Darjeeling Himalayas-A paradise in peril

Darjeeling Himalayas-A paradise in peril

Darjeeling: New tourist destination , Straddling a ridge at 2123 meters and surrounded by tea plantations on all sides, Darjeeling has been a very popular hill station since the British established it as a rest and recreation center for its troops in the mid 1800’s.

Straddling a ridge at 2123 meters and surrounded by tea plantations on all sides, Darjeeling has been a very popular hill station since the British established it as a rest and recreation center for its troops in the mid 1800’s.

The Darjeeling Himalayas consisting of Darjeeling Sadar, Kurseong and Kalimpong is remarkable as it sustains millions of people. Apart from tea and tourism, there isn’t much industrial activity here. The long physical isolation and economic backwardness has meant that this entire Himalayan belt is up in flames, courtesy the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha inspired agitation demanding a separate “Gorkhaland”, which the Bimal Gurung led Morcha believes will set everything right.
Politics aside, the environmental ramifications of the Darjeeling Himalayas, which came into the limelight as a much sought after hill station with the ethereal backdrop of the majestic snowcapped Himalayan peaks, dense forests and lush green valleys has deteriorated to such an extent that unless corrective environmental measures aren’t taken immediately, India is on the verge of loosing one of its most beautiful hill stations to the perpetual greed, ruthlessness and exploitive nature of people who matter.
India’s tourism industry needs Darjeeling to prosper and bloom. The prospect of being surrounded by the “Mountain People”, the quintessential tea estates spread like finely woven carpet along the hillsides, breathtaking views of the snowy Himalayas and down to the swollen rivers in the valley bottoms is something that the discerning world traveler aspires for and one, which Darjeeling for more than a century has provided. …that sense of escaping to the Darjeeling hills from the heat, humidity and hassle of the Indian plains is something that is hard to replace.
“The Darjeeling Himalayas – Paradise in Peril”attempts to chronicle Darjeeling’s evolution as one of Eastern India’s most popular hill retreat and endeavors to put forward a harmonious political, ecological and environmental vision for the future with the Tourism industry playing the role of a catalyst.
The Political Scenario:
There has been a demand for a separate Gorkhaland state for years now which has taken an aggressive form vis-à-vis the Bimal Gurung led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. The Morcha claims that a separate state has been the aspiration of the hill people for more than a century. They have even gone to the extent that the “Gorkhaland” demand is one of the oldest demands for a separate state in India.
On closer observation to the demand for a separate state by the hill people of Darjeeling and surroundings, there are a number of factors that emerge out of which the key issues are identity crisis and economic deprivation.
Identity Crisis:
Let us consider the issue of Identity Crisis. The Morcha claims that the Indian Gorkhas domiciled in the Darjeeling hills face an “Identity Crisis” in spite of their invaluable contribution in India’s freedom struggle. The Indian Gorkhas are treated as “foreigners” and the Morcha claims that the then Prime Minister of India – Morarji Desai on one occasion used the term “Nepali citizen” when the Indian Gorkhas were demanding the inclusion of the Nepali language in the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution.
It has to be borne in mind that the Government of India had bestowed the Darjeeling hills with the status of a “Hill Council”, which has completed 21 years but without any tangible results. The Morcha, which has been spearheading the agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state have time and again cited the examples of Uttaranchal, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand all of which have been granted the status of statehood by the government of India.
Also, one has to take into consideration that being a part of the state of West Bengal, the hill residents (Gorkhas) in terms of racial orientation are a unique lot who have their own tradition, culture and heritage. Being close to the border of the Himalayan country of Nepal, the Indian Gorkhas share a similar socio-cultural background and it is this affinity with Nepal which is the cause of the Indian Gorkhas being labeled as “foreigners” .
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha also has its own views on why the formation of the proposed state of “Gorkhaland”, which is inclusive of Darjeeling district and the Dooars, should not amount to division of West Bengal. According to well-placed sources in the Morcha hierarchy, the present geographical boundary consisting of Darjeeling, Kurseong and areas to the south, east and west were offered as gift to the British East India Company by the Raja of Sikkim way back in the year 1835 and later on in the year 1850, the British army had annexed the Terai region of Sikkim (present-day Siliguri) and the hill areas of Ramam in the North, Rangeet and Teesta to the East and the frontier of Nepal in the West.
In the year 1865, the government of Bhutan conceded the entire Dooars region, Coochbihar and Assam to the British East India Company. Later on the British also amalgamated Kalimpong into the district of Darjeeling.
