Dialogue  April - June, 2004 , Volume 5  No. 4



State of Governance in Meghalaya


Patricia Mary Mukhim



Meghalaya: a Historical Outline


Meghalaya the 21st state of the Indian union was carved out of the composite state of Assam in 1972. It is one of the eight states in the North Eastern province of India. With an area of 22,249 Sq Km. Meghalaya shares a 400 kilometre international boundary with Bangladesh on its South and West. On the North and East, Meghalaya is bounded by Assam its closest neighbour. Seven districts make up the State. They are East and West Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills, Ri Bhoi, East and West Garo Hills and South Garo Hills. The Garo Hills region experiences a tropical climate marked by heavy rainfall and humidity, moderately warm summers and mild winters. Khasi and Jaintia Hills also experience heavy rainfall and humidity, have warm summers, but winters can be severe, often dipping below 0 degrees centigrade in the upper climes. The climate of Ri Bhoi district is closer to that of Garo Hills. Cherrapunjee in East Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya has for long held pride of place as the place with the heaviest rainfall in the world. However, of late this record has been fluctuating between Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram, also in East Khasi Hills. A maximum rainfall of 12,000 mm has been recorded in the southern slopes of the Khasi Hills along the Cherrapunjee-Mawsynram belt. Acccording to the 2001 census, Meghalaya has a population of 23,06,069. Basic figures about Meghalaya are given in Table ‘I’. 

Though Meghalaya is home to different ethnic groups, the three dominant tribes are the Khasis, the Jaintias and the Garos. The Khasi-Jaintia people are of Mon Khmer origin having migrated from Cambodia, while the Garos are of Tibeto-Burman stock and have settled in Garo Hills for the past 400 hundred years. They are believed to have been uprooted from the Koch province of Cooch Behar. All the three major tribes of Meghalaya practise the unique matrilineal culture where property passes through the female – the youngest daughter who is the custodian of ancestral property. Administration of the property is usually in the hands of the maternal uncle. Lineage is from the mother’s clan line and the husbands earnings becomes part of the matrilineal property. Among the Garos the matrilineal head or the youngest daughter is the Nokna but the property is administered by her husband the Nokma who also is recognized as the headman.

About two decades ago, militancy raised its ugly head in Meghalaya. Earlier on only one militant group comprising all the three major tribes was formed with the nomenclature Hynniewtrep-Achik Liberation Council. But the cultural/communal underpinnings that create a barrier between the Khasi-Jaintia from the Garos ultimately resulted in two separate militant entities with their own names and perhaps entirely different visions. Both the groups were banned as anti-national outfits in the year 2000.


(Base figures)


a) Population

    Persons                                   23,06,069

    Males                                      11,67,840

    Females                                   11,38,229


(b) Decadal population Growth=-1991-2001

    Absolute                                 531291

    Percentage                              29.94


c) Population Density

    1991                                        2001

    79                                            103


d) Sex Ratio

    955                                           975


e) Literacy

    Absolute                                  63.31

    Males                                      66.14

    Females                                   60.41


General Information

(i) Principal Language …..            Khasi, Jaintia ,Garo

(ii) Scheduled Castes …..             9072

(iii) Scheduled Tribes …..             15.18 lakhs

(iv) Total number of cultivators …. 427896

(v) Agricultural workers                132430

(vi) Crops                                     Rice, Potato, maize, cotton jute rapeseed & mustard, ginger, citrus

(vii) Minerals                                 coal, limestone, uranium,

(viii) Industries                              cement (medium scale)

                                                    Motor repairing, painting servicing, etc

                                                    Wooden furniture, leather-based, bakery, flour and

                                                     rice mills, atta & chakki, tailoring, printing press

                                                     ( small scale),cane and bamboo work, saw mills


(ix) Roads        - Surfaced              3355 kms

                        - Unsurfaced          3136 kms

                        -  National highway 386 kms

(x) Climate           Summer              ranges between 34 degrees celsius in

                                                     Garo Hills to 28 degrees Celsius in Khasi Hills.

                           Winter                 between 18 degree Celsius in Garo Hills to 2 degree

                                                     Celsius in Khasi Hills

                            Monsoons         June to September

                            Rainfall             12,000 mm.


(xi) Capital                                    Shillong, eartswhile capital of undivided Assam


Meghalaya which literally means the abode of clouds became a full-fledged state on January 21, 1972. The transition was smooth and without bloodshed. Earlier on Meghalaya had only five districts. Two more were added in 1992. The state now has seven districts and 5629 villages. Its important towns are Shillong, Cherrapunjee or Sohra, Nongstoin, Jowai, Tura, Williamnagar, Nongpoh and Baghmara. Shillong the capital is situated at an altitude of 1,496 meters above sea level. It has been the seat of Government since the consolidation of the British Administration in this part of India, over a century ago. Shillong also has a bench of the Guwahati High Court.The principal languages of Meghalaya are Khasi and Garo but English continues as the official language of the State. Shillong boasts of some of the most outstanding educational institutions which are a legacy of the British rule in this part of the world. These premier institutions continue to be of service to people of the entire Northeastern region. In terms of quality education, Meghalaya is still the undisputed leader.

