‘Act-East policies must be practical and sustainable’

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‘Act-East policies must be practical and sustainable’

Monday, 21 October 2019 | Saimi Sattar

‘Act-East policies must be  practical and sustainable’

He is one of the youngest Chief Ministers in the country. But then the way CONRAD Kongkal Sangma has turned Meghalaya around means that it has been easier for him to break out of the past and chart out an original course, free of expectation. It is not just his youth but also the legacy of his father, PA Sangma, that he is reverential about and wears almost like a talisman. During the course of the interview with Saimi Sattar, the Meghalaya CM does not mince words, articulates his ideas clearly and is focussed on efficiently bringing about a change in his State — things that could make one think that he was the CEO rather than a politician. He touches upon issues that matter and how with minimal investments he is trying to make the maximum impact

  • Has the attitude of the Centre changed towards North- Eastern states. Can you elaborate on the difference that you have witnessed as Chief Minister?

I just wait for the right moment and then say what I have to as the situation presents itself. But overall, this is something that I have seen happening during the last one-and-a-half years after taking over as Chief Minister. There are many senior people in my team and they tell me that there was  a time when they went to Delhi but couldn’t meet the officials, the minister concerned or the Prime Minister. But now we do not face any difficulty and there is accessibility in terms of human connectivity. There is a different sense of importance given to the North-East. The Prime Minister himself is very concerned. The last time I went and met a Minister to invite him to Shillong, his response was that, “Even if you don’t call, I will have to go, or else PM nahin chodenge hamein (the PM would be displeased with us).” That is the  kind of response that we get now, which indicates the pressure on every Ministry when it comes to any issue related to the region.

I am of the firm belief that you cannot get work done in Shillong while sitting in Delhi. You have to see what is happening at the grassroot level with your own eyes to understand what is needed. So when Ministers come here, they understand the requirements. That is what I meant when I said that there is a change. I am sure that more will happen in the coming years due to the approach of the Government.

  • The Government has formulated the Look East policy. Is there anything in particular that Meghalaya would like to focus on as part of this initiative?

It has moved ahead and has now been renamed as Act East. For Meghalaya, I have been very clear even before I became the Chief Minister that we need to “Look South” and “Act South” which means Bangladesh. I have been a strong advocate of this. Kolkata, the nearest Indian port to export our products, is 1,200 km away. Before Independence, it was Chittagong in Bangladesh which is half that distance at 650 km. If this was to open up, the exports from the North-East would go up tremendously. At the moment, the region comprises only one per cent of the total exports from the country.

I have proposed an eight-lane highway connecting Guwahati, Shillong, Dawki in India and Chittagong in Bangladesh. If needed, the Government should invest and fund this project so that the North-East gets accessibility. One very important and good thing that has happened recently is that Bangladesh has agreed  to allow access  of goods from the North-Eastern States to Chittagong port which wasn’t there earlier. This is a big diplomatic achievement for the Indian Government.

In order to ensure that exports increase,  many policy decisions need to be cleared.  For instance, there is a rubber plant in Bangladesh, which is running at 50 per cent deficiency and sourcing raw material from Malaysia even though Tripura and Meghalaya, which grow rubber, are very close. The current policy means that if I have to export rubber to Bangladesh, I have to go through Kolkata, even though the factory in Bangladesh is 40 km away. A policy decision is needed to get over such hurdles.

Then there is connectivity in terms of telephony. If Airtel or Jio go 5 km into Bangladesh, and there is a complaint against them, they have to pay a fine of Rs 5 lakh every time. So these service providers do not put up a tower near the Bangladesh border. As a result everyone, including the BSF personnel, uses the Bangladesh network. It is a massive security lapse. Of course there are a lot of challenges, including illegal infiltration, but we have to tackle those while looking at the positive side also.

I will be visiting Bangladesh along with a big delegation. I have suggested that all the Chief Ministers of the North-East can go together in a bus. We should drive rather than take a flight to focus on connected corridors of mutual benefit. Tura, my home town and constituency, is a four-hour drive from Dhaka. To put it in perspective, it takes equal time to reach Guwahati by road. So for me, the entire “Look and Act East” policy should be focussed on Bangladesh.

  • One of the important changes that you have initiated is the Public Redressal Mechanism. How does it operate and reach out to people?

