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The streams of Shillong

Four years ago, when I was researching my dissertation, I spent a week in Shillong, capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya and formerly capital of Assam. Shillong is located at an elevation of 4,900 feet in the Khasi Hills, a part of the Meghalaya Plateau that rises between the flatlands of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the south and Assam to the north.

I spent time in Shillong because it is close to a dam I was studying, Umiam Dam. I was primarily studying the dam from a technological perspective, but since I was writing my dissertation, I wanted to consider it from every possible angle. This led me to think about the dam from an environmental perspective, which in turn got me thinking about the streams of Shillong.

Umiam Dam impounds a reservoir with a surface area of about four square miles, named alternately Umiam Lake or Barapani Lake. (Umiam is a Khasi word meaning “Weeping River”; Barapani is Hindi for “Big Water.”) The reservoir receives drainage from a catchment area of 85.5 square miles in the Khasi highlands. The city of Shillong is located within this catchment area.

I spent some of my week in Shillong walking around the city, trying to get a sense of the lay of the land. Two rivers flow through Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshyrpi, both joined on their way by innumerable smaller tributaries and drains. I made it a point to see both rivers.

The Umkhrah River is on the northern edge of the city. I had vague memories of walking by it on my first visit to Shillong, five years earlier, but I didn’t pay much attention to it, and I didn’t even know its name. On this visit, I spent plenty of time walking along the river.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

The Umshyrpi River to the south is separated from the Umkhrah by a ridge atop which the main bazaars and government buildings are located.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi on the south side of Shillong.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi River on the south side of Shillong.

The Umshyrpi proper.

The Umshyrpi proper.

West of Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshirpi join to form the Roro River, which subsequently flows into the Umiam River.

Both the Umkhrah and the Umshyrpi are quite polluted, and this pollution washes down into Umiam Lake. You might have noticed trash in some of my pictures of the rivers. What you can’t see in the pictures, but is there, is untreated sewage. The town’s hilly geography and patchwork of tribal lands have mitigated against the construction of a municipal sanitary sewer. Septic tanks collect sewage from homes and businesses, and municipal workers or contractors carry the waste away in trucks for treatment. But when tanks leak or overflow, the sewage finds its way into the Umshyrpi or Umkhrah Rivers, and thence into Umiam Lake.

Apart from Shillong, another significant source of pollution for Umiam Lake is the practice of jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation, which removes vegetation cover on hillsides and thus leads to erosion.

A central government study of the lake in the early 1980s concluded that the water was of class C quality, which meant that it would need to be both conventionally treated and disinfected before being used as a potable water source.

Umiam Lake is a beautiful place, as it is ringed by misty, pine-forested hills. But knowing what I knew about the seemingly intractable problems of water pollution in the lake, I didn’t go into the lake much past my ankles.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

View of Shillong with Shillong Peak in the background.

The restless records of Assam

On January 21, 1972, the Indian state of Assam lost its capital Shillong to a new state, Meghalaya. Shillong had been the capital of Assam since colonial times, and the Assamese were proud of their capital, a charming hill station at 4,900 feet above sea level. A cosmopolitan, polyglot town, Shillong was surrounded by tribal land where the dominant language was Khasi rather than Assamese.

The location of Shillong became an issue after the state legislative assembly passed the Assam Official Language Bill, 1960, which declared:

Assamese and English … shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.1

The tribal population of the Khasi Hills felt marginalized by the elevation of Assamese over their own language. Khasi tribal leaders joined leaders from the Garo and Jaintia Hills from to form the Hill State Movement, agitating for separation of the tribal areas of the Meghalaya Plateau from Assam. In 1970, Meghalaya became and autonomous state in Assam, and in 1972 it became a full-fledged state within the Indian union.

The capital of Assam moved from the hills down to Dispur, a suburb of Gauhati (Guwahati) in the Brahmaputra River Valley. (Dispur has since been swallowed up in Guwahati’s urban sprawl.) Assam government offices and institutions moved down to Dispur. In 1980, the records of Assam shifted from Shillong and were set up in the Assam State Archives in Dispur. Meanwhile, the Government of Meghalaya set up its own State Records Room in Shillong. The records kept there were about the period after the split with Assam, because the records from before had moved down to Dispur.

