One of the arguments against the formation of Gorkhaland—a separate state comprising the Darjeeling hills and the Dooars area of North Bengal—as is being demanded by the Gorkhas (Nepali-speaking citizens of India), is that the proposed state would be wholly dependent on the union government for all its needs. But this narrative, being espoused by Bengalis who want Bengal to retain its tenuous and unethical hold over the Darjeeling Hills and Dooars (D and D), is totally false.
Fact is, the proposed Gorkhaland state comprising the Darjeeling hills and large parts of the (which was part of the under the before being captured by Bhutan and then by the British through the Treaty of Sinchula in 1865 after the ) can be a revenue-surplus state unlike the debt-laden West Bengal. The proposed state has tremendous potential in emerging as a high earner among all the states of the country.
Darjeeling and Dooars are richly endowed by nature. And the three ‘Ts’—tea, tourism and timber—are the money-spinners of this region. The region also has a lot of untapped potential to generate hydel power. Since the proposed Gorkhaland state will have borders with China (through Sikkim), Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, cross-border trade will also bring in a lot of revenue. The region, being one of the prime 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world and with its wealth of flora and fauna, will also be able to earn a lot from eco-tourism.
Apart from the issues of a separate identity for the Gorkhas (Nepali-speaking citizens of India) and that the region and its people have nothing in common (linguistically, culturally and emotionally) with the rest of Bengal, the criminal neglect of D and D by successive governments in Bengal over the past 70 years has fuelled the demand for Gorkhaland. Not only is physical infrastructure in a mess in the region, little has been invested in healthcare, education, sanitation, livelihood projects, developing tourism, agriculture, floriculture and horticulture and even the showpiece toy train—the (DHR) that was accorded UNESCO World Heritage tag in 1999—that is the pride of the hills wallows in utter neglect.
The D and D region gets around 5 lakh domestic tourists and around 50,000 foreign tourists every year. Unfortunately, due to poor infrastructure, most of these are low-budget tourists who do not contribute much to the local economy. Almost all the budget hotels in the region are operated on lease by Bengalis from the rest of the state and the locals are only employed as lowly-paid waiters and cooks. “So the locals are only marginal stakeholders in the multi-crore tourism sector,” said Sunil Pradhan, a tour operator.
D and D was once a high-end tourist destination that would attract high-spending international and domestic tourists. “The high-spending tourist stays in expensive hotels either run by locals or those who employ locals in management positions, hires local vehicles, spends a lot of meals, buys many mementoes and thus contributes a lot to the local economy,” Pradhan explained.
In stark contrast, the budget tourists who flock to D and D from the rest of Bengal and other parts of the country, as well as the backpackers from abroad, stay in budget hotels run by Bengalis, spend little on food and sight-seeing and nothing much on shopping. So the locals don’t benefit from the budget tourists.
Locals believe it was a sinister ploy to convert D and D, especially Darjeeling (Dooars became a tourist destination only recently), into a destination for the budget traveller. “It was done to satisfy the travel urges of the lower middle class and middle class Bengalis who were the supporters of the Left (which ruled the state for 34 years) and now the Trinamool. Making Darjeeling a low-end travel destination was a deliberate ploy to appease the overwhelming majority of Bengalis of Bengal who are low-budget tourists,” said Binita Rai, a senior executive with a star-category heritage hotel in Darjeeling.
Successive Bengal governments did not invest in tourism infrastructure or develop new tourist spots in the hills. “Many amenities aimed at the high-end tourists could have been developed, like golf courses, adventure sports and tea tourism. But while Darjeeling’s infrastructure was allowed to rot away, hotels catering to the backpackers and low-end tourists were encouraged to come up,”said Rai.
Under the proposed Gorkhaland state, says Sikkim Central University’s founding vice-chancellor Mahendra P Lama, Darjeeling can once again be transformed into a high-end tourist destination. “A lot of things can be done to attract the high-end tourists,” he said. A seminal study carried out by Lama says that the proposed Gorkhaland state can generate at least Rs 500 crore a year from tourism. “D and D region generates about Rs 40 crore as revenue from tourism every year for Bengal, but little of that money goes to the local people. With Gorkhaland, the earnings from this sector will not only increase, it is the people of the hills and the Dooars who will benefit,” said Lama, who used to teach at Jawaharlal Nehru Univeristy’s school of international studies and specialises in development economics.
Darjeeling contributes only 0.9 per cent to India’s total annual tea production of 1200 million kilos. But the 11 million kilos of Darjeeling tea is premium quality and is globally acknowledged as the ‘champagne of tea’. The average price of Darjeeling tea is Rs 500 a kilo, but the better quality Darjeeling tea commands astronomical prices through private sales, touching even Rs 2 lakh a kilo. Though the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) does not release any figures officially about the total sales proceeds from Darjeeling tea, industry insiders estimate that Darjeeling tea fetches about Rs 1500 crores annually.
Since all the tea gardens in the hills are owned by companies with their headquarters in Kolkata, all the revenue from this tea goes to the coffers of the Bengal government. The local people of the hills are employed only as poorly-paid labourers and supervisors in the tea gardens and thus have only marginal stakes in the trade. Not a single garden is owned by a Gorkha, and just a handful of them are in managerial ranks in the gardens.
“All the profits from Darjeeling tea are taken away to Kolkata. So of what benefit has been Darjeeling tea to the people of Darjeeling? In a Gorkhaland state, the revenue from the tea will accrue to the hills and the hills will prosper.
