Extraordinary ideas bloom in the most ordinary places. So, when Avner Pariat, one of the founding members of the recently formed New Dawn, talks about economic changes in the state and his road map to achieve that inside an invisible Dukan sha bad ja (Khasi food stall) in Laitumkhrah, one cannot ignore his ideas.
Pariat has finally joined the electoral politics. He will contest the 2023 Assembly elections from Shillong East — Ampareen Lyngdoh’s bastion — as an independent candidate. An urban constituency with maladies of its own and a veteran leader as an opponent — the challenges for 35-year-old Pariat are thick on the ground but the young leader’s “mind is clear” about what he and New Dawn want for the state. He has also mind-mapped the short and the long-term goals for New Dawn and its members, who are already training themselves for a bigger role.
As he relaxed on the wooden bench of the food stall after a long day and ordered a cup of sugarless tea before starting the interview with Sunday Monitor, he asserted that he was not intimidated by the stature of his opponent. The fight is against the listless leaders of the state who are not farsighted.
The conversation rolled on and Pariat started talking about the crumbling economy of the state. He pointed out how the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the state’s festering economic wound and that without the help of the Centre, Meghalaya would have gone down.
For Pariat, the practice of the state government to take its “begging bowl” to the Centre for everything is appalling and he wants a complete change in this form of governance. Economy, he reiterated, should be the focal point to bring about any change. And to do this, the state’s Finance Department needs an overhaul, he believes.
Pariat wants the system to be streamlined so that local contractors with no experience do not get preference all the time. He also wants to fight for the causes of the middle and the poor classes and propose reforms to better the living condition of the low-income group.
“The middle class is slipping into poverty and the rich are getting richer. Most of our neighbourhoods are shanties. People are poor and they can’t even afford to build a wall. The middle class has to wake up. The economy is stagnating over the years and unemployment is steadily rising. Conrad (Chief Minister Conrad Sangma) says ‘Meghalaya on The Move’, but nothing is happening,” he said.
New Dawn is trying to think out of the box. Instead of boosting tourism for revenue growth, it is keen on encouraging medium and small enterprises (MSMEs) and improvising on the existing local production system for sustainable and eco-friendly growth.
The vision is clear but are the leader and his team resolute enough to continue the fight against decades of misgovernance? Pariat explained that too. “I am not against supporting (a political party that will win majority of the seats) but I want to push for our bills and agenda,” he said.
Excerpts of the interview:
Sunday Monitor (SM): So, you finally take the plunge. You will be contesting against Ampareen Lyngdoh, a veteran in the race. What are your apprehensions?
Avner Pariat (AP): Not really. People around me are more apprehensive. There is no such thing like untouchables. It is not anyone’s kingdom. It is not like anyone, just out of fear, should not think differently about politics. It is a democracy and people should come forward and take part in the electoral politics.
At the same time, only those who have deep knowledge and experienced life should take part in politics and not the rich and the influential… Politics is about people’s life. That is the reason why I have decided to contest. I am really not impressed by the 60 representatives in the Assembly. There are a few may be who are being able to understand the basic crisis of the constituency but none is thinking about the future of people.
SM: How are you strategising your campaign?
AP: You will have to see. I cannot divulge it now. We have already countered the traditional media by moving to social media. The greatest strategy is honesty and we have nothing to hide. For instance, Conrad Sangma is hyper-active on social media but what is he saying? What he is saying means nothing to the common people.
SM: What will be the key points in New Dawn’s agenda?
AP: To talk about employment. It is very important. But just talking about employment will not help and we will talk about how to create a fairer system and fair wages. Also, we have to consider how money comes into the system to ensure that there is a revenue source.
I will also fight for increasing income and setting the financial responsibilities of MLAs. Shillong East is stagnating and it has to grow more. So, the growth of the constituency will be on my agenda. Beyond the constituency, I want to fight for grassroots reforms which will bring down the living cost in the city.
I am also for opening up land ports with Bangladesh. We should do business with Assam and not the other way round. We need government support for local government sectors.
SM: You had earlier mentioned about MSME empowerment and entrepreneurship. What sort of production do you have in mind?
AP: It is a very long struggle. That is why New Dawn has to create a different cell that will solely look into business side of growth. Talking about MSMEs, I am very much in favour of the cooperative model. But it has to be managed well. Now, most of the cooperatives in Meghalaya are highly dependent on the government. This has to end. Autonomy has to be maintained and profit-seeking has to be encouraged. There are already certain sectors, like broom production and dairy, which are making profits. There is a vast potential. But I do not want one entity to dominate. It will be a fair system of payment. For this, there should be a certain cadre of management that can oversee those things.
In the current cooperative structure in the state, who are the ones who are in charge of these? The IAS and MCS officers. What do they know about business? They are drawing salary every month. But if the salary is dependent on profit, then there will be change. Even the PSUs are managed by bureaucrats but I am really sorry to say, they are not doing a good job.
