THMA U RANGLI JUKI (TUR) CRITIQUE
The Village Administration Bill 2014 (VAB2014), as proposed by KHUDA of Congress in 2011, passed by ARPA, a conglomeration of regional parties in 2014 and finally reforwarded by Congress led PDF in 2015, is a shoddy piece of legislation that betrays the call of the people to democratise the Dorbar Shnong and the Rangbah Shnong. The bill fails to respect and protect traditional village level autonomy and processes and to help them transform into legally consistent institutions to meet modern day demands for transparency, accountability, inclusiveness and participation.
The amended VAB2014 as it stands now still DOES NOT meet the requirements to ensure devolution of powers and empowerment of the people. Given that the ‘original’ bill was internally inconsistent, bad in law and replete with drafting errors, much of the 23 amendments brought by PDF are to do with correcting these.
ELECTIONS NOT NOMINATION
A notable amendment is that to section 8. The Power of the Dorbar Shnong or the people has been partially asserted where Section 8 has now been amended to drop the word Nomination making it read as Election and Confirmation of Rangbah Shnong. This is an important amendment as it ensures participation of all indigenous persons of the village and does not restrict choice to only certain clans and only to men. However, section 8(1)(i) still insists that the District Council has to ‘approve’ of the election and only after that can a sanad be issued by the Chief. This goes against the spirit of the act as it attempts to centralize powers with the District Council. This provision combined with the Emergency Powers of Sec 19 which have not been amended, is a lethal combination that threatens the very basis of the institution of the Dorbar Shnongs. Through Sec. 19 the District Council can suspend and supersede the Rangbah Shnong, Assistant Rangbah Shnong, Secretary and any committees formed in the village. Such a section does not appear in the JHADC Village Administration Bill. It is a dangerous section that will definitely be abused and misused. Sec 19 also seriously erodes the power of the Dorbar Shnong and the people who should have control over their villages and resources. It is shocking that the JAC of the Synjuk Ki Rangbah Shnong did not have the wisdom and courage to demand removal of such a draconian clause. This section of the VAB should be removed from the act and demands for the same will continue.
Women should take the opportunity of claiming their rights under this act given that the term Khasi Inhabitants in Sec 2(7) and Section 4(1) have not been defined. Sec 2(7) and Sec 4 (1) of the VAB states that the Dorbar Shnong will include KHASI INHABITANTS of 18years and above. The term should therefore be widely interpreted as including both men and women. In Sec 2(22), Rangbah Shnong has been defined as a ‘Traditional Head’ not specifying male or female. Sec 8(2) and 8 (3) states that a Rangbah Shnong should be a person above 25 years of age and resident of the village for at least ten years. PERSON has not been specified as male. This opens the way for women to be considered for the post of Rangbah Shnong. Further, it needs to be remembered that in Dwara Nongtyrnem and Shella Wahadadarship Elaka Acts, terms used are gender neutral, setting precedence for the fact that traditionally too, women have rights as full members of the Dorbar. So as per the VAB, women are full and active members of the Dorbar with full rights to vote and be voted. This is the progressive interpretation which even the representatives of the District Council agreed should be the norm when asked to clarify on several sections during a recent public debate. In fact it was made public that Sec 6 ‘Ka Teh Rangbah’ would be changed to ‘Ka Pynskhem Dkhot’ but this proposed amendment was defeated in the house in a compromise between PDF and ARPA which exposes their internalized anti-women attitudes. Regretably, even pro-establishment women’s groups exposed their own patriarchal mindset when they were ready to compromise the future of women by proposing a sell out token representation for women in the Executive Dorbar even though many other progressive voices including those of men reiterated that it is indeed time that the constitutional guarantees of equality are adhered to even in the Dorbar.
Unfortunately, Sec 6 and the language of the bill in general continues to be gender biased even though TUR vehemently demanded for changes to this and other clauses to ensure gender just terms and outcomes. However through progressive interpretations, TUR reiterates that the VAB has opened the way for full and active participation of women. Any obstructions to women’s complete participation in the Dorbar will be met with legal recourse including legal intervention from TUR to restore constitutional rights of women and such action will put the breaks on operationalising of the VAB as a whole.
TUR had also demanded that the traditional practice of having Seng Kynthei and Seng Samla in the Dorbar needs to be recognized in the VAB. The words ‘Seng Longkmie’ and ‘Seng Samla’ have now made an appearance in the definitions of the bill and the Dorbar has to constitute these. However, objections need to be put on record to the term ‘Longkmie’. A better term would have been Kynthei such that women who do not necessarily become a ‘longkmie’ or mother are also included in the term.
SECTION 5 & RESIDENTIAL CERTIFICATES
Post the amendments to VAB , some have cried foul over dilution of the supposed ‘heart of the VAB’ which according to them was Sec 5 (8) and Sec 5 (16). TUR disputes that the bill revolved around these sections. The bill as even its statement of object and reasons professes is to streamline and to provide for an efficient village administration which is transparent, accountable at the village level.
Section 5(8) has been amended to read that ‘The Dorbar Shnong may issue residential certificate to inhabitants of the village’. This is an amendment that will ensure that the bill does not get invalidated by existing laws of the country and gives room for the continuance of the practice of giving certificates to residents which are temporary in nature and which are issued in a specific need based manner. The amendment does not in any way threaten the protective mechanisms in place including that accorded in section 9 (12) of the VAB which states that ‘The Rangbah Shnong cannot issue residential certificates or No Objection Certificates to any (Non- Khasi) person without the prior approval and consent of Executive Dorbar, Elaka and the Executive Committee’. This Section of the VAB stops the Rangbah Shnong from issuing residential certificates indiscriminately. Moreover Sec 5(A)(x) states that the Duties and Responsibilities of the Dorbar Shnong is also ‘To make registration of all tenants, labourers, and outsiders compulsory’. This section will aid in moderating entry of outsiders into villages and should allay fears of the indigenous population. Moreover, micro-minorities such as Karbis, Lalungs, Rabhas in Meghalaya which have been assimilated into the Dorbar Shnongs need to be acknowledged and their rights met and this amendment positively contributes towards this.