Furthermore, the district of Darjeeling was incorporated in the Rajsahi division till the year 1905 and later on transferred to the Bhagalpur division. At the time of reorganization of the provinces in 1912, Darjeeling district was again retransferred to the Rajsahi division and after the partition of Bengal in the year 1947, the geographical boundary of Darjeeling district remained unaltered and was included in the Presidency division.
According to the spokesperson of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha – “the Darjeeling district was not originally an area under the Indian Union but was incorporated by way of treaties entered with neighboring countries under varying circumstances”. They further uphold the fact that the Siliguri plains as well as the Darjeeling Himalayas were under Nepalese rule from 1788 – 1816. Later on, due to the distinctiveness of the Darjeeling district, it used to be regarded as an “Excluded Area”.
All said and done, by merely creating a separate “Gorkhaland” state isn’t going to solve the problems afflicting the Darjeeling Himalayas. The desire for self rule as per the ethos of the Gorkha community is quite natural but hasn’t the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, an autonomous area that has been in existence for the last 21 years been an outright failure in all spheres of governance? Thus, there has to be a compromise formula and hopefully the tripartite talks involving the Morcha, the state government and the central government will be able to arrive at an amicable solution to the vexed problem.
Economic Deprivation:
Deplorable Condition of Roads:
The extent of economic deprivation is rather tangible and it doesn’t require much effort to figure out the acute economic backwardness of the Darjeeling Himalayas. As one drives past the National Highway 55 A, which is popularly referred to as the Hill Cart Road, which is maintained by the PWD Department, this lifeline of the Darjeeling Himalayas is in rather bad shape. There are potholes galore and the drainage system needs immediate restoration. What is more glaring are the encroachments that have taken place along this road, which in turn has made the road narrower that in turn leads to frequent traffic snarls.
Even a decade back, the average time to reach Darjeeling from Siliguri was around 4 hours by road but these days it takes anywhere between 5 to 6 hours to cover the entire stretch. The Morcha rightfully claims that it is only when a VVIP visits Darjeeling that the roads are given a facelift.
The condition of the National Highway 32 A is comparatively much better largely due to the fact that it leads to Sikkim and is under the supervision of the Border Roads Organization. The BRO is an integral part of the Indian Army and due to the region’s close proximity to China, the road condition is quite up to the standard expected. However, for someone who ventures to the outskirts of Darjeeling, the road condition is deplorable.
Tea Industry in Shambles:
The main industry after tourism in the Darjeeling Himalayas is tea. The world famous Darjeeling Tea has carved a niche for itself in the world tea market. Tea, which was introduced by the British East India Company way back in the 1850’s has been the “Brand Ambassador” of the Darjeeling Himalayas. There are approximately 87 tea estates with an area, which is well spread over 17,500 hectares. The tea industry in Darjeeling offers employment, both direct and indirect to more than 50,000- people.
But as things stand at the present moment, the once burgeoning Darjeeling tea industry is now reeling under acute financial crisis and every year the number of tea estates that are being closed down is increasing, thereby leaving the local population with a devastating future. Some of the chronic problems that the Darjeeling tea industry is faced with are poor wages and non-compliance with the Plantation Labour Act.
All this has led to the ugly specter of poverty amongst the working classes and left with no other alternative, many of the tea garden laborers of sick gardens are committing suicide.
If recent statistical figures are anything to go by, a tea garden labourer in Darjeeling is paid a pitiable Rs.48.40 for eight hours of work whereas in the other tea producing states like Kerala, Tamilnadu and Sikkim, the rate is Rs.66.70, Rs.74.62 and Rs.85 respectively. Also, in the decade 1990-2003, the bonus that was paid to tea garden labourers has diminished from a high of 20% to a pathetic 12%.
What is even more glaring is the fact that as per the norms of Tea Science, tea bushes must be uprooted every 75 years with new plantations. But unbelievably, in most tea estates of Darjeeling, replantation has never been attempted, which has led to a decline in the standard of tea produced. Given the fact that the New Delhi based National Council of Applied Economics & Research has a provision of providing subsidy vis-à-vis the Tea Board, it is a sad tale of retarded growth for the world famous Darjeeling Tea.
The hill people are aghast given the fact that the revenue that is generated from tea is earned by the Commerce and Industries Department, Government of West Bengal, which is never ploughed back into the tea based economy of the Darjeeling Himalayas.
