Let me leap-frog the unnecessary baloney and plunge straight into the point. But then again, before I do that, let me ‘walk’ you through a speech delivered by Meghalaya’s Head of the MDA Government on World Environment Day (WED) 2018, exhorting the youth to ‘protect the environment’ by minimising the use of electricity. Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma, had said,
Walked from home to office to celebrate #WorldEnvironmentDay2018 It should be our agenda to reduce our carbon footprints. Our actions today will define the future for our children. @UNinIndia @UNEnvironment @PMOIndia @narendramodi walking to remain fit @Ra_THORe pic.twitter.com/y6cPed4lGv
— Conrad Sangma (@SangmaConrad) June 5, 2018
What a noble tweet indeed! But why didn’t he at least chirp about the colossal carbon footprints of Meghalaya’s mineral-devouring mercenaries? What kind of air are they promising the future generation?
But politics, as they say, is not a landscape; it is a cloudscape, owing to its unpredictability. So when we fast forward from World Environment Day (WED) 2018 to August 2020, circumstances evince that perhaps Conrad Sangma’s ‘atoxic’ grimaces and amiable appearance in fact ‘mask’ an incapacitated, two-faced phoney, who walks only on WED, talks and tweets a lot, but in reality is Janus-faced.
I will ‘expedite’ my point.
On January 15, 2020, ‘The Shillong Times’ had reported, “(There are) more than 20 Coke Factories in Shallang, West Khasi Hills that claim to have valid documents and have fulfilled all formalities and norms before commencing operations through Single Window Agencies.” Please take cognisance of the last three words. On the first day of August 2020, this report was confirmed by none other than Conrad Sangma’s colleague in the government, S.K. Sunn, Chairman of the Meghalaya Assembly Committee on Environment, in a press briefing. The principal point at the press meet was, ‘Since August 2018, coke factories in West Khasi Hills have proliferated; most of them have Single Window Clearance.’ Again, please take cognisance of those last three words. Now let us review what the August 1, 2020 edition of ‘The Shillong Times’ mentioned: “The Meghalaya Assembly Standing Committee on Environment has taken cognisance of the mushrooming of coke factories in the Shallang belt of West Khasi Hills during the last two years as 16 new coke factories were given clearance to by the Single Window Agency.” Those last three words, Single Window Agency/Clearance, reappear again!
In the website of the state government’s Commerce and Industries Department, there is a notification numbered IND. 49/2016/10, dated 18 June 2020, where it is mentioned that the “Chairman” of this “Single Window Agency” is the “Chief Minister” himself. To be fair, Conrad Sangma didn’t implant himself in this Agency. An incumbent Chief Minister of Meghalaya has always been the Chairman of this Agency since the beginning of the world, whose task is to “expedite” and “fast-track” clearances to set up industries in the state of Meghalaya. He can grant or withhold permission based on his and his officers’ wisdom. Thus, any permission given to multiple coke plants, dubitable cement factories, or gluttonous limestone miners since 2018, had to pass through the hands of Conrad Sangma. In the context of 2020, it is judicious to ask, “Are those hands ‘sanitised’?” Because the clearances to establish 16 pollutant-emitting coke factories since 2018 at Shallang, West Khasi Hills, that are relentlessly smoking-up under the pristine Meghalaya sky, had the mandate of the Chief Minister. He’s the boss of this Single Window Agency now. So is he really for the protection, preservation, and restoration of the environment? Or is walking to office the only way he knows to maintain clean and unpolluted air?
As the Head of the MDA Government and this Agency, he and the Meghalaya Assembly Committee on Environment must ‘clear the air’ by answering some questions:
- Why did the Single Window Agency expedite clearances to a mind-boggling 16 polluting factories between 2018 and 2020 in Shallang area alone? Was any environment-impact assessment carried out prior to that? How much revenue will the state earn from these ventures? What steps will these 16 take to ‘restore the environment’?
- Did the State Pollution Control Board follow the guidelines of the Central Pollution Control Board by preparing a ‘Zoning Atlas’ [for the uninitiated, please google this] to identify ‘Sensitive Zones’ and ‘Pollution Sensitivity’ of the area?
- Coke, in layman terms, is a purified form of coal. So, when the NGT had already banned coal mining in Meghalaya in 2014, where is the coal used by these factories coming from? Is rat-hole mining still happening in coal-rich Shallang?
- To get coke, coal has to be burnt at over a 1000 degrees. What fuel are these factories using? If it is firewood or charcoal, where is the source located? Are any forest areas being destroyed in the process?
- Coke is usually mixed in concoctions to manufacture steel or cement. Are these factories in connivance with cement and iron ore industries operating in Jaiñtia Hills and Byrnihat? Is there a collusion between these factory owners, politicians, and government officials of the Commerce and Industries, Forest or Mining departments?
- Was the Chief Minister misled or pressurised by any party MLA/MLAs, businessmen, technocrats or bureaucrats to give clearances to so many factories located in one place? If he was, will he withdraw the clearances as they definitely pose health risks to the people? If he wasn’t, is he willing to ‘quarantine’ himself and let his Deputy take over and order an independent judicial or CBI probe? Will he expedite the matter to a neutral agency for a fair investigation to ‘uncloud the air’? Is this one of the reasons why he vacated his seat in Parliament and jostled his way to Chief Ministership?
These are some questions that demand answers. But will he speak up? Will he clarify how the haphazard establishment of multiple coke plants determine a more “liveable place?” Will he explain his double-tongue approach towards environmental policies of the state? Because his outward soft-speaking self seemingly hides his mischievous agenda. Or will he emulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi who doesn’t address hard-hitting questions? If he doesn’t address this issue then I will lend voice to more questions hovering around Meghalaya’s polluted air such as unabated limestone mining, remorseless timber smuggling to dubious factories, issuing of deceitful transport permits, and others that warrant an explanation from the horse’s mouth.
More pertinently, will organisations like the ICARE, Shillong We Care, COMSO, and other Brave Hearts of the Khasi ‘jaidbynriew’, particularly those in West Khasi Hills, pin the Chief Minister? Or will they sweep it under the rug because coke fetches a better price than coal? Will the Opposition Congress Party dig up this issue or is it knee-deep into this ruckus because something is definitely ‘coking’; I’m not cooking anything up!
Parting shot: ‘A Politician, they say, does anything and everything in his capacity to get elected or gain power and wealth, and is more self-seeking. A Statesman, however, does anything and everything in his power to do his best for the welfare of the people he represents, and is less self-seeking.’ The difference, thus, is unclouded. Just saying.