There are multiple layers. We realise that connecting with people is one part and can be done easily through a WhatsApp Complaint System but the more important challenge is how to address the problems and connecting them to the department concerned. We created a system where a code is generated for every problem and then a message goes to officials concerned, both at the ground level and the senior ones. If there is no reply, then reminders are given. It is not a very complex system where a lot of money is needed. However, we are trying to understand how to make the system more efficient, accountable and deliverable.

Since we started this, approximately 500-600 complaints have come to us. There were personal problems as well as complaints like a transformer had broken down and hadn’t been repaired for months. We are  trying to segregate the problem into delivery mechanism problems and those which are more personal in nature and dealing with them accordingly.

I am not satisfied  because the system has never been response-oriented. Earlier, there was no concept of addressing complaints within a certain time period. I am hoping this will improve from the 50 per cent redressal rate that we have managed to achieve till date.

More importantly, I try to make it a point to connect with my officers all the time through two programmes. There is a departmental review that is done at my level through video-conferencing or physically when I am present. Another important programme is a block visit. In two years, I want to target all 46 blocks. I started this one month ago and have covered three  blocks. So every month I hope to meet a similar target. Every time I have a meeting with my deputy commissioners (DCs), I keep telling them that I am not here to “catch you or find faults with your working, rather I want to find faults in the system and we will find a solution together. Let’s work as a team.” People-first is the crux of my approach.

  • You have signed MoUs to create smart villages. How do you intend to undertake the exercise considering rural people will always aspire to move to urban centres?

There are multiple objectives of making smart villages, including the one to stem migration to towns. People migrate in search of better facilities for health, education and employment opportunities. We can actually resolve these problems through technological interventions.

In health, for instance, our focus was on expectant mothers getting access to institutional delivery. Initially, we were of the opinion that they were not open to the idea but we were wrong. We started with one district and used technology to map every would-be mother. There were 3,000 of them and after the exercise, we knew exactly which village they were from, which week the delivery would take place, the names of Asha volunteers taking care of them, the medical officer involved, the contacts of husbands and mothers-in-law and a shortlist of high-risk mothers due to blood pressure problems or diabetes. In each area, there is an ambulance driver covering a certain radius,  who is connected with the expectant mothers and we give their phone numbers to him and his number to the next of kin. Additionally, we have connected auto-rickshaw drivers to the expectant mothers as a back-up ambulance and promised to give them Rs 300 if they ferry mothers to hospitals. This has improved the overall institutional delivery in that district from a mere 40 per cent to 90 per cent in six months. That is how I envision smart villages rather than with huge towers and buildings. Such basic technological interventions without huge financial inputs have improved health facilities.

Similarly, in education there are no fancy  smart classes or thousands of crores of investments. We identified the bottom 20 per cent of the schools where the results were below a certain benchmark and launched a pilot project in one district where students from those schools, who were doing badly, were brought together in clusters. Incentives were given to teachers to bring in students and they were provided with additional tuitions on Saturdays. 

It is not so difficult to improve the numbers from 20 to 60 per cent because if you are getting a 20 per cent pass percentage in any school, that means the modules there are simply not working. So just by making simple tweaks, you improve it to 60 per cent. The toughest is reaching the level of 80 to 100 per cent. But as of now, we are focussed on reaching 60 per cent and then we will think about moving ahead.

A third initiative is setting up a Self- Help Group (SHG) network of about three to four lakh women. My target is to have one woman in each household in an SHG. We use the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) funding patterns. Some money is collected and these SHGs will act as micro financing banks and give loans without paperwork. We are not just doing that but we are motivating women and giving them ideas about the industries that they can develop.

We will connect SHGs with people from Berkeley University to whom we have given seven challenges, including food processing as a part of the MoU. I have asked them to study every district of Meghalaya and zero down on certain products from the area and figure out which technological intervention at an affordable cost can be implemented to improve the livelihood of people and, also, where the products can be sold. A study of bamboo was undertaken by Berkeley and it highlighted that it was not the ply or the brush that would give margins. The highest profits, of about 25 per cent, would come from bamboo charcoal. The institution connected us to Chinese companies which make the machines to create bamboo charcoal and they gave us the cost and how much time it would take for the process. Berkeley developed an entire business plan and also, an end to end solution.

