STATE OF DESPAIR
WITH THE GORKHALAND AGITATION CHOKING NATIONAL HIGHWAY 10, SIKKIM BECOMES A CASUALTY IN THE BATTLE FOR A SEPARATE STATE
Sikkim is paying the price for the Gorkhaland agitation in West Bengal
It’s peak tourist season in Sikkim, but you wouldn’t know it on MG Road, the less-than-a-kilometre boulevard in capital Gangtok. The neon lights from the 40-odd hotels, restaurants and gaming corners have long stopped glowing, the music has faded to a slow rhythm instead of its usual pulsating tempo. And it’s just 9 pm. Not one tourist is in sight, only local youngsters, thrilled to have the place to themselves, sitting on sidewalks with their laptops, making the most of the wi-fi zone.
Sitting in the porch of the Golden Heights Hotel, receptionist Ranju Neogi complains that not even a single room of the 20-room hotel is occupied. “Last year, around this time,” he says, “we had 70 per cent occupancy. And going by the trend of cancellation of advanced bookings, the next tourist season in October-December will also go dry.”
The agitation in the hills—Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong—has cascaded down the highways—the 174-km NH-10 that starts at Siliguri, runs 75 km in West Bengal before entering Sikkim at Rangpo and ending at Gangtok; as well as the 76-km NH-55 between Siliguri and Darjeeling. Ever since the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) called for an indefinite bandh in mid-June in reaction to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s short-lived announcement of making Bengali compulsory in state schools, the Gorkhaland agitation has spilled onto the highways, holding both men and material hostage. Sikkim, which depends on West Bengal both for a railhead—New Jalpaiguri—as well as an airport—Bagdogra—is paying the price for the blockaded highways. So much so that Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, who expressed open support for the Gorkhaland cause, moved the Supreme Court on July 11 to intervene in clearing of the highway. “Being a small state and completely dependent on NH-10 for tourism, which forms the backbone of our economy, our losses mount every time there is disturbance in the hills. This time, we thought of drawing the attention of both the Centre and the state through the apex court as, having suffered enough, we cannot suffer any
more,” he said after filing the appeal.
The 4,500 hotels and 1,000-odd home stays in Sikkim are mostly empty. The state caters to 721,000 tourists every year, a large number of them from West Bengal. The state’s principal money spinner, the sector earned the exchequer Rs 1,400 crore in the past financial year, according to tourism minister U.T. Gyatso. There has already been a loss of 10 per cent in the past two months, the minister claims. According to Hemant Rai, an official at the Foreigners Registration Office in Rangpo, there has been a 75-80 per cent drop in foreigners visiting Sikkim. “Every month,” he says, “Sikkim has a footfall of around 3,000 foreigners in the peak season. In the last two weeks, not a single tourist has come from abroad to take our permits,” says Rai.
It’s evident at the taxi stand at Rangpo, where the cabbies and their cars are both sitting idle. “This is a stand from where 400 cars make daily trips to Gangtok and Siliguri,” says Bikas Roka, who runs the taxi stand syndicate at Rangpo. “Now eight to 10 cars are making trips and till Siliguri. Every day we are suffering a loss of Rs 2,000 on an average, and on top of that the price of things is escalating beyond our means.”
Indeed, the political violence in the hills has hit food and civil supplies. Sugar stocks in the open market have depleted and losses in the past two months have jumped to an estimated Rs 1,000 crore. “There is no sugar in the market, only Sugarfree,” says Nirmala Gupta, who has been running a small grocery store for the past 30 years in Rangpo. Vishnu Prasad Sharma has come down 8 km from his village Singtam to Rangpo to get essentials, complains how the cost of vegetables and other essentials has shot up over a fortnight. “The PDS stock is all we have,” says food secretary S.K. Silal. “About 16,500 BPL families registered with Antodaya Annapurna Yojana will get their ration of rice. We require a monthly quota of 34,000 quintals for BPL families, which is being taken care of, but for the rest, the open market is the only resort.” The shortage of sugar, just a week’s stock of foodgrains and a month-long reserve of medicines are what CM Chamling says made him approach the SC.
The unrest in Darjeeling has also taken a toll on development projects. “Ten power projects have been held up because
of shortage of men and material,” says the CM. “Work on a 1,000-bed hospital had to be suspended. Close to 100 patients referred to other hospitals cannot be moved. Life has come to a standstill.” He reckons Sikkim has accumulated losses of Rs 60,000 crore in the three decades since Subhash Ghising stirred up the Gorkhaland agitation circa 1986 under the banner of the Gorkha National Liberation Front. The CM also expects that a rush of refugees from the hills will further strain the resources of his government. “In 1986-87,” he says, “50,000 people crossed over and were rehabilitated at Kitam in south Sikkim. This time, too, we are apprehending a population pressure on us.”
Nepalis comprise 80 per cent of Sikkim’s 644,660 (in 2016) population. “Naturally, the majority population in Sikkim can identify and empathise with the sentiments of the Gorkhas and their desire to carve out a state based on linguistic identity,” says Prem Goyal, a social activist in Gangtok. The state’s consensus on Gorkhaland is a given, which is why it didn’t take Chamling long to announce that his government considered the demand for a separate state legitimate and constitutional. He even wrote to the Union minister for home, Rajnath Singh, advocating the same. “After all, Chamling cannot risk his vote bank, who feel one with the cause,” says Goyal.
Following Sikkim’s open support for Gorkhaland, violence and vandalism on NH-10 escalated. On June 20, a Sikkim-bound truck ferrying bricks from Siliguri was stopped midway and set afire. Another time, tourist buses of the Sikkim Nationalised Transport were held up for hours. “For the last three weeks, our trucks in Siliguri were stopped, vandalised, goods unloaded and in some cases looting happened in front of the police,” says Chamling.
He, however, finds no sympathy in Bengal. State tourism minister Gautam Deb, also from Siliguri, says Bengal too has suffered losses of over Rs 350 crore. “Our government buildings have been destroyed, important documents burnt. Darjeeling was shut down in peak tourist season,” he says. Nine lives have been lost, government property extensively damaged and essential commodities and foodgrains looted in this past month. Deb’s colleague and state education minister Partha Chatterjee is harsher still on Sikkim. “They (the Sikkimese) have dug their own graves. Is it constitutionally appropriate for a CM to comment on the serious issue of another state?”
GJM itself seeks to wash its hands of the vandalism and claims the Centre must intervene to end the deadlock. “We are obliged that the people of Sikkim support our cause,” says GJM leader Roshan Giri. “The loot and vandalism on NH-10 is being carried out by miscreants and rowdies of a political party to give us a bad name and denigrate the purpose of Gorkhaland.” GJM is now being accused of planning an underground armed movement and enlisting Maoist help.
State BJP leaders say the Centre is unlikely to intervene; it’ll be happy for the blame to fall on Trinamool Congress. “Why will the Centre interfere?” asks state BJP president Dilip Ghosh. “Let the person who started it take the initiative. Sikkim’s lifeline is affected but what about the hill people who are suffering? There was no problem in Darjeeling, she (Mamata) ignited the fire.”
There seems to be no end to Sikkim’s troubles. And we are not even talking about China yet.
No takers for the tourist attraction