How Chief Minister Chamling is leading from the front to turn Sikkim into a sports, education and healthcare hub.
In the early-1960s, a young lad from a very poor farmer’s family at Yangang, then a village in the back of beyond in what is today’s South Sikkim district, had to drop out of high school due to acute poverty. He started helping out his father in the small plot of farmland that the family owned and while in the farm, he would wistfully see his friends going to school. He vowed to himself back then that when he grew up, he would do his best to ensure that no child in his village discontinues his studies due to poverty.
That vow stands fulfilled and no child or youngster not only in Yangang, but the entire Sikkim, has to drop out of school or college due to poverty. Today, Sikkim boasts of 100 per cent enrolment in schools and the highest literacy rate in the country. Its per capita spend on education is the highest in the country: Rs 12,400 per annum. The tiny Himalayan state has the highest density of educational institutions in the country and all students from poor families who gain admission to technical and management colleges across the country get government scholarships. Poverty, thus, is no longer a limiting factor when it comes to education – even technical, management and university education – in Sikkim.
That child (a 68-year-old man now), who made all this possible is Pawan Kumar Chamling, who now holds the unique distinction of being the longest-serving chief minister in the country. But it is not just in the field of education that Sikkim has leapfrogged, under Chamling, into the proud position of a front-ranking state of India. Apart from being the cleanest and greenest state – a fully organic one where plastics don’t have a place – Sikkim also boasts of high income levels, superior infrastructure, excellent public healthcare, the lowest crime rate in India, complete social harmony and a governance model that is worthy of emulation in the rest of the country.
When Chamling became the chief minister of the state on 12 December 1994, Sikkim was one of the poorest states in the country and barely any internal revenue sources, a skeletal public healthcare and education infrastructure, extremely poor physical infrastructure and appalling levels of poverty. “There was a lot of social strife and people of the state were a highly discontented lot. Poverty and hunger were widespread and unemployment was rife. Literacy levels were very low and there were few higher education institutions in the state. Sikkim was an extremely backward state then,” recalls Dhyan Chand Shrestha, 65, who was a prominent member of the Sikkim National Congress, which led the movement for the merger of the erstwhile kingdom with the Indian Union (read Sikkim’s history here).
The spectacular transformation of Sikkim from a poverty-stricken, backward state populated by highly discontented people divided along ethnic lines to a front-raking and prosperous state within a span of a couple of decades is nothing short of miraculous. And there are a number of reasons – mainly political and social – for this transformation. Chamling’s style of governance – transparent, inclusive and dharmic –has also contributed to Sikkim’s metamorphosis.
Sikkim’s per capita gross state domestic product (GSDP) income (at current prices) was a measly Rs 9,300 in 1994; it stood at Rs 291,373 in 2016. The state’s GSDP at current prices was Rs 403 crore in 1994, it was Rs 18,851 crore in 2016 and is estimated to be nearly Rs 20,000 crore today. When Chamling became the chief minister 28 years ago, the percentage of people below poverty line in his state was nearly 42 per cent; the number fell to 8.19 per cent in 2016 and today, it is estimated to be 7.4 per cent, much below the national average of 21.9 per cent. Chamling aims at making Sikkim a poverty-free state by 2019. By the end of this year, there will be no kutcha (made of mud, stones and thatch) houses in Sikkim and all dwellings will be made of cement and concrete. Sikkim’s internal revenue generation was a meagre Rs 44 crore in 1994; in 2016, it was Rs 1,096 crore and today, it stands at nearly Rs 1,500 crore. That is quite a sum for a small state with a land area of 7,096 square kilometres and a population of about 6.53 lakh.
The crude birth rate (per thousand) was 24.6 in 1994, it had fallen to 16.6 per cent in 2016 and is estimated to be 16 per cent now, well below the 2016 national rate of 20.4 per cent. The crude death rate has also fallen while the infant mortality rate, which was 51 per thousand in 1994 fell to 16 per thousand in 2016 and is estimated to be 15 now (the all-India figure is 32 per thousand now). In 1994, barely 10 per cent of children were immunised, Sikkim today boasts of nearly 100 per cent immunisation (the national average of 62 per cent). The state’s total fertility rate, which was 275 per cent in 1994, is 120 per cent today (the national average is 270 per cent). Institutional child delivery, which was about 45 per cent in 1994, is nearly 100 per cent today. Many diseases, like leprosy, have been eliminated and other major ones like tuberculosis and Hepatitis B are on the way to elimination.
