By Esha Roy
Of the 29 candidates for Meghalaya's assembly in the East Jaintia Hills, at least 13 are well known coal mine owners; two have limestone mines. In the constituency of Khliehriat, all five candidates — one each from the Congress and United Democratic Party and three independents — are coal barons.
Meghalaya goes to polls on February 23, along with Nagaland. Counting of votes is scheduled for February 28.
First-time candidate Finelyness Bareh, 46, has several quarries around his village Rymbai. "I had not thought of entering politics, but the people of my village said that I should stand. I am running as an independent, but if I win, I will join whichever party is likely to form the government... there is really no point otherwise," he said.
Bareh's home towers above his neighbours' in Rymbai, whose smooth, tarred roads and brightly painted concrete dwellings indicate prosperity. A steady stream of villagers starts arriving at 7 every morning, and it is often 1 am by the time his day ends.
"I was not in favour of his joining politics, but this is the will of the people," said Eugene, Bareh's wife and mother of his four daughters.
The big election issue in the East Jaintia Hills — where almost all of the 61,000-strong electorate is engaged in the coal mining industry — is more national than local.
"This year has been bad for us. Our sales primarily happen in the winter. But with new policies coming into effect in North India, the trucks which used to come from Haryana, UP and Punjab did not arrive this year," Bareh said. "They have started importing coal at a price that is less than ours." Spirits were low at Christmas last year, he said.
Elected representatives from the Jaintia Hills are at the heart of Meghalaya's strong mining lobby. The Lok Sabha member from Shillong, Vincent Pala, one of the biggest coal miners in the state, is from Jowai, headquarters of the district. The network of powerful entrenched interests often works to block out modern and more productive mining practices in the area, several analysts and political observers in the state said.
Paul Lamare, who works for a communications company that produces TV shows in Jowai, said poor levels of literacy frequently acts to the detriment of the region's development.
"Politics here runs on money," Lamare said. "The coal barons and mine owners are millionaires, but many of them don't even know how to sign their name. This is a problem if the winning candidate has to run the administration and represent his people in the assembly."