Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Ailing Queen

With its rejuvenating mountain air and salubrious climate, Darjeeling was seen by the British as a place where fatigued soldiers and officials were able to recuperate. But now this Queen of the Hills is ailing. It is no longer a favourite tourist attraction, thanks to political unrest and lack of infrastructure. Shoma A. Chatterji reports how the hill station lost its glory

Political strife and protests are the order the day in the hills of Darjeeling
Political strife and protests are the order the day in the hills of Darjeeling

Called the Queen of the Hills or The Crown of West Bengal, Darjeeling has been a global melting pot of tourism for decades. Darjeeling tea is internationally known as a beverage of exquisite taste and aroma. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which most children refer to as the railway that ran the ‘toy train’, is a World Heritage site. The 126-year-old cobalt blue narrow-gauge train still chugs and snorts its way to Darjeeling via Ghoom, winding its way along the serpentine route, against the shimmering silver of the 8,598 metres above the sea level Kanchenjunga range in the backdrop.

Along the way, it leaves behind the lush, green-layered mantle of its velvet tea gardens, shanty teashops with the smoke rising from earthen cups, the locals helping themselves to their favourite momos and thukpa, and huts with tin roofs.

"But Darjeeling is a dying Queen of the Hills, ignored after the British left the Raj. Its streets have become mean and violent, and you see the furrows of economic decline etched on the faces of the Nepalis living in small towns and working in the sprawling tea gardens. The infrastructure is obsolete. It never received the much-needed financial shot in the arm (like Sikkim did from the Central Government) from the West Bengal Government," says Satis Shroff, who has lived in Darjeeling almost all his life.

The ‘toy train’ merrily chugs along its winding tracks on a journey to Darjeeling
The ‘toy train’ merrily chugs along its winding tracks on a journey to Darjeeling

Years ago the mountain spurs, on the slopes of which the hill station of Darjeeling now stands, formed a part of the independent kingdom of Sikkim and was covered with dense forests. The town of Darjeeling alone is now inhabited by thousands of people belonging to different creeds and races, but there were not more than 200 inhabitants when the East India Company, which then controlled British interests in India, first landed here. The town has seen significant growth in its population, especially since the 1970s. The annual growth rate reached 45 per cent in the 1990s, far above the national, state and district averages.

With such growth, the town, designed for a population of 10,000, began to face severe lack of infrastructure. While environmental degradation, including denudation of the surrounding hills has adversely affected Darjeeling’s appeal as a tourist destination, political turmoil and strife in the wake of struggle for an independent state, too, eroded the idyllic appeal of this Queen of the Hills.

By 2001, just 30 per cent of the tourists visiting India included Darjeeling in their travel itinerary. As bulk of trade and business in Darjeeling is dependent on tourism, the dwindling tourist inflow has worsened the economic conditions. Consequently the hotel and hospitality industry, cafes, eating places and restaurants, curio shops, travel agencies, tour guides, private and public transport systems, have been hit. The tea industry is in the doldrums for nearly eight years now.

The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), formed in 1980, is a political party founded and headed by Subhas Ghising, with influence in the northern part of the state. The formation of the party began with violent demonstrations with the demand for a separate Gorkha state in the Nepali-speaking northern areas. However, it subsequently settled for a special package for the region.

According to Mahendra P. Lama, Vice-Chancellor of Sikkim Central University, who prepared the First Development Plan of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1989, over the past 20 years of the DGHC, many of the tea and cinchona plantations have closed down. Most traditional means of livelihood have been destroyed. Hunger deaths, suicides and human trafficking are rampant.

People in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong towns have been deprived of drinking water for months on end, due to deterioration of the eco-system. The only development plan that was ever made was the first one in 1989. Funds are being drawn and utilised purely on an ad hoc basis. The annual budget is as full of suspense as a murder mystery. Social and civil unrest spills over with incidents of political violence such as the murder of civil society members and councillors, and intimidation of the media.

Rallying point

The ethnic aspirations of the Gorkha (local Nepali) community found a reflection in the overwhelming support, often bordering on the hystera, for Prashant Tamang, the local contestant, emerged last year as Indian Idol 3 in the popular reality TV show.

There was an unprecedented upsurge of sentiments spurred by fraternal feelings. Wild-fire canvassing of support for Prashant Tamang snowballed into a political movement suffused with ethnic passion, tinged with anger and coloured by violence. These feelings were further nourished by the the people’s disillusionment with 20 years of Subhash Ghising’s autocratic rule under the pretence of granting his people a ‘democratic’ way of life. Development took a beating and the lives of citizens stood threatened.