The teacher:pupil ratio in Sikkim today is 1:5, making it the best in the country, where the average ratio is 1:23. There are 764 government schools in Sikkim today where education – tuition fees, books, uniforms and meals – are completely free. And unlike government schools in most other states, the ones in this Himalayan state are well-equipped – many even offer lessons digitally and have e-classrooms – and consistently produce toppers in the state board exams. In total, there are 1,261 schools and 26 colleges in the state.
In 1994, Sikkim was generating 65 mega units of power and, thus, most of the state used to be enveloped in darkness while there were no industries. Today, Sikkim produces 2,200 mega units of power and within a couple of years, will produce 5,353 megawatts from different hydel power plants which are in various stages of completion. Electricity consumption in the state stands at 270 kilowatt hour (Kwh) per annum, which is higher than the national average.
In terms of physical infrastructure, Sikkim has posted remarkable progress. The total length of roads has doubled in the last 28 years from 1,889 km in 1994 to 3,650 km today. It must be remembered here that Sikkim is a mountainous state with a tough terrain, where construction of roads, bridges and tunnels poses a great challenge. The eastern Himalayas are young mountains and made of mostly mud, gravel and small boulders that are the reason for the perennial landslides that plague the state. In 1994, less than one-third of the total road length in the state was carpeted; today, 70 per cent of the roads in Sikkim are carpeted (or black-topped). Chamling aims at carpeting all roads in the state by 2021.
Sikkim has also increased its forest cover – the only state in India to achieve this feat – from 43.95 per cent in 1994 to 47.85 per cent today. Its tree density has also increased by 14 per square kilometre in 1994 to 35 per sq/km today. Wildlife sanctuaries and national parks make for more than 30 per cent of the state’s geographical area (the figure was 15.7 per cent in 1994) and the state has achieved spectacular success in involving local people in joint management of forests along with forest officials. Sikkim is also the only ‘organic’ state in the country, where bans on grazing in forest land, on felling green trees, on burning agricultural waste and use of styrofoam products is strictly enforced.
Peace For Progress
What really distinguishes Sikkim from many other states is the complete social harmony that prevails there. Though the original inhabitants of Sikkim were the Bhutias, who migrated from the Kham province of Tibet in the 14th century, and the Lepchas, who migrated from the Far East, a majority of the state’s people today are of Nepalese origin and constitute 62.6 per cent of the state’s population. The Bhutias make for only 7.6 per cent of the state’s population and the Lepchas only 6.5 per cent. Migrants from other states – mainly from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bengal – form more than 7 per cent of the state’s population.
But there has never been any social tensions between the various ethnic groups in the state, and the primary reason is that all have one common and overarching identity: they are all Sikkimese. All those who were permanent residents of the state as on 26 April 1975 (when Sikkim merged with the Indian Union through a popular referendum) and their descendants are Sikkimese and, hence, entitled to reservation in jobs and get preferential treatment in government contracts, permits and licences and in business opportunities. Thus, a second or third generation Marwari or a Bihari is as Sikkimese as a Lepcha or Bhutia whose forefathers migrated to Sikkim centuries ago. This Sikkimese identity is a glue that binds people of different ethnicities and successive governments, especially that of Chamling, have worked towards strengthening this common identity of the state’s citizens.
Sikkim, thus, is free from ethnic divisions, the local-outsider divide and the xenophobia (of locals towards outsiders) that has repeatedly convulsed the other states of Northeast India (Sikkim is taken to be the 8th state of the Northeast though it is not geographically contiguous with the region). In fact, Sikkim is the only state in the country that has never witnessed any communal or ethnic clash and tension over the past two decades. And the crime rate is also surprisingly low. In fact, and this may seem surreal, the number of cognisable crimes have actually declined in the state: there were 827 cases under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) registered in 1994 while in 2016, the number of such cases was 808. “There has been a slow but steady decline in crimes over the years and the trend continues,” said IGP (Law and Order) Akshay Sachdeva. Even a case of minor assault makes it to the front pages of local newspapers since they are so rare.
