This article is inspired by something I picked up on the Internet and a recent function connected with the release of a book called Heritage Shillong put together by the late Dipankar Banerjee, a professor of history at Gauhati University. This delved into the Shillong of yore which was the capital of the entire North-eastern region. In the 1970s, we were on the cusp of new beginnings. Meghalaya was born in 1972. Those were the days of hope and aspiration we love to recall but, unfortunately, so surreal to the existing social environment of today.
Today we have a state where tribals are supposed to be on top of things but we still have so much to gripe about. What has gone wrong? What did we want with a separate state, anyway? We wanted autonomy, or so the leaders of the hill state movement told us. Autonomy is a very sexy word in the vocabulary of today&’s youth. They want autonomy in the way they handle their lives, their freedoms and their expressions. Autonomy was a catchword even for the leaders who helped create Meghalaya.
But somewhere they lost the way. There was no vision beyond actually getting a separate state. When Meghalaya was born, the political leaders celebrated its birth at Hotel Pinewood and ran up bills amounting to several thousands in those heady days. Once Meghalaya became a reality they never bothered to follow through with the nitty gritty of marking out borders so that no overlapped and quarrels would come out of the woodwork many decades later. Is it this short-sightedness that makes us tribals? I wonder.
Today, Assam and Meghalaya, though immediate neighbours, are perpetually quarrelling about borders. People along the borders have become unwitting casualties. There are quarrels between Nagaland and Assam. Here, too, people have been killed and recently the roads to Nagaland were blocked. As if such measures can solve anything! Meghalaya and Assam are both led by the Congress. One would have thought that there would be less rancour and bad blood because of that. But such is not the case.
For Meghalaya, the border is a sensitive issue. Often, one group or the other turns it into a jingoistic call to arms and since tribes usually don’t like to think, they get carried away by such populist bandwagons. The border issue was a hot election agenda, the results for which were declared in February this year. But perhaps that&’s where we are wrong. What is important for those residing along the borders does not carry much weight with those at the centre of the universe — Shillong.
And this has been our collective dilemma. We think all the tribes of Meghalaya or of Nagaland think along a straight line. How erroneous that assumption is. Ethnicity is as real as the hair on our heads (with apologies to those with no hair left). Look at the homeland clamour in Assam today. If statehood is granted to the Karbis, Dimasas and Bodos, then Assam would turn into a state that is smaller in size than Meghalaya. But ethnic pride can take us to dizzying heights and no one is willing to step back and say that perhaps a separate state without the tools of effective governance and delivery will not get us anywhere.
Those aspiring for statehood should turn to states like Meghalaya and see if we are any better than they are. Meghalaya has been at the bottom of the heap in terms of development indicators such as access to education, health, infrastructure, urban governance. The annual surveys conducted by credited agencies tell us we are not getting anywhere. Truth be told, we are regressing. From the education capital of the North-east, Shillong has today become the home of a fake university dishing out PhDs by the thousands and collecting lakhs of rupees from each PhD aspirant. The police are yet to catch up with the charlatan running this university in his own name and appointing himself chancellor against all norms of educational propriety. 
Parents from the North-east no longer want their children to be educated here. The ministers and bureaucrats pack their children off to foreign locales. Lesser mortals choose Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. What does this tell us? That our education system in the region is not good enough to get our kids the jobs they want in a highly competitive world. Better still, it means that our educational system churns out unskilled, incompetent bumpkins who join the ranks of the unemployed and are recruited into militant outfits where they are only taught to pull the trigger. If this is what autonomy has done to us, it might have been better to be non-autonomous.
The fact of the matter is that our leaders (this is how we label politicians, even though they are without character or morals or vision) contest elections after spending huge amounts because they have nothing to show by way of service to the people. They spend the next five years getting back every penny spent, plus more. So where is the time to think?
That is our great misfortune – the inability to think and churn and engage with people. Politicians and bureaucrats think they are repositories of wisdom but there are states that have no policy on health or education or industries or tourism and are just following ad hoc models developed just so that the money allocated can be spent. It&’s a hell of a situation and it is what is creating the anomie we experience today and which is taking many of us down the depression route.
Yet it would be wrong to live without hope. For what else is there to live for then? For those who believe that autonomy is the solution to all problems, the truth is that it&’s a lie! Autonomy will enable the political, bureaucratic and business elite from amongst the tribes to climb the economic ladder superfast, in the same way that when you play snakes and ladders, the cast of the cube gives you a repeated sixer. That&’s about all. Ordinary people will remain where they have been. With time they will be so marginalised because they will be excluded from all financial packages that they will dip below the poverty line and will then require a lifeline that will come in the form of dole that will turn this country into the biggest debtor of the World Bank and other lending institutions.
When Meghalaya started off there were no poor people. Today, about 67 per cent of Meghalayans have been certified to be living below the poverty line. How do we account for such a dismal performance as a state? And we cannot even hold our “leaders” accountable for this! We cannot do that because we don’t have the mechanisms of social auditing to do so.
This may sound like a very pessimistic article, but it isn’t. It&’s a reflection of the thoughts of someone who grew up with Meghalaya and then suddenly sees the state getting more and more emaciated while those who claim to rule and run the scheme of things have developed horribly huge paunches that we attribute to prosperity. What is it that they eat which most of us cannot afford to? If only they could share their secret to affluence. But, then, don’t we know it? And they dare to call those who fight for their bread Maoists? What a convenient way to face an inconvenient truth!   
The writer is a retired IAS officer. Currently president of ICARE, an organisation that seeks to promote good governance , he can be reached at [email protected]