My Years in Service
Each family representative bit the tiger’s tooth and the dispute earth with nervous sweat… the head DB included. I have never seen a holier village than Niroyo village that morning as each prayed furiously throughout the entire proceedings. According to the Lotha grapevine, this village was supposed to be the home of notorious character. Even months after the oath had been taken, Niroyo village continued to have their Church overflowing with Sunday devotional service goers till the oath euphoria petered out. Then they were happily back to normal at the discomfort of others in their community.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HERE was a five year old land dispute case pending between Longsachung and Niroyo Village located on the upper ridge overlooking Wokha Township, acquired by the Government. The land compensation had already been disbursed to Niroyo but had later been contested by Lonsachung, claiming that their village land had been encroached into. Because of this dispute the Govt. was unable to carry out further development within the acquired land. The concerned Department had requested that this dispute be resolved one way or the other. Both the village representatives were summoned to Court for a hearing. One Mr. Thomas made an aggressive claim of ownership on behalf of Niroyo, concluding that his village was prepared to take traditional oath over the land in question. Mr. S.S Ezung spearheading Longsachung village claims, while presenting their counter claim concluded that if Niroyo village actually dared take the oath, they would be prepared to honour it. Now, I have always been partial towards settlement of such disputes through customary oath taking and therefore when both the parties were in agreement I saw no reason not to pursue this course of action. A date was accordingly fixed. The full list of families who had received land compensation were recorded with each head of the household slated to take the oath. On the D-Day at the dispute site, where the Niroyo oath takers and the contending elders of Longsachung village had gathered to witness the proceeding, I spied my Head DB, the centrepiece of the day’s ritual, profusely sweating away in an isolated corner. I initially suspected that he must have had a ‘tamul pan’ that hit his head…I called him aside and quietly inquired about his health condition. It was not his physical health that needed attention but his mind. He surprised me by confiding that he was ill at ease and having second thoughts about administering the traditional oath to the party concerned. His serious concern was that if the oath is unfairly administered to the wrong party the curse of the oath would deflect on the oath giver as per their customary belief. He was apparently unaware of the background of the court’s proceedings that had led to this oath taking ceremony. I had to calm him down before the showdown. Firstly, he had nothing to fear because the decision to award Niroyo the oath was purely mine and therefore any ill fated backlash of curse would befall me if at all and not him. Secondly, the oath was conceded by Longsachung to Niroyo on a mutual consent thus the question of unfair identification of the oath taker was not in question. All he had to do was to technicality administer the customary oath without any deviation. With a tentative dry grin he then set forth with the necessary customary preparation. A team of DBs accompanied by Niroyo and Longsachung elders and GBs went to the dispute site to collect the earth along with one variety of broad leaves as a wrapper. The head DB then placed earth first on the leaf, followed by a tiger’s tooth on top of it and then wrapped it together. Each oath taker would swear that his claim was honest and then proceed to curse oneself of all the misfortune of life to befall upon oneself should the claim be dishonest and then bite this deadly package. The hyper tense ritual took more than an hour to run through the full list of families that took the oath that morning. Each family representative bit the tiger’s tooth and the dispute earth with nervous sweat…the Head DB included. I have never seen a holier village than Niroyo village that morning as each prayed furiously throughout the entire proceedings. According to the Lotha grapevine, this village was supposed to be the home of notorious characters. Even months after the oath had been taken, Niroyo village continued to have their Church overflowing with Sunday devotional service goers till the oath euphoria petered out. Then they were happily back to normal at the discomfort of others in their community. The land was officially declared in their favour which was fully endorsed by Longsachung. Development of this area could now be launched.
Meanwhile the small lake in the middle of the Town had been engaging my attention for a while. Wokha perhaps holds the distinction of a sizable lake ideally located in the heart of the Town. Creating this lake area into a leisure park for all ages was set as a target. This lake had no name. Therefore, after consultation with a few elders, I had it christened as Tsumang Lake…a point of convergence. Architectural Engineer Chinithung helped me develop the master plan and landscaping as I had envisioned it. At one vantage point we had proposed to create a cafeteria with a staggered outdoor sitting lounges with lawn umbrella sheltered tables. A delicately designed bridge was to link the small island with a Kyong gazebo as a centrepiece. Angling cubicles were to be structured around this cute little island to facilitate anglers to rent it for specified hours of angling rights. Further beyond this cafeteria point was to be located the children’s park…(the original plan has presently been tampered by converting the space into a small fishery for fingerlings breeding). The internal area of the lake was to be a ‘no vehicle’ zone with only a meandering footpath around the entire lake with footpath lamps, flower beds, sitting benches at regular intervals on manicured lawns and decorative flowering tree plantation all round. The present Office building of Fishery Department being an eyesore, was being considered for an eventual shift to another site further into the lake area for which a site had been earmarked. Once vacated, a clear landscaped parking lot could elaborately be developed in the present site. I used to jokingly propose that we have a deliberate ‘accidental’ fire to burn down the Fishery Office building. Maintenance of this park infrastructure would be a full time job requiring an independent Tsumang Lake Management Committee (TLMC). To make it sustainable, an aesthetically structured shopping complex, which would also house TLMC office space, would facilitate tourism oriented traditional shawl items, boutiques and traditional artefact outlet constructed on the left flank of the entry into the lake campus. (Here too, some kind of an office structure has sadly been erected in contamination of the original plan). The generated revenue from the shopping arcade, the cafeteria rental and services, the angling, the boating and the parking fees would all go towards administrative cost of the officers and staffs of TLMC and also for the routine upkeep of the lake park. Another critical need based infrastructure was planned for the space below the main dam… to provide vital easy access water filling point for the Fire Tenders. (Here too yet again, the space earmarked for this purpose has all been occupied by the public). Well…that in short, was the dream plan. The more difficult task was to locate funds to carry out this task.