Riding the crest of Tamang’s victory was Bimal Gurung, the one-time close associate of Ghising, who fell out with his leader and the GNLF when he was expelled from it. He formed the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM). In an amazing display of ‘loyalty’ and ‘solidarity’ hundreds of volunteers of the Prasant fan clubs dotting the hills became GJM activists. By the time all the sound and music around Tamang’s leap to stardom in the hills lost its lustre, the GJM had acquired enough clout to take a quantum leap to reach centre-stage in the politics of the hills.

Poor governance

The panchayat system that had beenintroduced with great difficulty remains non-functional till date. The DGHC elections have not been held for nine years. Some time back, the GNLF threatened to revive its earlier demand for separate statehood if the Centre failed to pass the Darjeeling Sixth Schedule Bill in the forthcoming winter session of Parliament. The party leaders feel that by signing the tripartite memorandum of settlement in December, 2005, the Centre stands committed to accord Sixth Schedule status to Darjeeling. People, who had celebrated the Union Cabinet’s endorsement of the move to grant Sixth Schedule status to Darjeeling hills were, by October, 2007, rallying to Bimal Gurung’s demand to revive the movement for an independent Gorkha state.

In January, a day-long strike by GJM supporters paralysed normal life in Darjeeling hills. On February 6, 22 GJM cadres were arrested at Bagdogra airport by security officials. They were waiting to demonstrate against the GNLF chief who was to return that day from Kolkata. As many as 60 members of Gurung’s party went on a hunger-strike and stopped work for two days from February 12 in all three districts. They demanded scrapping of plans to grant Sixth Schedule status to the region and called for the removal of GNLF chief Subash Ghising as administrator of the DGHC. From February 20, the GJM crippled life in the three subdivisions of Darjeeling district in north Bengal along with the economic blockade it enforced from February 17.

Ghising, who was forced to let go the reins of power on March 10, after remaining unchallenged at the helm of the DGHC for long, has now reverted to the demand for a separate Gorkhaland. This turnaround would have been amusing had it not spelt both political trouble and economic distress for the people living there, for people from outside who are working there, and students from across the country who were forced to leave their hostels and return home.

Sixth Schedule

The main plank of GJM was to oppose the inclusion of the Darjeeling Hills under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, as they described it to be "anti-people and anti-community". Though the majority did not even know what the Sixth Schedule meant, no one cared for a community’s division along tribal and non-tribal lines. No one wanted to be left out of the decision-making process as these decisions involved him or her in every way. Most of all, no one liked the idea of being ruled by the GNLF for another 20 years.

Maitreya Buddha Samantaray, a Delhi-based security analyst, points out that it is misleading to think that only the Hill Council will be brought under the ambit of the proposed Sixth Schedule. According to Article 44 of the Constitution, the entire state and not the Hill Council alone will fall under the purview of the Sixth Schedule. Thus all tribal groups in West Bengal, will be governed by it. The tribal communities of the plains of North Bengal such as the Koch, the Rajbongshis and the Boros, at present covered under the Fifth Schedule, will acquire Sixth Schedule status once the Bill is passed. With more groups joining the list, the chances of more frequent, long-lasting and extensive ethnic divisions between and among groups will also increase manifold. This will create further divisions and unrest in the competition for employment and reservation. "Political leaders should be worried about the likely security vulnerability froma wider perspective and work for national interest," he points out. "The only way to make the region prosperous is through full utilisation of its natural resources and linking the output with Indian and global markets. Investments in tourism, hydropower, tea industry, farming and forestry, can fetch good revenue. The creation of a hassle-free and secure environment is a pre requisite for attracting investments," he observed.

Is the Queen of Hills dying? Is the metaphorical crown slipping off? Can Prashant Tamang or Prakriti Giri, a threatened finalist in Star Plus’ reality show Chhote Ustad, take away the tragedy of the ethnic hostilities that threaten to destroy the peace and harmony of what was once among the most beautiful hill stations in the world? Will the tourists flock the Chowrasta to give pony-rides to their children or have themselves photographed in local costumes against the backdrop of the picturesque hills? Will they haggle with the sweater-selling Lepchas on the streets of Darjeeling or be surprised by the twirls around the Batasiya Loop? Will the children go back to their boarding schools and their books and games in the hills? Will the toy train chug along its winding tracks, leaving behind the colourful locals sipping Darjeeling tea from their earthen teacups?

These are some of the questions that haunt those who remember a different Darjeeling.