Rule of Law
The rule of law does not do away with the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but reinforces that inequality with the authority of law. It allocates wealth and poverty in such calculated and indirect ways as to leave the victim bewildered. Howard Zinn
The Poor are a troublesome presence, a mob harbouring criminal intentions, a stumbling block in the business of government. Being just adjectives like troublesome and criminal, they have to be swept off the streets. Their makeshift economies made of recycled wooden cartons, some kwai, measly mounds of vegetables, small packets of sour sohphoh with chilli flakes, fresh roasted smells of corn, sudden surprises of pirated Dylan gruffly singing Tombstone Blues, all will be no more. Their stalls roughly dismantled, protests misheard as unbecoming behaviour of nongiiew, a group, which only deserves a merciful ‘humanitarian’ gaze of a benevolent ruler. It does not matter that behind the ghostly adjectives, they are real bodies, lives, hungers, pride, histories, pains unshared, some seventy five rupees unearned, children whose school fees remain unpaid, incomplete love stories and some laughter which they remember with hurt.
A day after the cleansing operation, we are on the Dreamland Street. It will gladden the hearts of street cleansers that there are fewer stalls and those who have returned remain furtive. Their eyes scan the crowd with fear. We stop to buy Guavas and Sohiong and talk. The older lady from Mawpat who is slicing star fruit is suspicious when we asked about the cleansing drive. She is back because as she says, “ We have not returned but our hunger has.” She knows that her hunger is no legal argument; it stands no chance against arcane municipal laws. The minister would be satisfied to know that she knows that she is a lawbreaker. She understands that her attempt at pacifying her hunger is a crime.
Everyone knows what should be done with criminals. They should be made invisible from the eyes of civilised society, locked up and deported in dark grey coloured armoured vehicles, procured during the anti-insurgency times of the city. Criminals have to be treated with the dark methods of the dark times.
I am not making this up. I am just reading the newspapers and their triumphant reporting of the cleansing campaigns. No paper deems it worthwhile to find out whether the ministerial claim of hawkers as criminals is true? No one will carry a simple human-interest report on the ‘cushy’ lives of the hawkers? Where do they come from? How big is their family? What is their daily income? Do they have any alternative means of livelihood? Maybe, the lady from Laitkroh, whom I no longer see on the Laitumkhrah streets, who hummed her revival song ‘ ah! trai phah rebaibal ai kan sdang shuwa na nga, pynim ia ka balang, pynim ia ki rangbah, ai kan sdang shuwa na nga. Ai bor ba ngan ialap ia ka kyrteng jong me, ah! trai phah ribaibal…’ and gave me unwanted baksheesh of chillies doesn’t read their newspapers or doesn’t buy advertisements for the ‘Keep Shillong Clean Campaign’.
She must have lugged the vegetables from her village to Smit, taken the bus to Iewduh, bought some additional vegetables there and finally shared a cab to Laitumkhrah to be on her place on the pavement by Two pm. She was doing this for a just price for her produce or in the words of smart foreign funded development projects, she as producer was directly interfacing with the customer. With this displacement, what would she do, go back into the clutches of the middleman? Doesn’t her investment into the economy merit same protection as those industrialists who are being allowed to invest in environmental and livelihood destruction? What about the costs she incurred to her soul?
Even the non-native hawkers with their cheap shirts, pirated CDs and DVDs, cheap knick- knacks, balloons, candy floss, service the poor, a class to which they too belong. If you want to experience this economy of poverty, walk around on any Sunday through Khyndai Lad. This is the economy that allows the poor to survive and locate some freedom in their everyday lives.
Whereas, in the new economy being hawked by the well heeled, the poor as people don’t exist but poverty as statistics does. Meritorious elites, who organise pogroms against the poor, use these statistics of poverty to sell some new anti-poverty programmes funded by unending list of national and international aid agencies – Aus Aid, IFAD, World Bank… These projects are opportunities to hire consultants, dream up projects, envision vision documents from 2010 to 2100, think up think tanks, construct contracts and in last instance, further enrich the already rich.
The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must. Thucydides
Once there was a man, whom Churchill called ‘half naked fakir’. Only smart well-groomed politicians for magazine interviews and aspiring anorexic girls in beauty contests nowadays remember this famous fakir. This fakir said that morality of any action had to be measured by the impact that action had on the last person in the society, any action that hurt the weakest in society was immoral.
The powerful know that their grand acronyms like CDP (City Development Plans) under JNNURM prepared by highly paid crooked consultants are plans to punish the poor. To keep their conscience spiritually clean they want the poor and the weakest to vanish from any calculation of their action. Out of sight, out of mind. If there are no poor to see, how can we even assess the morality of any action? Or, perhaps they think words like morality shows a weakness the government can do without. They want to invert Fakirs’ Formula i.e. protect the rich and dump on the poor. Two not so random examples.
One, remember the reactions of the ‘movers and shakers’ to Darihuns’ murder. First they played around with her ethnicity, then they tried to paint the dark weekends of tourist Shillong into some kind of innocent aerobics session. In all the discussions of the ‘dark side’ of tourism, darkness was seen as a flickering light on an expensive dance floor. The public was reassured that the murder was just an unnatural aberration and thus to police the avaricious desires of the rich was unnecessary. In an outraged rush to fit the cap of responsibility, no one even noticed that the only way the ‘native poor’ was allowed to appear in the developmental nightmare called tourism were to wait at tables, grovel as guides, garishly paint themselves to be noticed in the dark or ruthlessly bounce out the undesirable locals to keep the scene happy and dirty.
Second, the odd (forget the pun) ways in which SUV riders are trying to even out the traffic glitch. Obviously, for the planners, charity does not start with their palatial, disproportionate asset homes with shampooed dogs because they can mow down the traffic in their monstrous think tanks through the narrow roads or park them anywhere as they see fit, or make their private/official car wait for their sweet cuddly kids.
Even if we ignore the livelihood arguments of the taxi-drivers (Around Rs. 2500/per month to Rs. 5000), lack of viable public transport would mean that this odd policy is designed to penalise the lower middle class/working classes, the ones who own no private vehicle. Car centred city development plans with flyovers and lots and lots of parking lots will never solve the urban nightmare of Shillong but only exacerbate it. To find lasting and equitable solution we have to apply the Fakir Formula to the problem and begin at the very top.
Car Pool or better still buses for the Ministers, public representatives, and the bureaucrats. Compulsory School Transport, where children of the rich can learn valuable lessons of life from the children of the poor. Well-regulated city bus service, automobile free shopping areas… Imagine, the CEO of Shillong Municipal riding in a Bus with Municipal Sweepers discussing the weather or the Minister of Urban Affairs discussing finer points of the Olympics with the clerk of the Sports department… Continuing this dream, like good active citizens, poor should help the new urban administration discover violations of the law by shutting down shopping malls which have encroached on the pavement turning them into private car parks, breaking down buildings which have punched holes into municipal building laws, throwing out the owners of the buildings which have chocked up rivers, puncturing tires of private vehicles found parked in public spaces, or putting hammer to every tinted windshield…
If the elites want us to dream of Shillong as a global city, let us remind them that many famous world cities do not flaunt class-division as Shillong is doing these days. In most cases these cities are being run by socialists and social democrats with welfare for the poor not warfare against them. In London for instance, you could ministers, mayors, senior bureaucrats using public transport, the famous Camden Market (fourth most visited tourist and local attraction)is totally peopled by hawkers and because of congestion charges, driving Private Vehicles is an expensive luxury. But all this seems an impossible Shillong dream because in the words of Seneca, a Roman wit, “poverty wants some, luxury many and avarice all things.”