Meghalaya had a history of communal conflicts that started in 1979 during the Durga Puja celebration. For almost a decade, Durga Puja celebrations were marred by apprehensions that another conflict would take place. And indeed, trouble in the capital city of Shillong erupted regularly during the month of September – October. Today there is an uneasy calm, but the undercurrents of mistrust have taken their toll. With the emergence of militant outfits whose members are from the dominant tribal communities, non-tribal traders have become targets of extortion. Those who defy the diktat of the militants and refused to pay have been gunned down to serve as glaring examples of what would happen to defaulters.

Meghalaya has the unique distinction of having retained its customary laws and practices and its traditional institutions. Customary laws have not been codified and leave ample scope for their arbitrary application. No two cases are dealt with in the same manner or with the same yardstick. Very often there is a conflict of interests between traditional bodies, the Government and the district councils which were created as per the spirit of the Sixth Schedule. The prime objective of the District Councils was to control and administer over tribal lands and forests, and to be a custodian of customary laws and practices. District Councils issue trading licenses to all non-tribals wishing to pursue any business in Meghalaya. Because of the pre-existence of the District Councils, the 73rd and 74th amendment acts of the Constitution were not implemented in Meghalaya. The feeling was that grass-roots institutions are already in place. The ambivalence however is whether the Dorbar Shnong (local dorbar) which is the grass-roots administrative unit in a village/locality, or the District Council is to assume the status of the Panchayati Raj. The tussle is going on.

In Meghalaya, land belongs to clans, communities and individuals. No cadastral survey has ever been carried out. Mapping of area belonging to different owners is unheard of. Villagers still adopt the practice of making a river, tree or a hillock as a landmark for their boundaries. This creates enormous problems in the present because the people of Meghalaya are no longer agrarian nor pastoral nomads engaged in jhum or shifting cultivation. A good number are well settled government or non-government employees, industrialists and business people. The problem arises when institutions that are non tribal entities, such as cantonment lands, state and central government establishments which have their boundaries well-marked out happen to lie adjacent to land owned by tribals. There are several instances of boundary disputes between local land owners and the military, and all because the former does not recognize its boundaries while the latter possesses maps and survey records.

In 1976 the Meghalaya Land Transfer Act was passed which prohibits sale or transfer of land to non-tribals, except in areas formerly under British rule or European Wards, as they are called today and in Industrial Estates which are meant to encourage industrial activities. European Ward occupies roughly a radius of about 2 sq km only. In 1991 an amendment to the Land Transfer Act allowed land to be alienated in favour of non-tribals if it is to be used to promote the interests of local tribals. Perhaps the purpose behind the amendment is to facilitate development of educational institutions, private health centres and nursing homes and other units that are of common benefit. However this amendment has already raised the hackles of some local tribals. Under the banner of the Meghalaya Indigenous People’s Forum (MIPF), repeated representations have been made to the State Government to disallow other minor tribes from purchasing land in Meghalaya. The MIPF is also asking Government to take a fresh look at the 1991 amendment to the Land Transfer Act because it could give rise to rampant alienation of land to fly by night operators who come to set up business in Industrial Estates only with the objective of enjoying tax holidays and subsidies in power, transport etc.

Politics and Governance

Meghalaya has a chequered political history with no single party winning an absolute majority in any of the elections conducted since 1972. Coalition Governments have been the order of the day and political instability the hallmark. Often the State has witnessed as many as five government change in five years. Political instability and frequent change of government has resulted in development schemes being shelved and money allocated for one scheme being diverted to another. Lack of any clear-cut long term economic vision for the State has kept it in a sort of political limbo. The number of people living below poverty line is increasing every year. Statistics show 1,60407 families living below poverty line. If each family has an average of five members the number of individuals below poverty line would be something like 8,02035. In a population of 21 lakhs, the BPL figure of eight lakhs is a staggering one. There are several reasons for the increasing number of poor people in Meghalaya.