Sikkim is, thus, a prime example of peace ensuring progress and prosperity. Even political unrest is rare and with the people of the state voting overwhelmingly (for the fifth time in 2014, and he is all set to win the next elections in 2019) for Chamling and his Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), there is hardly any opposition worth the name in the state. But the absence of political opposition has not stifled grassroots democracy in Sikkim, which was one of the first states to adopt and implement the panchayati raj system in letter and spirit.
Following The Dharma
Sikkim’s dramatic transformation, say many, was possible due to the dharmic sushashan (governance) of Chamling, a deeply devout man who draws inspiration for his work from the shastras. And Chamling, a voracious reader and prolific writer with many novellas and poems to his credit, candidly says that the Arthashastra and epics like the Bhagavad Gita form the basis of his governance model. “Our epics and shastras lay down the tenets of good and fair governance,” he says. He underlines these tenets: innovative thinking and approach to problem-solving, a humane approach to solving problems affecting the people, transparency and inclusiveness in decision-making, being fair and even-handed, striving for the greater good and providing material comforts to people while encouraging them to imbibe spirituality.
One of the important attributes of Chamling’s governance model is his delegation of authority and the freedom that his ministers and bureaucrats enjoy in their functioning. “The broad policy framework is decided by consensus and all ministers work within that framework, and have complete freedom to do so. The CM does not look over their shoulders and never interferes in their day-to-day functioning. Decisions in cabinet meetings are arrived at by consensus and the chief minister ensures everyone is taken into confidence. In fact, he goes out of his way to win over those opposed to his views and plans,” said SDF spokesperson and former state assembly Speaker K T Gyaltsen.
Chamling is deeply spiritual and dharmic, says Gyaltsen, who is known to be very close to the chief minister. “He (Chamling) considers Sikkim to be a pavitra rashtra (holy land) where the most important task before him is to increase the happiness index of the people of the state,” says Gyaltsen, who was also a minister in the state cabinet. This belief in his state being a pavitra rashtra has led Chamling to build Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries and gompas, including the Char Dham – huge replicas of the four prime pilgrimage spots of Hindus – at Namchi and the Buddha Park at Ravangla, which has a 130-foot statue of Buddha as its centerpiece. Sikkim is typified as a land where the ringing of Hindu temple bells and the chants of Buddhist mantras create a happy synergy.
Sikkim’s journey to become a fully organic state began in 2003 and, here too, Chamling drew inspiration from the shastras, which recommend sustainable practices in harmony with nature. “By 2010, the preparatory works like creating awareness and convincing farmers to switch to organic practices, creation of infrastructure, setting in place institutional mechanism and successfully conducting pilot missions were completed and ‘Sikkim Organic Mission’ was formally launched that year,” said the mission’s executive director Anbalagan.
By 2016, Sikkim’s 75,000 hectares of agricultural land had become totally organic. “Having become a fully organic state, we now want to capitalise on this. Strategies are being framed to export surplus agricultural products and have narrowed down on a few crops and spices – cardamom, ginger, turmeric and buckwheat – which are produced in surplus quantities and have export potential. We are creating infrastructure for value addition at the village level, setting up farmers’ cooperatives in hubs, creating marketing linkages and chains and also creating a brand for Sikkim’s organic products. This will increase incomes of farmers,” said Anbalagan, who says the organic mission is Chamling’s brainchild and the chief minister takes close and active interest in it.
Sikkim has also emerged as a floriculture hub and today exports cymbidium orchids, gerberas, carnations, gladioli and lillies not only to the rest of the country, but also to Southeast Asia, China, Australia and some other countries. The state government under Chamling has specific programmes aimed at encouraging people to cultivate flowers and has put in place marketing networks and a cold chain for exporting flowers to the rest of the country and abroad. Over 12,000 people have benefited directly from the state government’s floriculture programmes and earn between Rs 15,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh a month from this trade.
