The life and death of Khasi industry is a sombre sight to behold. We have a few people today from our community who own big cars and big egos but we really have nothing sustainable in terms of businesses. Most of our big business people are nothing more than franchise managers. On a personal level, it is great because you will have cash to burn but it is not building from the ground up, we are not constructing a future in this manner, just a house of cards. We must retrace a few steps in order to understand why this ‘dying’ has transpired.
The Khasic groups that live in Meghalaya were not the worst at trade and commerce. On the weight of evidences like their veneration of marketplaces and their well-worn trade relations with Assam and East Bengal, it is clear that Khasic groups knew what they were doing. They could not really be labelled hunter-gatherer communities by any stretch of the imagination. On the commercial fronts, they were familiar with concepts like taxation (“khajna”) and revenue collection. The ‘wahadadar’ of Shella is essentially a revenue office which was probably necessitated by the mercantile transactions with Dacca. Recently I was informed that the border between Jaintiapur and the Ahom Kingdom was around the village of Chaparmukh, which is where the Jaintiapuris had a ‘gate’ collecting toll for goods transported by the nearby (Kopili?) river. On a slightly humourous note, maybe the Anglo-Khasi and Anglo-Jaintia battles might not have taken place if the British had shared taxation benefits with local indigenous contractors (as is the practice at various toll-gates today). Anyway, the point I am trying to establish is that trade and commerce is not a new concept to us. We might not have had very advanced systems of banking and our accounting might have been a tad shoddy but we were not stereotypical “tribal victims” who were overcome and exploited by baddies from the outside world. We were, in fact, very well-informed about that outside world and we used its knowledge to our advantage.
So what happened in the last few decades that has led to this gradual decline of our community’s businesses? There are so many reasons. Competition from mass-produced goods from “Mainland India”, the gentrification of Khasi livelihoods (and attitudes), the nonchalant attitude of successive governments, the disruption of old trade ties with Bangladesh have all contributed in varying degrees to the dilemma. Once, the Khasic people had the means of production firmly in their grasp. In the past, when Khasis traded in Shilot (Sylhet) etc there was a certain fairness even though the area might be under the sway of another kingdom. That fairness arose out of the fact that the goods we took to the marketplace were manufactured or grown through local endeavour. We could put a certain value because we knew the cost price of an item. Adjusting for that, we were able to float a price and gain a profit. We were not only consumers as we have become today.
Today Khasis have nothing but land holdings. This is why we see new petrol pumps, car showrooms, shopping complexes everywhere. At great personal expense and often times without any understanding of the actual market demographics, many Khasis invest in ‘risky’ businesses. Event management firms, expensive fashion boutiques are some of the favoured ones. The ‘aloo, sabji, chini’ sort of businesses which are sustainable are not ‘glamourous’ enough. Khasis today want to earn ten thousand rupees per hour with low investment capital. In order to be good at business again, we perhaps need to live a little closer to the ground and not worry too much about stature and standing. I recently heard of a person who was planning on buying a Mercedes Benz because he had recently opened a petrol pump somewhere along the highway. Now there are basically just a handful of families who control most of the petrol pumps in the North East. They have possibly hundreds of pumps under direct or benami control. If these bought expensive cars, I would understand. But why would you want to get one based on having just one? I fail to understand this logic and often we see the sad results of this hubris. Many local newspapers carry letters about foreclosures and seizure of assets of some erstwhile prominent business or enterprise. Now their showrooms or store fronts are empty sad shells reminding us that the wealth and power we thought to be gospel truth was nothing more than a giant lie. It is embarrassing for the people involved but it should serve as a lesson to our community.
In spite of the fact that we pay little/no direct tax, we have been unable to make use of this golden opportunity. Most of our disposable income is spent away instead of being pooled into activities that promote generation of employment. We seem to distrust actions via associations but that is probably not because of our jinglong (Khasi attitude) but because we are not incentivised towards that direction. Policy determines jinglong. For example, banks would rather forward a loan to an individual rather than a village. I know there are reasons for this, mostly involving paperwork, but who is more likely to run away from a debt? Will an entire village get up and scatter overnight? These sorts of practices bode badly for most of us because smaller businesses must come together in order to survive the onslaught from larger entities. That is how we can grow something sustainable for many instead of feeding alone in the dark. Most big businessmen in Meghalaya today are selfish bastards and they have captured the state government to ensure that they will escape restrictions and regulations from the Law. Look at the current crop of business-politicos in the Assembly and tell me I am wrong. It is only going to get worse because they have realised that they do not need the permission of middle-men i.e. professional politicians anymore in order to help themselves to our money. We are doomed unless we act today.