Governance takes a beating in clan-ridden Arunachal Pradesh

Statehood in 1987 replaced rule of law with petty politics of clan loyalties. Yet, there are rays of hope now


Pratap Vikram Singh | January 20, 2014

Ojing Darung, Arunachal Pradesh’s labour commissioner, was arrested on February 8 for encroaching on government land. He had dismantled his official residential quarters and constructed a residential complex in its place.

As soon he was arrested (under section 3 of Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984), senior ministers, MLAs and other politicians of his community – Aadi – went to the chief judicial magistrate (CJM) and demanded bail for him. “It was past midnight when politicians gathered at the CJM’s residence. The next day was second Saturday of the month – courts in the state don’t function on that day. CJM had no choice but to issue the bail,” says a senior vigilance department official who wishes not to be identified.

The commissioner was out in less than 24 hours, even as several organisations including the All Arunachal Pradesh Workers Union (AAPWU) and Arunachal Law Students Union (ALSU) pressed their demand to bring him to justice.

This is just an example of how complicated the business of governance and administration is in Arunachal Pradesh – primarily because clan loyalty takes precedence over the rule of law, and there are 26 ethnic and 40 sub-ethnic groups in the state.

Society in this northeastern state is deeply divided on ethnic lines, says Japhum Gamlin, editor of the Itanagar-based English daily, Eastern Sentinel. Gamlin, who studied in Delhi and has worked with several MNCs, started his career as a media entrepreneur with Arunachal Sentinel. But he couldn’t run it for more than a couple of years thanks to threats he and his family received from a community-based union, which was hell-bent on avenging the paper’s criticism of one of their leaders.  

“I have lived in the mainland for years, but never faced racial discrimination as I am facing now. Every day I am reminded that I am a Galo (an ethnic community),” says Gamlin. Itanagar and surrounding areas have traditionally been dominated by the Nishi and Apatani communities.

The clan loyalty runs so strong that even if action is taken against a wrongdoer, politicians and the students union of his community intervene and make sure he goes scot-free.

Due to community pressure and increasing corruption among government functionaries, the rule of law takes the back seat. According to the government data, around 5,000 people – including senior and mid-level bureaucrats, MLAs and other politicians – have encroached on government quarters. Most of them have demolished their allotted residential building, and have reconstructed it, claiming ownership.

When Takam Marde of the Congress party raised the matter in the state assembly in September, he did not call for strict action against the encroachers, but proposed that the government should find an “amicable solution”. Marde, a former state home minister, has encroached on the government quarters allotted. He was served an eviction warrant but to no avail.

Travails of democracy

Although corruption is a pan-India phenomenon, in Arunachal Pradesh it is neither seen with suspicion nor it is questioned, says Dr Nani Bath, an assistant professor of political science with the Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar. He says making money through corrupt means has social acceptability here. The result is that a section of engineers and other mid-level officials working with the state government have become rich over the years.

Many of them have invested their ill-earned money in hospitality business. As you cross the Assam border and enter the state, the way to Itanagar is dotted with hotels – Todo, Rajdhani, BB Plaza, Donyi Polo, Pine Reach, Blue Pine and many more – owned by superintendent engineers, executive engineers, revenue officials and even clerks. Some even run chains of hotels.

The situation, however, was not so bad three decades back. A cross-section of people Governance Now spoke with say governance has deteriorated since the formation of the state in 1987.

There was a degree of transparency in administrative and financial matters then, says Gumzum Haider, an activist popular among the youth in Arunachal Pradesh. Dr Bath explains, “Most of the powers [of the state] including administrative, developmental and judicial were delegated to the deputy commissioners, who reported to the lieutenant governor. It used to be called single-line administration.”

The deputy commissioners were following in the footsteps of ‘political officers’, who were in charge of district administration before 1972, when the North East Frontier Agency, run by the external affairs ministry, became the union territory of Arunachal Pradesh.

“These political officers, who were drawn from the three arms of defence forces and other central cadres, were the pioneers in introducing governance in Arunachal and integrating the local people with the mainland’s history, cultural and administrative structure,” says JL Wanglat, a veteran politician who co-founded All Arunachal Students Union (AAPSU) in 1970 and People’s Party of Arunachal Pradesh (PPA) in 1977.

Wanglat gives an example to show how governance changed post statehood in 1987. “When you enter Arunchal from Assam, crossing the Banderdewa state check-post, and come to Itanagar, you can see large commercial complexes on both sides of the road – these are mostly owned by government functionaries. The area comes under reserve forest. The LG could never let that happen. The stretch was once covered with 100-metre wide beautiful plantation – on both sides of the road – of flowers, rubber and teak under a social forestry programme of the government of India.”

Wanglat believes that the central government acted in haste in introducing the panchayati raj system here in 1967. “Around that time we already had a village council, run by Gaon Burah (a village authority which had quasi judicial powers).”

He adds, “The introduction of panchayati raj provoked a tussle for power among the two kinds of institutions. It sowed the seed of disharmony.”
The first Lok Sabha and assembly elections were held in 1977 and 1978 respectively. The LG headed a council of ministers who were elected representatives. But there were checks and balances. Not that all elected representatives, says Wanglat, were thoroughly righteous and honest; the administration was managed with a fair degree of transparency.