Meghalaya is an agrarian, pastoralist society. Over eighty per cent of its people live in villages. Several poverty alleviation programmes have been taken up by governments from time to time but these have remained only on office records. Life in rural Meghalaya remains unchanged. The reason is because out of every rupee allocated for rural development only six paise actually reaches the poor. The Draft Approach Paper to the Tenth Five Year Plan prepared by the Planning Commission has made special mention of poverty alleviation programmes undertaken by different state governments over the years. Evaluations of the Integrated Rural Development Project (IRDP) show that projects undertaken under the programme suffer from numerous defects such as unviability of projects, lack of technological and institutional capabilities in designing and executing projects utilising local resources and expertise, illiterate and unskilled beneficiaries with no experience in managing an enterprise, indifferent delivery of credits by banks (high transaction cost, complex procedure, corruption, one-time credit, poor recovery), overcrowding of lending in certain projects such as dairy, defect in targeting beneficiary groups etc. The sad irony is that there has been a rising indebtedness of the beneficiaries of IRDP.

Poverty and relative deprivation have given rise to youth unrest, violence and in the last two decades to a virulent form of militancy which is not born out of any ideology but is aimed at extorting money from the more privileged section of society such as business persons, higher bureaucracy, politicians, professionals such as doctors, teachers, lawyers etc. Extortion notes are inevitably accompanied by underlying threats to the victim’s life in case he/she fails to obey the diktat. Today the greatest challenge before the Meghalaya Police comes from the activities of the two militant outfits in the state viz, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) and the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC). Since Garo Hills shares a fairly large boundary with Assam, militant outfits from that state such as the ULFA and the Bodo militants like NDFB, the Dimasa and Naga militant groups often operate hand in glove with the ANVC. The NSCN is also very active in the Khasi Hills. They provide guerilla and arms training and also help procure arms and ammunition from across the Bangladesh and Myanmar borders.

There is a plethora of governing authorities in Meghalaya. As stated earlier there is the Dorbar Shnong or village level council. Above it is the Dorbar Raij or a conglomeration of villages. At the top is the Dorbar Syiem or the chieftainship which exerts over-all control over the two other councils. Then there is the District Councils which the tribes are increasingly feeling are an imposition on their traditional governance systems since they were created by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution without prior consultation with them. Then there is the State Government with its subsidiaries the Municipality and Urban Governance bodies. Since a large part of Shillong is under the military, there is also a Cantonment Board which governs and administers its own area of jurisdiction. Unfortunately the relationship between all the above power centres is contentious. The sufferer is the common man.

There is and has been a constant tug of war between the District Councils and the traditional institutions. This has arisen primarily because of the 1959 Succession of Chiefs and Headmen Act enacted by the District Councils which gives them over-riding powers to appoint or dismiss any Syiem (Chieftain) or Rangbah Shnong (Village Headman heading the Dorbar Shnong). The contention of the traditional institutions is that District Councils have no right to dismiss a democratically elected chieftain or headman. The District Councils on the other hand say that they dismiss a Syiem only on the complaints of the electors and the people themselves and not of their own accord. Traditional institutions believe that District Councils have always engineered the dismissal of any Syiem who does not toe their line. This controversy inhibits the smooth functioning of governance at the grassroots level.

District Councils on their part have a grouse against the State Government. Para 12 (A) of the Sixth Schedule says that if any law made by the District Councils is repugnant to any law made by the State Legislature, that made by the State legislature shall prevail. District Councils have made representations to the Central Government to repeal this ‘obnoxious’ clause as they call it. District Councils previously looked after administration of primary education. However because their sources of income are meager there was diversion of funds from education to other ‘more pressing matters’. Primary teachers went without pay for several months. They went on an agitation and were perhaps politically motivated to opt to be administered by the State Government. Today primary education is in the hands of the State Government leaving the District Councils weaker than when they first started.

Today there is a strong feeling among a vocal intellectual section that the District Councils have outlived their utility. They feel that the Councils were needed to preserve the unique culture and tradition of the tribes from the onslaught of the dominant culture of Assam when they were part of that larger State. But since the new tribal state of Meghalaya has been created, they feel that the Councils are no longer relevant but have become mere white elephants who subsist on giving out trading licenses to non-tribals and on royalties from forests and minerals. But there is another section which feels that if the District Councils are a direct off-shoot of the Sixth Schedule and that is District Councils are demolished then the Sixth Schedule too would be scrapped. Then where would this leave the tribals? And whether tribals will still enjoy their privileged status such as job reservation and non-payment of income tax. Meghalaya is a state in transition and the debate on various governance issues continues.

But in the meanwhile, while different authorities are sorting out their differences, the common man suffers from serious lack of governance. He does not know where the buck stops and who is accountable for any failure in the service delivery system. The traditional institutions are exclusive rather than inclusive. They do not involve non-tribal residents in decision-making but impose their diktat on all the residents within their localities. This has given rise to resentment among non-tribals. They feel that it is not fair on the part of the ‘Dorbars’ to expect compliance from them without involving them in decision-making. The ‘Dorbars’ on the other hand feel they might lose their sanctity as a traditional institution if non-tribal residents are included.