SM: In this context, having a plan for a sustainable and an eco-friendly economy often becomes tricky. Do you think New Dawn’s plan has the balance?
AP: If you look at what we are producing in Meghalaya, they are organic and hardly create pollution. That is our strength. We already have it. Now, we have to develop these resources. If we are talking about sustainability, then we should encourage what we have been doing for ages now. We need to hand-hold the farmers but in a way that the government is doing now, just giving money that is akin to bribing them (earlier this year, the state government launched FOCUS, or Farmers Collectivisation for Upscaling Production and Marketing Systems, under which Rs 5,000 is given to each member of a producers’ group as seed money for upscaling farming activities). Why is Vijay Kumar (Commissioner and Secretary of Agriculture) trying to reinvent the wheel? Why do we have FOCUS? Because he does not want to dirty his hands by confronting entrenched nepotism and corruption? But to be honest one has to get his hands dirty. His chief role is of a regulator and not a corporate innovator. Make sure that the existing system works well. We will support you from the outside and work with you.
Corporate innovation can definitely be done and a hybrid model can be maintained but a department is a department and it should do its foremost duty first.
SM: Is it possible to maintain a balance between the primary sector and private entities in the given economic state of affairs?
AP: If we don’t encourage private sector here, then it will be difficult to provide jobs to the hundreds of youths coming out of college each year. The government departments can no longer absorb people. Otherwise, we will be in a really big problem.
I think it is possible to maintain the balance but just that the threshold has not been reached here. We are very short-staffed in terms of the high-end jobs.
SM: But the growth of private sector here has been affected by the land problem. What do you have to say about that?
AP: I think the problem is also about who comes here (for setting up business). What I have seen is that most of the people who come here are not going to benefit the state. The North East is filled with too many crooks. Nobody is caring about the region really. There has been no quality entrance here… Also, projects are given to entities who have local roots and not because they are meeting the criteria given in the respective tenders. When you look at their financial statement, nothing. Do they have the training? No. There is always an attitude that locals should be favoured no matter what. So, unless the whole tendering system is computerised, there cannot be any transparency.
SM: When you talk about streamlining the system, then technology and digitalisation become an important factor. Is New Dawn connecting with IT experts to put a solid plan in place?
AP: There are some lovely people from Karnataka who are doing a great work in digital advocacy. We want to work with them. Technology has really helped South India to move forward. It is wonderful. We would love to work with these people. If we are not setting the trend, we will be left behind.
In the non-tech way too, we can do a lot of things like reinventing the traditional businesses. Don’t come up with something completely new but uplift the existing traditional traders. There has to be that kind of connectivity.
SM: The pandemic-induced lockdown has led to a rise in urban poverty, about 50% nationally. Meghalaya too has suffered the brunt of the pandemic. You will be contesting from an urban constituency. How do you address this issue if voted to power?
AP: It is a big issue. I am telling the constituents that I will fight for certain things that will bring down the living cost in Shillong. I will fight for cheap and efficient public transport, cheap education and public school. We need a government college that will provide cheap and good education so that people are aware of their rights. I will also fight for public sanitation and public health. Long-term goal is to increase income. Nobody is fighting for these.
SM: Recently, MLA Adelbert Nongrum came up with the Meghalaya Agricultural Land (Regulation) Bill which focuses on the vanishing arable land in Shillong owing to concrete growth. A primarily agrarian state and with shortage in food production, can Meghalaya afford to lose arable land? How are you looking at this problem?
AP: It is a good idea. When I visited Zurich, I saw that there were patches in public places where vegetables were grown. These are taken care of by groups of people. I would like to pursue the matter because it is a very good move. There are structures in the city which are located in precarious areas and are affecting the natural flow of things. There are no regulations and my fear is something bad will happen.
SM: Coming to money power during election, how are you preparing for campaign and contest against rich candidates?
AP: From our organisation, we are very clear that to stand for elections or to win it is a short-term goal. What happens after 2023? People dance and celebrate but finally they have to get back to their life after the euphoria. What do they really get? Nothing. Our point is that we want to train people to understand economics and business better. We want them to understand politics and its social impact. We want them to be part of the entire process. That is our long-term vision.
The average age of our members is 23-24. They are sharp. They understood that there was something missing in their lives and so they joined us.
SM: You had mentioned in an earlier interview about remaking the Finance and Planning departments. How do you plan to do that? What changes do you see to eliminate the root cause?
AP: This department has to be totally restructured. The current condition shows that no one thinks about the main machinery behind the government. This department is the heart of the government but none talks about it. Every year the government presents the budget and the press too without understanding writes about it. But what has the government decided to support and how? No one asks.
Also, we need proper economists and not consultants from some private organisation because the expertise of an economist cannot replace consultancy.
SM: Will you be the only candidate from New Dawn or can we expect more new faces?
AP: Yes, I will be the only candidate.
SM: Why are you contesting as an independent candidate?
AP: It is not important. Procedures will go on but that cannot stop us from fighting for the right causes.
~ Team Sunday Monitor