A number of tea estates have reportedly been using synthetic fertilizers to enhance tea productivity, which has resulted in a sharp decline in terms of price per kilogram of non-bioorganic tea produced from Darjeeling Himalayas.
One also has to take note of the fact that in the whole of Eastern India, inclusive of the North East India, the only places where tea auction is held are at Guwahati, the capital of Assam and the metropolitan city of Kolkata. The hill folks have a grudge that since tea is auctioned in Guwahati or Kolkata, which in effect means that they are inaccessible to the local populace, they have all along doubted the overall accounting process.
One the one hand, the mandarins of Tea Estates of the Darjeeling Himalayas are making a hue and cry about incurring losses, while at the same time leading overgenerous lifestyle in Victorian era bungalows and sponsoring visits by foreign dignitaries, which is like taking the local people for a ride.
Scarcity of Drinking Water:
For a number of years now, the hill people of the Darjeeling Himalayas have faced scarcity of drinking water, this happening in a region, which is replete with mountain streams, rivers and rivulets. The government has done little to tap the vast potential of the Himalayan rivers like the Teesta, Jaldhaka, Neora Nala, Rangit, Balasan and the Mahananda.
Today, any visitor to Darjeeling is likely to come across glimpses of the local people coming from far away locales with their quintessential “hand driven carts” carrying water for their folks back home. The Darjeeling city itself is badly hit by the scarcity of water. In spite of the problem that has been in existence for close to a decade, the mandarins at Writer’s Building as well as the DGHC have done precious little to ameliorate the situation.
During the British era, they tapped into the Senchal Lake as a source of water for Darjeeling town. At that time, there was no scarcity of water as the Senchal Lake was well fed by numerous mountainous streams. However, post independence, with Darjeeling evolving into a much sought after hill resort, Senchal Lake alone couldn’t meet the water requirements of Darjeeling town. In a lopsided decision, the local municipal authorities, instead of finding a permanent solution to the water crisis, resorted to stopgap arrangements of tapping water from mountain streams in close proximity to Darjeeling town.
With the local residents up in arms against the government for an immediate solution to the decade long water scarcity, the Balsan water supply project began in the right earnest and is nearing completion. But the locals are keeping their fingers crossed since in the year 1995, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal – Jyoti Basu had laid the foundation stone for a state-of-the-art water supply project – Rambhi Khola Project, which is now in the dustbins of history.
Today, any tourist to Darjeeling who has stayed in the hills for a minimum of three nights, will come up with the scary notion of – “Hill Diarrhoea”, a popular pseudonym to the utter rawness of the water in the hills that is bereft of any treatment and which afflicts visitors to the hills who consume the untreated water.
Even a decade back, the situation wasn’t all that alarming as it is now and one is compelled to admit that the Darjeeling town aside, even the quaint Himalayan towns like Kurseong and Kalimpong, both located in close proximity to Darjeeling too are faced with severe water crisis.
Thus, due to the overall infrastructure bottlenecks like good motor able roads and scarcity of drinking water have meant that the overall tourism perspective of Darjeeling has radically declined in the eyes of the discerning world traveler. The lopsided vision of both the West Bengal government and the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) has relegated tourism to the backburner.
Although places like Lava, Lolegaon and Mirik have seen sizeable tourism development , that in itself isn’t sufficient when one takes into consideration the actual tourism potential of the Darjeeling Himalayas.
At best, the efforts to develop tourism infrastructure in the Darjeeling Himalayas were ad-hoc measures without any long term vision, which meant that large sums of money were siphoned away by greedy local politicians, which has gone unnoticed by both the government at the center and at the state level as well.
Environmental Degradation:
The Himalayan Eco-System is one of the most endangered of life support systems on earth. In the shadow of the Himalayas live millions of inhabitants, who also happen to be amongst the poorest in the world. In the Darjeeling Himalayas the pressure of population on land and the corresponding increase in the demand for fuel and fodder have already denuded large tracts. The land resource degradation in particular has reached alarming proportions.
According to M.L.Dewan who is an authority on Himalayan Eco-System – “The rate at which the forests are disappearing is much faster than the rate of afforestation. Work by the Minisitry of Forests and Environment and other related government departments are still not able to carry out more than a fraction of what is needed in the Darjeeling Himalayas. The need of the hour is to involve the local people in environmental preservation”.