5(16) which allowed the Dorbar Shnong to put restrictions on entry of non Khasi Indians into the villages, and which has now been removed, was untenable in law.
While there is insecurity among many regarding the changes and deletion of these two sub sections of section 5, TUR reiterates that defense of local indigenous interests lie in protecting land and resources which Section 19 of the VAB undermines. Moreover, movement of persons and labour is an economic reality which need not necessarily take away the rights of the indigenous workers provided that mechanisms like the reservation policies both in public and private sector are respected and entitlements be it Health, Education, PDS etc are ensured. Further, it is more crucial to protect Land and resources and hence to put a check on the swift entry of capital that threatens the indigenous interest. Therefore it is imperative that laws such as the Benami act, Land Transfer act etc and traditional land holding practices such as that of ‘Raid’ or Community land be respected and upheld in letter and spirit.
DORBAR SHNONGS & VILLAGE DEVELOPMENT COUNCIL
One of the fundamental problems with the Village Administration Bill in all its avatars has been the introduction of the structure called Village Development Council as envisaged in SEC 13-17. Formulated as a statutory permanent body in the village which shall receive all the development funds, VDC by the logic of finance undermines the Dorbar Shnong. Even though the VDC is answerable to the Dorbar Shnong, the VDC’s powers clash with that of the Dorbar. Experience with the Village Employment Councils have shown that existence of competing institutions of governance at the village level leads to many problems including corruption and ultimately paralysis in their functioning. Moreover, if the same people run the Dorbar Executive and the VDC simultaneously, there is going to be a complete lack of accountability and absence of any checks and balances.
Rather than have a separate VDC with its general council, it would better to devolve financial powers to the Dorbar Shnong itself. All rural development money should be routed through the Dorbar Shnong to break the stranglehold of the Rural Development bureaucracy and the MLAs, MPs & MDCs on rural development programmes in the state. Devolution of powers including financial will give a boost up to our traditional grassroots institutions as has been proved by the success of villages falling under the 73rd Amendment.
THE LAND QUESTION
The curious silence of the VAB on existing categories of land and the traditional structures of land management is shocking. Although the Act talks of community land, these community lands are not exclusively controlled by the village. Much of this community land is what is called ‘Raid’ land. Further, post the amendments, the VDC is appropriating the role and powers of the ‘Raid’ as per Sec 15(viii) which states ‘It shall be responsible in advocating on village/community land related issues affecting the landless and poor in the village’. In fact this section conflicts with the provisions of Sec 5(iii) of the VAB where the powers and functions of the Dorbar Shnong includes: ‘To protect and conserve all community lands and forestlands or any other village resources against land alienation and privatization for the interest of the village community’.
ORDINANCE Vs. VAB
Once the VAB receives the Governor’s assent, the Meghalaya Local Administration (Empowerment of Traditional Institutions, Traditional Bodies, Headmen in Governance and Public Delivery System) Ordinance 2015 promulgated by the Government is redundant and hence need not be regularized in the form of a legislation. The ordinance in any case was a temporary measure that does not encapsulate other aspects of village administration that feature in the VAB.
Rather than uselessly debating about the relative merits of the ‘original’ and ‘modified’ VAB, both of which are equally problematic, what is of urgency is to engage in the framing of rules to operationalise the act and also in pushing for immediate amendments to this bill notably Sec 19, Sec 8(1)(i) ,Sec 6, SEC 13- 17, etc . Unchecked powers of the District Council which through the VAB allows it to be the judge, jury and the executioner all at once, especially through the arbitrary process laid out in Sec 19(Emergency Powers), Sec 21 (Appeals) and Sec 22 (Review of Orders) need to be curtailed in the interest of the people and for survival of the traditional institutions. The rules should be framed in a consultative manner and not in secret through executive orders and should address modes and process of elections, constitution of executive dorbar and role of the ‘dong’ and ‘kyntoit’ etc.
Lessons from the VAB is that broad based public consultations is mandatory in formulating bills and acts. Further, clause by clause debating on a bill and the processes of first reading and second reading of bills should be respected and followed by representatives rather than disruptive and macho political grandstanding as was witnessed especially during the recent special session of the KHADC. Moreover, it is time to call the bluff and clear the confusion that was actively encouraged by many that the VAB is about the Rangbah Shnong and issuing of NOC’s. This was an erroneous and mischievous attempt by vested powers to sideline public interest and reduce the law as something to reestablish the unchecked appropriation of powers by the Rangbah Shnong over the years. This appropriation of powers which actually belong to and should be exercised by the Dorbar Shnong as a whole has blurred the fact that a Rangbah Shnong is merely a functionary of the Dorbar Shnong.
Lastly, it must be said that lasting contribution of the VAB conundrum is the fact that peoples groups are engaging with it and public interest around the bill has been generated which is forcing the government to bring out lengthy clarifications on the bill which are in fact long overdue. Such application of mind and scrutinizing of a legislation by citizens is crucial and should in fact be the norm that informs all bills and acts proposed and passed by the government.
(THMA U RANGLI JUKI / TUR is a progressive people’s collective).