(Not) The Future That I Want

NESFAS 3While Shillong Town and the State Government are excitedly celebrating their new-found ”indigenity” I think some moments should be taken to evaluate what all this means in the long run. For the urban middle-class, International Indigenous Terre Madre (ITM) was a chance to enjoy themselves, flirt with foreigners, a day to relax and unwind, all-in-all an event to savour (literally). For the rural poor, it meant some money coming their way, some photos taken of them and for the rural elites it meant that – just like at some big Church service – they could show up their ”traditional” knowledge and open up ‘their’ villages to outsiders. ITM was without a doubt a grand event, but was only an event and that is where the problem lies. It is not a farmers’ movement, it is not a grocers’ movement; it was decided at the highest levels of the state administration and then came down to the grassroots. There is the fatal problem. Would ITM or NESFAS have even materialised if it were headed by a farmers’ collective from Ri-Bhoi or any other district? I will boldly say NO. The reason is not because the farmers would have been too stupid to do something similar to ITM or NESFAS (though probably it would not have been so vulgar). On the contrary, farmers would themselves know that they are facing a challenge in whatever form and how to tackle it properly. They do not need some European ”voluntourists” to come along and remind them of the threats. The ease of access that NESFAS has gained into and within the Secretariat indicates how being from a position of privilege and power can literally open doors. Local farmers simply do not have the clout to be able to pitch something of such scale with such success to our (deaf) state government. The Secretariat has shown itself to be nothing but an ”old boys’ club” which only favours those who are already established.

Most of the sessions were closed door events, with almost all the delegates being invitees
Most of the sessions were closed door events, with almost all the delegates being invitees

I recently learned this new word – ”voluntourism”. It is a handy word to describe the work that NESFAS is doing. All these events which it has wasted our money on have little to do with policy-making and setting right the past mistakes; they have everything to do with tourism. Tourists form an important part of its work-force; they serve as vindication that its work is noble and true. And of course, the expectation is that white Euro tourists will come in to indulgingly lift us out of this depressing cultural and physical poverty. I am not trying to stereotype anyone. Some of the most insightful and compelling work I have read/viewed on North East India are by foreigners; those deserve our respect.

I will repeat again: this event is a WASTE of money. Someone from Opposition/Civil society should bring this up every time Mukul and company go to Delhi to beg for funds. The same government makes a sad face whenever people go to ask for money to build a road or some other public works: so sorry, no money for you! Meghalaya, next time you need a road, lane or some pipe-works installed go pick up some random white foreigner from PB first and then go to the concerned department. Voila, your wishes will come true!
What should have been done? Enough Events, CMji. Events, it is now clear, are just another blackhole into which the corrupt admin can dump cash. Instead of wasting money on these sinking ships, it would have been far better to have injected the same into the various agri-businesses that are floundering. It could have been used to upgrade machinery, improve warehouses, market local goods better, whatever. Now the hotels, non-slowfood eateries, the local artists, musicians, filmmakers can all have a slice of the ”indigenous” cake. In one way, this obscene glut can be justified economically but it does not reach everyone, just a certain class in the know, in the loop. It might not be illegal but it is unethical. It does not make sense to court foreigners just for the sake of PR when Garo Hills is burning, when natural resources are dwindling and unemployment dangerously high! This is a mistake like IFAD funded North Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project(NERCORMP) and Meghalaya Rural Development Society (MRDS) was a mistake. If you look carefully, it is the same people in a different boat. It creates a dependency on the mother organisation (like MRDS did) which cannot simply be shrugged off (I recall Shillong Times reporting about the closure of MRDS and the problems that arose). That is what the government is here for, not NESFAS or others. To cover the costs, lighten the burden, of the rural people in particular; to put this mantle on someone else’s shoulders is unethical and dangerous. I hope for the farmers’ sake that this does not turn out to be another Monolithic mess. They will be the ones under the hammer not the big-wigs if that happens.

What they were doing in ITM2015 – an official presentation by the organisers

Lastly, what on earth is this ”indigenous” crap that NGOs are touting nowadays? Is a Native American the same as a Chittagong tribal? Is a Garo the same as an Aborigine? Is this part of some UNO plan to create a ‘global all tribals’ political party? Suddenly people have started caring so much about being ”indigenous”. Care about your roots, your traditions; learn from others too. It’s a way of living in the world, not a concert gig to attend. It’s not cool, it’s not swag or hip. Yes, we might need cultural preservation but not as much as rejuvenation. Too many people are obsessed with being romantic about the past and so they look for these types of events to remind them occasionally of whom they are ‘supposed’ to be. These guys can’t help you! You need to engage with culture and learn and teach and grow and rear. It isn’t outside your Self, it’s attached deeply within it.

Today, the youth of this generation are indeed expressive about what they want, out loud and unapologetically. Many of them are indeed articulating similar things that NESFAS is saying. However, they are saying it in the streets; they are not discussing policy in a closed room within the Secretariat or having tea with the head honchos of Big (NGO) Business. They want to break down the sycophancy and hierarchical structures that are in place. At ITM 2015, we saw immediately the creation of elite spaces. VIPS went in surrounded by bodyguards, traffic flow was disrupted for them to pass through, places and items were reserved only for them from Day 1 onwards. These people are as “indigenous” as the Louis Vuitton or Ralph Lauren they wear. They can just leave their ST certificates at the Emigration Office; I think we will survive, maybe even thrive!


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Babet Sten Written by:

Babet Sten is a researcher and occasional political commentator

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