By Shine Jacob
Economy takes a hit, with tourist arrivals declining 70% and tea production 17% since 2008.
"Tell them you are not a Bengali." The survival tip from a top Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader was almost ominous.
Streets draped in green-white-yellow GJM flags, a small procession on every street, road blockades and candle-light vigils gave an appearance that the hills were backing the Gorkhaland movement, or, perhaps, just wanted to sever ties with West Bengal.
The resentment was against the West Bengal governmentâ€™s policies, or the lack of them. But, ironically, the agitation demanding a separate Gorkhaland has been slowly, but steadily, eating into the economic backbone of this part of the state.
With strikes and bandhs becoming a daily affair in the last three years, tourists are deserting their once-favourite holiday destination. The streets used to be buzzing with tourists and the economy zoomed, with the lush tea industry. But for Darjeeling and North Bengal, thatâ€™s history.
Todayâ€™s reality is a 70 per cent drop in tourists and a significant impact on an already stressed tea industry.
"The number of tourists has halved since the movement by GJM gathered steam in 2008," says Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce President B M Garg.
The protests hit one of the worst phases after the police firing at Sibchu on February 8 this year, when three GJM workers were killed. Though there is some relaxation for short spans, it seems the incident has given an impetus to the Gorkhaland demand, even at the cost of the regionâ€™s economy.
The economy of the region has suffered a political onslaught for long. The demand for Gorkhaland â€” to be carved out of the hills of Darjeeling, and Dooars and Terai â€” has gained momentum under the Bimal Gurung-led GJM since 2008, but it owes its origins to the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League, founded in pre-independence India. It was, however, under Subhash Ghising in the 1980s that the movement gained serious support.
According to estimates provided by the Eastern Himalayas Travel and Tour Operatorsâ€™ Association (EHTTOA), the tourism, transport and hospitality industries together employ close to 60,000 people in the area.
"The number of tourists visiting the place has decreased 70 per cent from about 450,000 in 2008 to about 1,35,000 now. The region has taken a similar beating in terms of revenue, too, which has come down from Rs 500 crore in 2008 to close to Rs 150 crore in 2010," says EHTTOA President Samrat Sanyal.
The industry is worried about the reputation of the region on the international tourism map. "The sector has come to a complete standstill. We are receiving cancellations from foreign and domestic tourists everyday. Countries like Germany, the US and the UK have already issued travel advisories asking not to visit North Bengal. So, it is time the political forces became rational," Sanyal adds.
Amit Periwal, senior manager of Darjeeling-based Clubside Tour and Travel, echoes him: "We do not not know what to do. Our revenue has been wiped out by the recent protests, and that too in peak season." Adding to the woes, for more than six months, the iconic toy train, on Unescoâ€™s world heritage list, is running only over a small stretch â€” of just above 35 km â€” from Darjeeling to Kurseong. Earlier, it used to travel 88 km from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. The normal service was disrupted after a landslide last year and the railways have still not been able to revive the route.
One of the mainstays for the region, the tea industry employs about 55,000 people and indirectly influences the life of over 200,000, a major economy driver. Though the region produces only one per cent of the total tea produced in the country, the unique flavour has made it one of the most sought varieties globally. But the political crisis is taking a heavy toll.
Production figures of 87 estates in the area, published by the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) in the last three years, shows a steep drop since 2008 (see table).
"Political issues played their part and natural calamities, like drought, made things worse. Earlier, the industry was not disrupted by strikes. But this time, even our work has stopped. It will affect the output, as the most important first-flush season will start by March," says DTA Secretary Sandeep Mukherjee. Normally, first-flush tea contributes about 20 per cent of the crop, accounting for 35 per cent of the revenue.
Even traders of Darjeeling tea, one of the largest revenue makers in the international market, are feeling the pinch. "We are for the Gorkhaland movement and the development of the region. But our sales have reduced nearly 60 per cent. Finding buyers internationally is becoming difficult," says Girish Sarda, who owns Nathmulls Tea, one of the first distributers of Darjeeling-branded tea in the country.
Majority of the tea produced here are exported, mostly to Germany, Japan, the US and UK.
"Daily wagers are the worst hit by these protests. Political forces on both the sides should consider this for the existence of the industry," adds Mukherjee.
Distressed education & power
"Across the hills, there are nearly 50 schools, with about 10,000 boarders, including more than 5,000 foreign students. The matter of concern is, if the region loses its reputation as an education destination, students would not come here, as there are other alternatives. The classes are stopped for now. We want to restart by next week," says Kinley Tshering, a priest who heads St Josephâ€™s School (North Point) in Darjeeling.
Darjeeling is an education destination for students from countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh.
Power generation, too, is affected by the high-voltage political drama. West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd (WBSEDCL), which has two power projects in the region â€” Ramam and Jaldhaka â€” is feeling the pinch.
"We generate 86 Mw from two projects. As this season has low water flow, we are generating 20 Mw. The stoppage of work is becoming a regular affair now and we have been losing Rs 1 lakh per Mw every day," reveals S Dey, chief engineer, WBSEDCL. Construction works on the two projects by NHPC on the Teesta river are also affected by the movement.
GJMâ€™s top leaders like Bimal Gurung and Harka Bahadur Chettri are camping in Kumani, near Sibchu forest, with close to 3,000 workers. Not far from there are strong voices against GJM, from quarters like the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP), a tribal grouping.
In fact, ABAVP had called an indefinite bandh in the Dooars last week to disrupt GJM supportersâ€™ processions in the region. "The common men here are against the Gorkhaland movement and GJM is using its muscle power to get control over the hills," said ABAVP President John Barla.
Both locals and politicians are pinning their hopes on the coming Assembly elections in the region. "GJM has had no bad experiences with the Trinamool Congress. By any means, we want CPI(M)â€™s rule to end," GJMâ€™s Chettri said, hinting at a possible tie-up with Trinamool Congress. They believe change in political equations will boost demand for Gorkhaland.
However, if the situation worsens â€” for tourists or the media â€” the password to unlock the blockades could be: "I am not a Bengali".