On the hindsight it is to be noted that the Himalayas are not as strong as they look. Factors like geology, climate, flora and fauna, water resources are inextricably linked with the Darjeeling Himalayas. Basically the Himalayas are made up of fragile rocks, which are prone to give away to the onslaught of rains, earthquakes and vibrations caused by the movement of heavey vehicles, which implies that even a minute disturbance causes changes in the rocky contours.
With Darjeeling’s ascent as one of India’s most preferred hill station, to accommodate the influx of tourists, hundreds of hotels and resorts have come up. The lack of proper planning and systematic construction is there for everyone to see. No attention has been paid to topography, geological parameters, drainage system and slope classification, all of which has resulted in ecological havoc. Today tourists to Darjeeling are greeted with air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution and garbage pollution.
It is shocking to come to terms with Darjeeling’s rapid decline as a hill station. Not long back, it used to be one of the most secure places to live in but ironically the famed Darjeeling Himalayas have become unworthy of visiting. The malaise lies in the shoody attitude and lack of vision vis-à-vis the ecology and the environment.
The need for incorporating environmental and ecological parameters are of paramount importance when developmental works are undertaken in the Himalayas so as to ensure that short-term gains are never allowed to tiptoe. Today what we see in the Darjeeling Himalayas is nothing but the environment extracting its price from the innocent hill populace as well as for the coming generations.
Impact of Tourism on the Environment of Darjeeling Himalayas:
Mass tourism to a large extent demands environmental resources and it is here that the issue of preserving and conserving the fragile natural resources has to be implemented. Tourists in their frenzied excitement in the Himalayas often cross the limitations imposed upon the natural resources. It is of paramount importance to safeguard the natural surroundings and to maintain the ecological balance of the hills.
Unplanned urban development along the Drajeeling Himalayas has resulted in irremediable loss. The tourists more often than not add to the degradation of the natural resources by way of litter and noise. Also, nobody seems to pay any attention to the “Carrying Capacity” of the Darjeeling Himalayas.
These days, tourists not only visit the Darjeeling Himalayas during the scorching summer months, they also kind of invade the Darjeeling hills to enjoy the snow. The increase in the number of tourists to Darjeeling Himalayas means a corresponding increase in the number of vehicles that ply on the mountain roads. These vehicles simply pollute the environment by emitting harmful gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydro carbons etc….
The remedy lies not in limiting the number of visitors to the Darjeeling Himalayas but through a well-planned tourism management and diverting the tourist traffic to lesser-known destinations like Mirik for example. The mandarins of the Department of Tourism both at the state and DGHC level, should put a limit to the number of hotels, resorts, guest houses etc…. in a particular place so that the perennial problem of overcrowding and erosion is taken care off.
The Department of Tourism, which thus far has only looked after accommodation, sightseeing and other miscellaneous tourism issues should walk that extra mile by being positively involved in protecting and conserving environment and not leave this matter to be supervised by the Department of Forest and Environment.
To meet the exacting needs of today’s discerning world traveler, the Darjeeling Himalayas has witnessed the ugly specter of no-holds-barred urbanization phenomenon, which has resulted in immense pressure on land. In Darjeeling town, in fact every type of open space has been swallowed up by the greedy real estate promoters in the name of building hotels and lodges.
The worse part of the urbanization phenomenon is that it is gradually spreading to the outskirts of Darjeeling town as well and if the crisis warning is not heeded now, the Darjeeling Himalayas is in for an ecological disaster.
Apart from ground level works, the need of the hour is to engage the legislature in incorporating the appropriate legislative rules and regulations pertaining to the tourism industry. So far, legislative measures pertaining to tourism has been bereft of any direction or long-term vision.
Environmental Action Plan:
The Darjeeling Himalayas presently is under the vicious spell of environmental peril. Change is inevitable and also very desirable if it improves the lifestyle of the hill people.
A well thought out Environmental Action Plan for the Darjeeling Himalayas is enumerated below –
Objectives of the Action Plan:
i. Scientific assessment of human occupation on the local environment.
ii. Evaluation of the ability of human groups to meet their needs.
iii. Analyzing the effects of change on man and environment through recreation, agriculture and farming etc….
iv. Verify the constraints for fresh new inputs to accelerate the developmental process.
v. Come up with appropriate educational strategies to educate the hill people on their role for the preservation of the environment of the Darjeeling Himalayas.