Besides food, researchers will study micro-financing, tourism, food processing, turmeric and more. We have to focus on our strengths and see what the requirements are outside and within the country. We need close to 2 lakh MT of milk whereas we produce 50,000 MT. We launched a milk mission at a cost of Rs 250 crore. Then there is a huge requirement for pork not just locally, but also outside. In India, good quality pork is not available and we have to rely on imports. So we are seeing these gaps in local consumption and exports and plugging those. These are low-hanging fruits as there is an existing demand. We are doing the market research to figure out the requirements, giving money to the SHGs and training them but we let them do it on their own.

The key aspect of the SHG movement, which is so important to understand, is creating an institutional network. For instance, at three, the fertility rate is the highest in the country where some families have as many as seven or eight children. If we want to address the issue of fertility, we will have to talk about contraceptives. A lot of rural mothers have no say in when they wish to get pregnant, which is sad. Once these SHGs have a woman in every house, I can get a  contraceptive network going with their help.   The same applies to a nutrition programme. If we want to provide every child with one glass of milk, it is not just a doctor or a health specialist which can do this. The women in this institution can be roped in. If you pour anything on top of this network, it will trickle down. Health, social welfare, education — it will ensure all the benefits reach everywhere.

The first road with plastic waste was built in Meghalaya. You are also providing plastic to a cement factory. What are the other ways that you plan to incorporate sustainability in the Government’s functioning?

There are more initiatives. Of course, plastic is an issue and we ensured that the CM office and the Secretariat were plastic-free. However, it is essential to give people alternatives, otherwise they will go back to their old ways. We roped in cement companies which are providing people with bottles in place of plastic ones. While we do not have to spend money, these companies can advertise and put their logo on the bottle.

For all these initiatives, we are roping in NGOs and media houses as well and at the same time, trying to make it a fun activity. So when people see the Governor cleaning an area or the Chief Minister doing so, they are connected with the idea. It is a very powerful way to motivate people.

Our target is to make all Government offices fully sustainable in water and electricity. My first target is my own office and we will start it in the Secretariat in November. We are creating a rainwater harvesting system so that when the next rains come in, the Secretariat doesn’t have to draw water from the Public Health Engineering Department (PHE).

In the energy segment, we have switched over to LED lights which reduced the cost by 50 per cent. So some part of the installation cost is getting covered by these savings.

In the meantime we have also talked to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and the Centre and they have sanctioned some funds for rooftop solar panels. The good thing about our offices is that they do not need a lot of light during their diurnal operations. We called in some experts who told us the number of panels and batteries to be set up after a survey of the roof. Even if we meet 50 per cent of our demand, it will be good. The programme will be gradually extended to the Secretariat and Additional Secretariat by the next financial year as well as the DC offices gradually.

Meghalaya has a lot of potential in tourism. There is history, since it was inhabited in the Neolithic age, wildlife and natural beauty. How do you plan to focus on tourism and at the same time make it sustainable?

We are looking at developing it in a sustainable manner and focussing on the strengths that we have. We would prefer to have a lesser number of tourists, who are looking at a niche experience. Something like the Bhutan model. It might not be as strict but our product line will move in that direction.

We are selecting areas that everybody connects to like Cherrapunji and have identified eight tourist spots. We want to pull the tourists there while developing them in an eco-friendly manner. We have built log houses, which give a local and natural feel in place of the cement and brick ones. Then there are events like the cherry blossom festival which is specific to the region and has become big over the years. People in the State are also fond of music, so we are building activities around such passions too.

Plans are already afoot for a hot air balloon experience so that you can see Cherrapunji and even Bangladesh from the sky. We are planning to develop chopper tourism, which will be a premium service. Tourists can see the double-decker root bridge more frequently as the chopper can  land right next to it. This will naturally cater to a high-end market.

Then there is history. Geologists found a stalagmite in the Mawmluh Cave which was classified to be 4,200 years old and dated to what is called as the Meghalayan Age. Mawmluh is a 28 km long sandstone cave which is the longest in the world. There are other caves of varying lengths. We are developing a system where people can actually enter these. Some of the caves are massive and could hold an amphitheatre inside. You enter one and find yourself in a huge hall where the ceiling is 30-40 feet high. There are caves with rivers flowing inside them, almost like a swimming pool, and one where the entrance is hidden behind a waterfall and will remind people who love comics of Phantom’s cave. To experience something like this, you can travel to Meghalaya or spend a lot of money to go to distant lands.

  • You love music and also perform...

All people in the North-East do. I used to be in a band in school. I played guitar, my brother was a singer. Earlier we played the music. Now, as Chief Minister, I face it (guffaws).

(Photo: Md. Meharban) 

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