go back for the key. “Wait till I meet that policeman alone!” he thundered. Then he calmed down a little and narrated how he saw the various vegetable-selling kongs take to their heels when they heard police arriving. The sadness and frustration was apparent in his voice as he talked about the highhandedness of those in authority. What will all this anger and frustration lead to something better or something very dark? Time will tell.