I called upon the Wokha Ministers and MLAs to earmark one lakh each from their respective constituency development funds, during the District Planning Board meeting. By then each of them had already finalised their estimated plan for their constituency development schemes but once they saw the purpose for which fund was being requested, each of them carried out a fresh exercise of recasting their original plan and had the funds committed for this project. In all, I now had Rs.5.00 lakhs as a start up fund…not anywhere close to the planned size budget requirement but all thanks to our elected representatives…for a change. At this stage I discovered to my horror that the land owners had clandestinely sold off all the land around and even within the lake. An RCC construction was also coming up on the roadside bank of the lake…courtesy one Dr. Tsanglao, alongside another house belonging to a widow. I needed to make it clear to the land owners that the lake was a Government fishery managed area by the concerned Fishery Department and they were not at liberty to dispose this property. Evicting Dr.Tsanglao and the widow had therefore become an imperative priority for the District Administration to send a clear signal to the land owners that sale or encroachment into Govt. controlled land holdings would not be taken lying down. Dr. Tsanglao met me several time showing me the site allotment permit by the District Administration. Despite clarification that the Govt. had issued a notification banning allotment of Govt. land to individuals, though that was the case in the earlier years, and that his allotment would not be given legitimacy, having been issued only after this restrictive notification was in effect. No amount of entreating with him to show public responsibility as a respected personality within his own community and for the greater good of all, made a difference. He was adamantly unprepared to give up his site and threatened to take the matter to court. Soon after, one of his Uncle had come to inform me that the Doctor was hospitalised. At that time I was unaware of his ailment and so I jokingly conveyed a message to the Doctor through him that the Doctor was a hostage of the lake spirit for refusing to vacate the site and that his recovery would depend on his willingness to do as was asked of him. His Uncle came back a few days later with a pleasant surprise…to let me know that Dr. Tsanglao had agreed to forgo his claim with a request that he be compensated for the investment already made…which was agreed to. The Executive Engineer PWD worked out an estimated amount of Rs.1,25,000/- which I enhanced to Rs.1,50,000/- instead, considering both his cooperation and ill health and had it promptly disbursed. The Doctor was then evacuated to a better facilitated hospital elsewhere but the next thing I heard was that he was diagnosed with leukaemia. I really felt guilty for the casual harmless joke that was intended then, but now appeared distasteful after hearing this devastating news. His mortal remains was brought home a month later. The least I could do was to attend his funeral and pay him a glowing tribute for his social responsibility and concern that he had finally displayed before his departure.
The preliminary exercise of clearing out the rampant encroachment within the peripheral limits of this lake now began in earnest. A bulldozer from the PWD was engaged and the RRC foundry and erected pillars of Late Dr. Tsanglao was taken down…with a sizable public presence as witness. As for the widow’s establishment, the community helped to literally lift her whole house and shift it en-block to the opposite bank of the lake where a site belonging to a Pastor of NAP had been pre-purchased from the start up fund for Rs.50,000/- for this purpose. That was an amazing job done by the community without cost. Seeing a solid RCC structure being taken down and the shifting of the widow’s house, sent a clear signal to the land owners and the land purchasers that the District Administration was not about to tolerate encroachment…not a single complaint was lodged. The only complaint came from the widow before her house was shifted. Mr. R. Yanthan, President of Lotha Hoho had forewarned me that this lady had a dangerous habit of lifting her skirts to display her wares when in anger. She came to my residence with one of her daughters, angrily asked me to adopt all her children and kill her before attempting to move her out from her present site. Angry as she was, she didn’t lift her skirt this time. The roadside view of the lake was now clear of all obstruction. The lake’s outer parameter was extensively and meticulously surveyed. While thickly engrossed in this exercise, a messenger from Uncle Etssorhomo Ezung, a very dear old friend and contemporary of my Late Father during their Interim Body Member days, came requesting me to visit him as he was bedridden and unable to come to meet me. This I did gladly. Uncle Etssorhomo was sitting propped up in hid bed. He was still able to carry out a conversation then, albeit haltingly with retarded voice clarity. “Son” he began slowly, “are you surveying the lake area”? On my affirmative he continued, “Uncle has a lot of landed property in the area you are surveying. I called you to let you know that Uncle has no objection in whatever you are trying to do. You are Khelhoshe’s son and I am confident that what you do will be in the interest of the people in fairness without bias, so go right ahead. I only regret not being able to join you.” What a wonderful gesture from yet another grand old man from the Kyong community. In a pressurised environment, hearing something like this was a morale booster anyone would be glad to hear. I thanked him sincerely for his magnanimity. The final demarcation of the outer parameter in the form of an elaborate concrete drainage was planned out to eliminate future encroachment and to ensure that the town sewage waste did not seep into the lake. This exercise went off smoothly without any obstruction or complaint from any of the land owners or the buyers, reinforced by Uncle Etssorhomo’s full-hearted endorsement. Work order was issued in blocks, ensuring that ample opportunity was given to the land owners on a first preference basis for work and for supply of ‘radha’ stone blocks needed for this project. In effect, the land owners themselves laid the final boundary of the Tsumang lake when they accepted the contract order and implemented the works.
The writer is a retired IAS Officer, Forest Colony, Kohima