In order to achieve the overall objective of improving the quality of life of the hill folks, a well-formulated process needs to be followed, which is enumerated below-
i. Periodic assessment of resources, both natural and human and preparation of a resource inventory.
ii. Identifying major problems in resource utilization.
iii. Formulate strategies to eliminate environmental problems and harness the potential for development.
iv. Execute policies through well-defined action groups.
v. Carry out appraisals on the efficacy of the environmental strategies and provide routine feedback
It would perhaps be prudent to take note of the fact that some of the environmental degradation that have taken place in the Darjeeling Himalayas is already unalterable and of course time consuming as well.
Uninterrupted trial and experiments will be required before a well defined and scientific methodology is applied at the ground level.
One has also to take into consideration that environmental planning more often than not has a social dimension, simply because human being is at the core of the crisis. Environmental degradation has occurred due to man’s onslaught against nature, courtesy urbanization, deforestation etc…. and it is by way of a harmonious adaptation with the environment of the Darjeeling Himalayas that any attempts to correct the mess and restore the environmental balance can be thought of.
In the application of the research methodology, the above-mentioned strategies for possible solution to the perplexing problem of environmental degradation, is by no means infallible. Some of the trials and experiments may have to be carried out in compact areas through “pilot projects” and if proved successful may be ultimately implemented elsewhere in the Darjeeling Himalayas.
Conclusion – Renaissance through Tourism:
One great way to solve the issue of “Gorkhaland” and the demand for a separate state as demanded by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha could be by declaring the Darjeeling Himalayas as a “Special Tourism Zone” (STZ), given the fact that Darjeeling is best known for its tremendous tourism potential.
The rationale behind the setting up of a Special Tourism Zone is that it will enhance and boost Darjeeling’s sagging tourism industry by attracting massive doses of investment, employment generation and infrastructure development, all of which are presently in slumber.
If proper planning is done and issues like land allocation, adequate compensation to displaced people, maintaining the fragile ecological balance and other miscellaneous issues are tackled properly, the STZ status on the Darjeeling Himalayas could be the harbinger of peace and prosperity, which it requires badly at the present moment. By setting up STZ, it is possible to reap immense benefits for the hill people.
By granting the Darjeeling Himalayas with the status of STZ, the government at the center and the state must ensure that development is people centred and the links between growth and development is equitable. The principal features of STZ in case of the Darjeeling Himalayas would comprise of single window clearance, 100%tax exemption, exemption from import duty on capital goods, abolishing luxury tax, lower VAT etc…
Right now with the Indian economy booming, the government is seriously pondering about setting up exclusive “Special Economic Zones” (SEZ). If Indian statistical records are anything to go by, the government has already approved 150 SEZ proposals and hundreds more are in the pipeline.
When it comes to the creation of Special Tourism Zones (STZ), the Government of Kerala is upbeat about this novel scheme. Being one of India’s best performing states in terms of revenue earned through tourism and also by virtue of being ranked as one of the top 10 exotic destinations worldwide by the National Geographic Traveler, Kerala has already started making the right moves to further strengthen its tourism industry by setting up STZs.
The concept of STZ has proved to be very successful particularly in South East Asian countries like Thailand and Philippines. The immensely successful STZ agenda has also been implemented in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that has forever changed the landscape of UAE and today it ranks among the world’s most preferred holiday destination.
The Darjeeling Himalayas, which has incredible tourism assets, would do well to go in for an image makeover on the lines of UAE’s tourism turnaround. Innovation has to be the buzzword if the STZ status bestowed upon the Darjeeling Himalayas has to be successful. Apart from Darjeeling proper, the tourism planners also need to identify new areas for intensive tourist infrastructure development. The STZ to be successful, the government at the center, state and local level have to come up with a definite strategy and implement them at the ground level by involving the private consortiums in the domain of tourism.
The tourism planners have to ensure that there is no creation of “elite enclaves” by granting the status of STZ to the Darjeeling Himalayas. Enclavisation encourages exploitation of local resources with very little being ploughed back into the local economy. Planners must also ensure that the type of leisure and entertainment being promoted offers enough opportunities to the local community so that they derive the economic benefit directly through tourism.
At the present moment, proposals for Special Tourism Zones are being approved
by the Ministry of Tourism and the state government is in charge of project implementation, thereby leaving no room for local community participation.
There has to be a mechanism wherein the local communities and institutions too have a say in the overall tourism development. The respective Gram Panchayats must be empowered to decide about the status of their land and other natural resources so that the local economy is sustainable in the long run. Pioneering initiatives have to be undertaken to initiate dialogues among all the stakeholders so as to ensure that the tourism phenomenon is responsible and eco-friendly.
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