BREXIT: Lessons for Meghalaya

BREXIT has been one of the most significant event of the 21st Century. BREXIT simply means the exit of Britain from the European Union after it became its member in 1973. Even at that time the issue was a highly debatable one with a referendum being held in 1975 to determine that membership. In that referendum 67% voted in favour of membership. Things came full circle this year when a new referendum was called to decide Britain’s continued membership to the EU. This time, the result of the 1975 referendum was overturned with 52% opting to come out of EU. The timeline is very important in this context. Britain became part of the EU when the neo-liberal agenda was beginning its hegemonic ascension and it came out of it when the repercussion (2008 economic crises) of that model is being experienced by the whole world. In between these two events inequality, which was used as a derogatory term for the poorer countries, has increased within the developed nations. This has happened in Britain where the top 10% now earns 10 times more than the Bottom 10%. In USA this is much starker with the top 10% earning 9 times more than the remaining 90% of the population.

The reactions to this tremendous rise in inequality have also been quite spectacular. In the USA anti-establishment figures like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders become very popular in the lead-up to the US Presidential Election. While Bernie Sanders eventually lost the race to become the Democratic nominee to Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump became the Republican presumptive nominee long before the last votes were cast. The popularity of a divisive figure such as Trump and a lifelong democratic socialist such as Sanders reveal that all is not well in the richest country of the world. In fact, income inequality was a very big issue in the race for nomination and is expected to remain important in the Presidential election as well.

In Britain the reaction to the growing inequality has culminated in the BREXIT. Excepting Scotland and Northern Ireland, most places voted to leave the EU. The notable exception was London, one of the financial capitals of the world, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in EU. In contrast to it, the areas that experienced decline in their economic fortunes voted to leave. Though the Labour Party in Britain under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn supported the Remain campaign it seems most of the working class voted against it. In many ways this vote is being seen as a symptom of the growing anti-elite movements around the world. While the anger of the general public at being at the receiving end of an oppressive economic system is salutary the outcome are not always the ones that are desired.

What the economic deprivation of the masses has unleashed is also the rise of the Right wing tendencies. This is being seen increasingly in Europe where bigotry against the minorities is becoming a major concern. In Britain after the referendum result was announced, xenophobic attacks have increased. It is not only the coloured people who are the receiving end but quintessentially white people, especially the Polish workers, are being specifically targeted. Anti-immigrant sentiments are at quite a high all over the Europe with countries like Slovakia refusing to allow Muslim refugees from entering the country. This on the other hand, will add fuel the propaganda of the extremist Muslims who would cite it as a form of western oppression: the west created the problems in the Muslim world but now does not want to accept the responsibility of the outcomes. All of this only creates a more unsafe world.

The implications of growing inequality leading to rising social disharmony have very important lessons for Meghalaya as well.

The state has a long history of hate crimes against the minority community, i.e., the non-tribal community. Meghalaya is the only state in the North-East which has been seeing a continuous decline in its non-tribal population over the last few decades. The Schedule Tribe population in the state grew from 85.52% in 1991 to 86.15% in 2011. This may look small but it amounts to an outmigration of thousands (non-tribal population) every decade. The trend will continue in the future as well. This is not surprising considering the fact that apart from the threats of physical violence, restrictions in terms of getting employment has made the state unfavourable for the non-tribal population. Many of those who are well-educated have been making the journey outside the state for seeking employment fully aware that they may never come back. Those who remain are uncertain of their future. However, for the Right in the state, the exodus is not happening fast enough. On the contrary, they have invested themselves into the propaganda of ‘illegal immigration’: a phenomenon which will turn Meghalaya into another Tripura or Assam. Indigenous tribals in Tripura have indeed become victims of a spectacular demographic change which has made them second class citizens in their own homeland. Assam however, is a little complicated because it always had a substantial Muslim population. As such, it is very difficult to separate the indigenous from the migrants. With the BJP coming into power on the issue of illegal migration, it remains to be seen how this process will be undertaken and what problems it will create. In the case of Meghalaya the claims are not backed by facts. That however, has not deterred the Right from trumpeting its claims and come 2018 assembly elections agitations should be anticipated.

In the former RBI Governor Dr. Raghuram Rajan Committee Report published in 2013 Meghalaya was categorized in the least developed category on the basis of how the state scored in terms of (i) monthly per capita consumption expenditure, (ii) education, (iii) health, (iv) household amenities, (v) poverty rate, (vi) female literacy, (vii) percent of SC-ST population, (viii) urbanization rate, (viii) financial inclusion, and (x) connectivity. In short, Meghalaya performs very badly in both the social as well as economic fronts. Along with this there was another disturbing report which came out last year. This was the finding of the Socio-Economic and Caste Survey which revealed that more than 70% of the population in the state is landless. However, the figure is highly doubtful because it does not take into consideration the land tenure system in the state. The state does have private land holdings but it also has community lands on which every member of the community have usufructuary rights. This mechanism acts as safety net for the poor in the community, so the people without private land holding are not actually landless. A more relevant indicator is the proportion of landless population deriving major part of their income from manual casual labour. For Meghalaya this figure is 34% of the landless population. This in most probability is the actual landless population of the state. Encompassing more than 20% of the state’s population this is still a very disturbing finding. With community land under continuous encroachment one can expect the figure of landless to increase in the future. They will become in time the surplus labour ripped for exploitation and trapped in a situation of low paying jobs, uncertain and exploitative working conditions.

At the moment the state does not look serious to tackle these problems. In contrast, it seems hell bent on attacking the interest of the working class as seen by its hostile attitude to the problem of the street vendors/hawkers. Workers in the informal sector, to which the street vendors belong, today form the majority of the workforce in the country. An attack on them is but a symptom of the bigger malaise. Instead the enthusiasm shown for grandiose projects like the Smart City, NST betrays its apathy to the everyday concern of the common people and an obsession for creating gated communities for the rich and powerful—a neoliberal dream project.

While the state continues to neglect the interest of the common good, the Right will sharpen its weapon and look for scapegoats. They inevitably are going to be the minorities.

The future for Britain after Brexit does not look promising with further recession and job losses looking highly likely. All the xenophobia is not going to bring the economic benefits that many desired when they voted to Leave EU. Same fate awaits Meghalaya if it falls in the trap created by the Right. But unless the state abandons looking after the interest of the few, as is evidenced from its support to the coal lobby, the trap is looking like the future that awaits Meghalaya. When the minorities were first chased out of the state in the 1970s-1980s it was the resentment at their economic dominance that was the driving force behind the tensions. The same will be played out in the future as well. A day will come when very few minorities will be left to blame. But by then it will too late. The Right would have won and the state will be in ruins. Then we will be the minorities in other’s home having forced to migrate for earning a livelihood.

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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

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