Money and muscle had little to do with elections then. “In 1980, I got elected to the state assembly. For the election, I spent only Rs 16,000. People contributed the rest. They offered rice and chicken, among other things,” he recalls.      

Buying votes is quite a common practice. According to politicians and media professionals Governance Now spoke to, there are instances when voters are paid from Rs 75,000 to Rs 1 lakh depending on the level of elections.

Where does the money come from? When a government contract is awarded it is done either on a direct nomination basis or through manipulating the tendering.

According to the vigilance official, if a 10-km road has to be constructed, the work is divided in smaller portions and distributed among contractors, so that everyone gets a share. The focus is mostly on releasing the payment and not on completion or quality of work [see].

Everyone, including politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, youth organizations – which wield enormous power across Arunachal and the northeast in general – and even voters clamour for their slice of the public-fund pie. Over 90 percent of the funds for Arunachal Pradesh come from Delhi.

“In case of complaints, investigations are usually avoided. There are only three cases of disproportionate assets with the department,” says the vigilance official.

But corruption doesn’t start in Itanagar; it starts from Delhi, say state Congress leaders and bureaucrats, referring to the alleged demand of certain percentage while releasing funds to the state. “When the fund is granted to the state, elements in the ministry of development of north-eastern region (Doner) charge certain percentage,” acknowledges a home ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Judiciary not independent

The absence of an independent judiciary has made matters worse. Unlike other states, the CJM reports to the state government, though he should be reporting to the Guwahati high court. It is arguably the biggest reason behind zero deterrence against corruption.

Although the government claims to have started the process of separation of judiciary from the executive by kick-starting appointments of judicial officers for a couple of district and session courts, critics say it would be naïve to expect fair judgment given the persistence of deep-rooted clan loyalty in the Arunachal society.  

No doubt, the basic civic amenities are in a shambles – from electricity supply to cleaner roads. It is as difficult to find a good road as it is to find a road without garbage. Even the roads to the CM’s residence or to the MLA colonies are no exception.

Besides, social equity is also a challenge in the tribal state. The bureaucracy, says Wanglat, is dominated by Aadi and Apatani (which is the most educated ethnic group here). There is hardly any representation from the eastern districts including Tirap and Changlang—the only districts affected by insurgency in the state. What is needed is a fair distribution of economic and employment opportunities across all communities, says the veteran politician.

Though the state media raises issues related to corruption and civic amenities, it doesn’t go too far as “people might take things personally and react”, says Ajum Taba, a journalist working with Arunachal Times, the leading English daily in the state.

In 2012, Taba alleges, some newspapers received threats against publishing a report on some MLAs of the Peoples Party of Arunachal shifting their loyalties to the Congress. “Goons came to our office and asked not to publish the news story. People only came to know about the MLA switching sides later when the assembly speaker announced it,” says Taba.   

Youth organisations

People also hold the community-based youth organisations responsible for the mess. In Arunachal, as with other northeastern states, every ethnic community has a student union, which not only voices concerns of the student community but also plays the role of a civil society organisation in general.
Thanks to political patronage, most issues raised by the youth organisations are politically and monetarily motivated, says Wanglat.

There was time, when these organizations played a major role in articulating community’s concerns. They also worked, according to Dr Bath, to eliminate from their communities social problems like child marriage and polygamy (prevalent in a few ethnic groups).

“Over the years, as democratic institutions have come up, their role has not just diminished but also degenerated,” says state Congress president and Rajya Sabha member Mukut Mithi, a former chief minister.

The student union elections are nothing but power play. “You require Rs 10 crore to contest for the election of the AAPSU president,” says Haider, who has held the position of secretary general of the Northeast Student Organization (NESO).

Given the lack of enough job opportunities, youngsters are turning to these unions for livelihood. The youth organizations including AAPSU approach MLAs to get public contracts. That is how the work quality is compromised, say the vigilance official.

The missing centre

The central government too has been a party to the poor state of affairs. According to another senior bureaucrat with the state government, the centre is concerned only about the international borders with China, and is taking little interest in the development of the state. The centre provides Rs 7,000 crore annually to the state—too little to register on the North Block radar, says the vigilance official.

Admitting the poor state of governance in the state and the central government’s apathy towards it, the home ministry official laments, “There is no political will to take action. We are helpless.”

There is, however, a ray of hope. Of late, people have started using public interest litigations (PIL) and right to information (RTI) to expose corruption and vested interests.

For example, a PIL filed in the Guwahati high court in 2004 alleging irregularities in the PDS, led to a police investigation which brought to light a multi-crore scam and led to the conviction of several politicians and bureaucrats.

Moreover, the judiciary is going to be separated from the executive in 2014. The planning commission’s instruction to the state government, to take the tendering route for projects valuing above '1 crore, will also help curb corruption.

The rural development ministry is strictly monitoring the implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) through satellite imagery. The ministry has also instructed the authorities to follow electronic tendering for all projects.

On its part, Wanglat believes, the state government can initiate a dialogue among various communities and facilitate intermingling of communities so as to bring harmony that can help improve governance.

(This story first appeared in the magazine’s January 16-31, 2014 edition)



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