One of the primary reasons for Bengal’s opposition to Gorkhaland is that it will lose out on this revenue and will slide further into poverty. But Bengal has never looked on the people of the hills and the Dooars as equals and Bengal has never spent even a fraction of what it earns from Darjeeling tea on the hills,” said Professor Lama.
A Gorkhaland state, he adds, will pay special attention to rejuvenating the tea estates and improving the marketing of Darjeeling tea in international markets so as to improve its quality and the price it fetches. Darjeeling tea, estimates Lama, can easily earn Rs 1800 crore a year and with the revenues going to Gorkhaland, the state can easily become a financially self-sufficient one.
Timber & forest produce
Though timber trade is now restricted, the Bengal government’s forest department earns an estimated Rs 100 crore a year from sale of timber from its teak and sal plantations in the D and D region. “With proper marketing and streamlining the auction process to plug existing leakages, the earnings from timber can go up to Rs 200 crore a year,” said Lama.
The region is also home to a wide variety of medicinal plants, but no effort has been made to conduct even a semblance of research on this. “If research and development facilities are set up and medicinal plants are harvested properly, the D and D region can earn a lot through patents and manufacture of medicines. The pristine air and water quality of this region makes it eminently suitable for setting up of non-polluting pharmaceutical industries (as in Sikkim),” said Professor Lama.
Another area that has been neglected all these decades is the traditional medicinal and knowledge systems. The traditional folk medicines and knowledge systems of the Jhankris, the Phedangmas, Dhamis, Bonbos, Pows, Nejums and Bumthings (all sub-tribes of folk doctors belonging to the Gorkhas, Bhutias, Lepchas and other communities of the region) have never been documented and promoted. “This is also an area that can generate a lot of revenue and can become a USP of the Gorkhaland state,”said Lama.
Asia’s first hydro-power plant came up at near Darjeeling town in 1897. Though the region has tremendous potential to generate hydel power through small dams, no effort has ever been made by the Bengal governments to harness this potential. It is a cruel irony that despite having such potential, the Darjeeling Hills and Dooars suffer from debilitating power cuts all year round.
According to studies by experts, mini and micro hydel plants that do not disturb the ecology of the region can generate thousands of megawatts of power. If properly harnessed, the Teesta, Mechi, Rangeet, Balasun, Relli and Sankosh rivers that flow through the region can generate up to 7500 MW of power. That can not only fully meet the needs of the needs of the region, the surplus can also be fed to the national grid to earn an estimated Rs 100 crore a month for Gorkhaland.
Flora and fauna
The D and D region is blessed with a fascinating variety of flora and fauna, starting right from the Himalayan herbs and shrubs in the upper reaches to the sub-tropical variety in the foothills. It has the Singalila, Mahananda, Jaldapara, Gorumara and Neora Valley national parks, the region also has the Buxa Tiger Reserve, the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary and many other reserve forests. “Unfortunately, the flora and fauna of this region has never been promoted properly. With good promotion and development of proper infrastructure under a Gorkhaland state, all these national parks and wildlife reserves can attract thousands of wildlife lovers and researchers from across the globe. And a lot of revenue can be generated from this,” said Professor Lama.
Though it is difficult to put a figure to it, conservative estimates say that of these wildlife sanctuaries and forests are promoted properly after putting in place non-invasive and eco-friendly infrastructure, about Rs 400 crore can be generated every year from tourists and researchers. That would be a substantial revenue earning for a small state like Gorkhaland.
Border trade and other activities
The D and D region that would make up the Gorkhaland state will have borders with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet (through Sikkim). International trade can then generate a lot of revenue. “All these decades, the Bengal government has shown no interest in developing border trade. It’s focus has always been south Bengal. This will not change and no matter what the rulers of Bengal proclaim, they will never pay attention to the D and D region. So trade through the international borders can develop only under a Gorkhaland state,” said Daniel Lepcha, a Mumbai-based economist who hails from the region. Lepcha quotes a study by a local trade body to contend that border trade can go up to the volume of Rs 1000 crore a year. At present, the volumes are negligible.
Gorkhaland will also benefit by being a gateway to North East India and to Southeast and East Asia. Professor Lama says it would be included in the (NEC) and, apart from getting more attention and funds for development, Gorkhaland would also emerge as a prime investment destination since it would be a tax-free state like Sikkim. Gorkhaland will, as Lama says, complete the definition of North East India.
The Darjeeling hills also have a number of premier educational institutions like the 194-year-old , the 129-year-old and the 110-year-old , apart from many others. These schools used to attract students from United Kingdom, Europe and Singapore till not very long ago. “Their standards have been allowed to decline by apathetic Bengal governments and periodic unrest in the hills. Under Gorkhaland, these schools can be revived once again and new-age schools, colleges, management and higher technical institutes can be set up to turn this region into the education hub it once was. The climate of the hills, the positive and cheerful disposition of the local people, and the rich biodiversity of this region can make it a prime research hub as well,” said prominent educationist S K Rai.
Moreover, a Gorkhaland state boosts India’s security by becoming a front-line state against Chinese aggression in the region. “Gorkhaland can emerge as a front-ranking state of India and will, right from the very start, be an economically self-sustaining state unlike West Bengal. There is little prospect for West Bengal to improve its finances and become self-reliant in terms of revenue. Bengal is keeping the D and D region backward and dragging it from realising its true potential. Successive rulers of Bengal have perfected the art of internally colonising the D and D region and the present ruler, Mamata Banerjee, has gone a few steps forward by implementing a divide-and-rule policy. The alienation of the D and D region from the rest of Bengal is complete and the divide is complete and irreparable. Gorkhaland is a must now,” said leader Roshan Giri. The Morcha has been spearheading the Gorkhaland movement.
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