In keeping with the mantra of sustainable development without causing any ecological damage, the state government has consciously invited only non-polluting industries to Sikkim. Today, the power generation and pharmaceutical units and distilleries are the drivers of Sikkim’s economy, not only providing jobs to hundreds of local people, but also generating a lot of revenue. “Keeping polluting industries out of Sikkim was a conscious decision on our part, more so since our state falls in an ecologically sensitive zone. And our credo has always been sustainable development that is environment-friendly,” said Chief Minister Chamling.
While incentives were rolled out under the North East Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy (NEIPP) of 2007, Sikkim added its own incentives to attract ‘green’ industries. Sikkim has thus become a pharma hub with more than 40 units, including all the major pharma companies of the country, in operation in the state. There are also more than eight distilleries in the state and some more liquor companies have shown interest in setting up units in the state. Sikkim’s hydro-power generating potential is more than 5,500 MW and within a couple of years, the state will generate nearly 4,000 MW of power that will not only boost the state’s industrial development, but also earn revenue from sale of excess power to the national grid.
When Chamling came to power in 1994, he realised that his state’s tourism potential was unlimited. “Tourism is a sector that generates many jobs, helps the local economy and brings smiles to all. The cross-cultural flows triggered by this sector also boosts social harmony,” said Tourism Minister Ugyen T Gyatso. Apart from branding the state effectively, the state government has also concentrated on building tourist infrastructure and opening up more and more tourist spots. “Our focus is also on village tourism and home stays so that tourists get to sample and experience our rich culture and traditions, while the village economy also benefits from tourist inflows. There are a number of schemes to promote home stays and village tourism,” Gyatso added.
Sikkim received a record 14.25 lakh tourists, including 33,000 foreign tourists, in 2017. That was a significant rise from the 8.06 lakh tourists who visited the state in 2016. The tourist arrivals in the state would have been more but for the long Gorkhaland stir in neighbouring Darjeeling Hills that dampened the mood. But by this year-end, Sikkim would have received more than 18 lakh tourists.
While tourism, ‘green’ industries and hydel power are revenue generators for Sikkim, the government is focused now on skill development. “We are the first state to have a full-fledged skill development department. “Our chief minister realised long time ago that mere degrees won’t do and young people have to develop skills that will turn them either into entrepreneurs in various sectors, including agriculture, horticulture and floriculture, or give them the much-required edge for the competitive job market,” said Gyaltsen.
Sikkim now has many programmes and skill development centres where young men and women are enrolled for capsule courses in various vocations. There are special coaching institutes, where young men and women, depending on their interests, are provided skill training in cracking competitive exams, in gaining entrance to medical, engineering and technical colleges and management courses, and in tourism, marketing and many other sectors. “The idea is to make Sikkim a prime human resource hub. We want Sikkimese men and women to earn well within and outside the state and be known for their skills in whatever they do,” said Gyaltsen.
The Road Ahead
Pawan Chamling, widely believed to be headed for his sixth consecutive electoral victory in the assembly polls slated for next year, says that now that the basic needs of the Sikkimese have been met, he will move towards providing “top quality services” to his people. “We are launching a water security mission and a food security mission. We will devote all our energies now to sustainable development and conservation. We want to encourage more and more people to take to agriculture, horticulture, floriculture and animal husbandry and make Sikkim famous for its high-quality organic products,” he said.
Chamling’s plan is to now turn Sikkim into a sports, education and healthcare hub and make the state greener than what it is now. Reputable educational institutions of international standards and private healthcare facilities that Sikkim is now ready for can attract students and patients from neighbouring states and South and Southeast Asia, he says. A massive push will be given to infrastructure development: one ambitious plan is to connect the headquarters of all districts in the state with tunnels that cut through the mountains. The state government will also hardsell the state as a prime tourist destination to international travelers so as to boost foreign tourist inflow into the state to at least one lakh by 2020.
And there is lots more up Chamling’s sleeves. Sikkim, he says, is a great story of progress and happiness. And there is more, much more, to come, he promises.