STATE OF DE­SPAIR

WITH THE GORKHA­LAND AG­I­TA­TION CHOK­ING NA­TIONAL HIGH­WAY 10, SIKKIM BE­COMES A CA­SU­ALTY IN THE BAT­TLE FOR A SEP­A­RATE STATE

India Today - - INSIDE - By Romita Datta

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.

Pho­to­graphs by SU­BIR HALDER

No tak­ers for the tourist at­trac­tion

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