One aspect that needs serious study in Meghalaya is the failure of all the authorities to implement the rule of law. Communal conflicts have bled the State since 1979 but victims are yet to get justice. Several non-tribals have lost their lives in these communal flare-ups. In several cases, the criminals are identifiable but the local village councils will not come forward to give evidence. Cases therefore hang in the balance and are subsequently closed in the absence of strong and convincing evidence.

Meghalaya was created to meet the aspirations of the tribes that inhabit it. However, it cannot be brushed aside that this State is also the home of a good chunk of non-tribal population who were brought to the hills by the British for clerical service. Others came for the purpose of business. Hence any developmental programme that excludes any one section is bound to meet with failure. But this has been the sad story in the State. An undercurrent of suspicion continues to pervade the society. Non-tribals have been conveniently given the label of ‘exploiters’. While there may have been some element of truth in the labeling at a time when the tribals were least conscious of their rights, today the label is a misnomer. The tribal elite has replaced the non-tribal in most business ventures. This elite uses the system as intelligently as the non-tribal did or even better. The tribal elite has done other things besides. In collusion with the political and bureaucratic elite they have devised ways and means to make money from land acquisition schemes. This land mafia is informed whenever Government requires land for development projects such as roads etc. The mafia buy up all land around the area at throw-away prices. They then hike the price by ten or twenty times and all share the loot.

The tribes of Meghalaya used to pride themselves as a community where every person is given adequate land for cultivation and for settling down. Today this system has been distorted because farmers are so poor that they are forced to sell their land to the highest bidder. They then become landless. Another very pernicious practice is also threatening to turn a good majority of tribals into landless labourers. The Syiems (chieftains) and Syiem Raij (chieftains over Raij lands) are slowly beginning to convert Ri Raij (Raij Land or community owned land) into Ri Kynti (land owned by individuals). Once a plot becomes Ri Kynti it is easy to sell it off to anyone who has the money. Hence a large acreage of West Khasi Hills forest and agricultural land is in the hands of a few absentee landlords from the city of Shillong.

In Garo Hills, Akhing land or clan forests is slowly being turned into privately owned land and is being deforested for cultivation of commercial crops. Benami transactions of various kinds have deprived the communities of their precious land and resource. Garo Hills is an area that is threatening to have a major problem of influx from Bangladesh because of porous borders. It is a matter of concern that none of the legislators are preoccupied by this issue because they see the infiltrators as vote banks.

Corruption in high places has stalled the completion of major development projects. The Shillong by-pass which was meant to be an artery that would enable heavy vehicles to by-pass the city of Shillong is now almost twenty years old. It still has to be completed. The major problem is over land acquisition. The by-pass has been re-routed several times over so that it can pass over land owned by vested interest groups. Other projects that have turned into infamous scams are the Jowai PHE water supply project, the Greater Shillong Water Supply Scheme and now the West Garo Hills Water Supply Project. All of them are on-going projects and have been for the past twenty years. A compensation of rupees one lakh was paid to the contractors of the Greater Shillong Water Supply Project way back in 1988. A major hotel project in Shillong – the Crowborough Hotel which overlooks the Old State Assembly building in Police Bazar is a living example of corruption and nepotism. The hotel started in 1988 stands incomplete and dilapidated. Already rupees four crores have been paid as compensation to two contractors.

Two years ago the Government tried to get into a joint venture with a Kolkata based firm to rebuild the Meghalaya House at Russell Street, an up-market area in Kolkata. The deal was shrouded in secrecy. It was a thirteen crore project that was signed even before the matter was discussed and ratified by cabinet. The controversial agreement was that the State Government would be giving away half of the constructed building which includes the frontage to the construction firm on a 99 year lease. The State Government would only be getting the back portion. The firm would be paying a ridiculous amount of some 3 Rs per square feet per month. Fortunately this deal came into the public domain and a huge public outcry followed, after which the Government cancelled the deal with the company. The matter is still under arbitration. In fact arbitrations are the hallmark of all projects in Meghalaya. There is no transparency even in the manner in which arbitrations are carried out.

Governance requires public participation in order to succeed. It requires a vigilant civil society which unfortunately is absent in Meghalaya. Pressure and interest groups like the Khasi Students Union or the Federation of Khasi Jaintia and Garo Peoples are there for specific agenda. Both the above organizations have spawned political parties and therefore their views are often politically coloured. The State is yet to have a citizens’ forum where genuine issues can be thrashed out without fear or favour.




1 Meghalaya Tourism, Handbook, 2000.

2 Statistical Handbook, 2000, Government of Meghalaya, Department of Economics and Statistics

3 Sen Soumen, Social and State Formation in Khasi-Jaintia Hills, Matriliny,.pp 89-90

4 Meghalaya Tourism, Handbook


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