This is something I wish I had understood before going to Guwahati and Shillong for research: most of the pre-1972 records are in Guwahati, even if they pertain directly to Shillong. After spending a week in Guwahati, I headed up to Shillong and went on some wild-goose chases looking for things that were back in Guwahati.

I spent two days in Shillong looking for the Shillong Times from the 1960s. I had already looked for the newspaper in the Library of Congress, which has practically everything. Although the LoC does have master copies of the paper from the time period I was interested in, there were no copies that patrons could read. No matter, I thought; I would look for Shillong Times in India. It seemed reasonable to assume that I would be able to find the newspaper in the city where it was published—but I couldn’t.

I started my wild-goose chase at the Central Library, but the head librarian told me that they only had post-1978 issues in Shillong; everything earlier was down in Guwahati. She suggested that I try Sacred Heart College Library and NEHU (North-Eastern Hill University) Library. I spent the afternoon visiting the two institutions, but the helpful staff at both failed to turn up anything. The next day, I went looking for the Shillong Times office, which a librarian at NEHU had assured me would have what I needed. It took me a while to find the office, as it was tucked away in a residential neighborhood in the Rilbong area south of the city center. In Rilbong, I had to ask a couple of people before I found the newspaper’s office, housed in a yellow Anglo-Assamese bungalow. There was no sign out front, just two brass medallions on the gate, one that said “S” and the other “T.” I inquired in the office about the newspaper from the 1960s. An employee went into the back and returned with the oldest issue they had, from 1986.

The mini-partition of Assam imposed an archival amnesia on Shillong. The Central Library does not even have archives of the city’s newspaper before the split—and neither does the head office of the paper.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Links

  • Assam State Archives have an interesting and informative website, including a virtual tour as well as more practical information about the collection.
  • NEHU Library
  • Shillong Times
  1. The full quotation is: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 346 and 347 of the Constitution of India and subject as hereinafter provided, Assamese and English, and when the latter is replaced under Article 343 of the Constitution of India, Hindi in place of English shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.” The Assam Gazette, October 10, 1960, pp. 623-25. []

Black Friday, one decade later

Ten years ago today, on Friday, September 30, 2005, protest demonstrations in the Garo Hills of northeast India turned tragic when police forces of the central government fired their guns at the protesters. In the towns of Tura and Williamnagar, the police firings killed a dozen teenaged students. Ever since, this event has been known as Black Friday. To commemorate the unjust death of the protesters, people across the Garo Hills declare a general strike every September 30, closing schools and businesses for the day. (For more on Black Friday and its background, please see my post from three years ago.)

I first went to the Garo Hills six years ago, in 2009. The problems of political and economic marginalization, which underlay the September 2005 protests, were still very much in evidence in 2009. One positive aspect of the Garo Hills’ then-current political situation was that the area was at peace. In other parts of northeast India, minority groups had responded to their own marginalization by forming insurgencies to wage war against the Indian government. Six years ago, there were organized insurgencies in the Garo Hills, but they were not particularly active. For the most part, the Garo Hills were self-policing. Police authority was not much in evidence, because it wasn’t necessary.

Early in 2015, I returned to the Garo Hills, and I was disappointed to see that the security situation had deteriorated in the past five years. Insurgencies had stepped up their activities, declaring villages to be their territory. They extort, threaten, and sometimes even hurt and kill anyone with wealth or political power who does not support them. In response, the state and central governments have stepped up police presence in the Garo Hills. Armed officers patrol the weekly markets and accompany night buses driving into the hills.

Ten years after Black Friday, the political situation of the Garo Hills has only gotten worse. I do not know the best way for the people of the Garo Hills to make themselves healthy and prosperous, but I do know that threatening, kidnapping, or killing those with power is not the way forward.

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