Netas fight for control as Hills crisis deepens

Writes Nirmalya Banerjee 

 Jan 31, 2016 Kalimpong/Darjeeling: Even as political bosses race to wrest control of the Hills, economic problems and social tension deepen in the region. While the tea industry, the main source of economic in Darjeeling and Kurseong subdivisions, is in the doldrums, tourism is also uncertain because of political troubles. In Kalimpong, agriculture, the mainstay of the economy east of the Teesta, is also failing.

In spite of all the crises, the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration refuses to take remedial steps, blaming the government of "non-cooperation" while the ruling Trinamool is hell bent on gaining a foothold in the Hills before the assembly polls. The GJM, on its part, seems to be wedded to the emotional appeal of Gorkhaland, a slogan to fall back upon in times of difficulty.
Netas fight for control as Darjeeling Kalimpong Hills crisis deepens
 Harka Bahadur Chettri, Bimal Gurung, Dr. Mahendra P Lama and Mamata Banerjee
"The GTA did not pay heed to vital issues," said senior CPM leader of Kalimpong Tara Sundas. "Goonda-tax from hydel projects is rampant. Land is barren now. Agriculture holdings are small. Farming did not get due support from the government. There is neither incentive nor subsidy from the GTA or the previous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council." The presence of two masters-the state government and the GTA-seems to complicate matters further. The CM's backing of Kalimpong MLA Harka Bahadur Chhetri, who walked out of the GJM, has added to the political tension.

Cinchona plantation in Kalimpong, which is over 100 years old and employs nearly 8,000 people, including officers, is no longer profitable because of competition from Singapore, says Sundas. The state does not seem to make any effort to market the cinchona products any more. Kalimpong, once a thriving centre of commerce, has witnessed a decline in business since the closure of the border trade with Tibet after 1961. Once education hub, Kalimpong now has to look for students at his schools, Sundas says.

The other problem area is the tea industry. Once over 100 gardens dotted the Hills but now, the number has shrunk to 87. Nearly 21,000 hectares of tea plantation in Darjeeling employs about 55,000 permanent workers, besides 15,000 contract labourers during the plucking season. Tea industry representatives think the Plantation Labour Act is archaic and needs to be amended as garden owners find it difficult to bear the burden of facilities, such as free ration, electricity and medical benefits. "The crisis in the tea industry is going to affect Darjeeling badly," says academic and former Sikkim University vice-chancellor Mahendra P Lama, who suggested that a fresh approach should be made to develop Darjeeling and Dooars as part of the Centre's 'Look East Policy' through Northeast.

In its effort to empower the different communities in north Bengal and offer them financial aid, the state has set up a series of development boards for Lepchas, Tamangs, Sherpas, Bhutias and Mangars. In fact chief minister Mamata Banerjee's move seems to have struck a cord with the people, with Lyangsong Tamsang, chairman of Mayel Lyang Lepcha Development Board, pointing out that the Tribal Welfare Department of the state government, pucca structures, with toilets, electricity, drinking water and furniture, were set up for over 60 night schools for Lepchas in Darjeeling with the help of an annual grant of Rs 35 crore. Nearly 3,000 pucca residential houses have also been built, besides steps being taken to protect the community's language and culture. But GJM leaders see the development boards as a move to divide the communities and weaken the GTA. A senior Nepali Sahitya Sammelan members claimed the distribution of aids triggered fights and heart-burn and feared, it might lead to social tension.


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