The indefinite shutdown in Darjeeling hills has been called off after 104 days of continued agitation. However, the resolution seems to have come too late; the region stares at a Rs 590-crore loss with the tourism and tea industry in a state of turmoil this year.
The tourism sector in the northern West Bengal-Gangtok belt, which churns out an estimated Rs 800 crore each year has lost at least 17 per cent of its annual earnings. Room occupancy rates, according to the East Himalaya Travel and Tour Operators Association
(EHTTOA), is below 25 per cent in Darjeeling and below 35 per cent in Sikkim in the peak Durga Puja season. Normally, during the Durga Puja holidays, the occupancy rates touch over 95 per cent in these locations.
Samrat Sanyal, secretary at EHTTOA told Business Standard that although the shutdown has been called off, it is too late for the tourism sector there to reap any benefits.
“Nearly 80 per cent of the hotels are not prepared to handle any kind of rush as workers as well as provisions are not available to them owing to the continued shutdown. It will take a least 10-15 days for the hotels to ready the rooms and have enough staff and provisions to handle check-ins”, he said.
Sanyal estimates that at least Rs 140 crore has been lost in the tourism sector alone on account of the protests for a separate state of Gorkhaland.
Tour operators are of the view that tourists might come into the region during the Diwali
and Winter holidays but remain sceptical as they feel that the very name of Darjeeling has been tarnished in the tourist’s mind.
“Owing to the shutdown, numerous people had no other option but to cancel their bookings during the Puja holidays which has lead to a bad memory in their minds. On the other hand, people would view the region as one where tensions might erupt at any time and hence family travellers would not risk it”, a tour operator in the region told this newspaper.
The tea industry, on the other hand, expects the loss to scale up to Rs 450 crore from the earlier estimate of Rs. 400 crore.
Tea industry officials stated that operations in the gardens is most likely to restart after October 4 but the industry will not be able to harvest the Rain Flush.
“Bushes are overgrown and will need severe pruning. Although the Autumn Flush can be harvested, at least 15 per cent crop loss is expected next year”, S. S. Bagaria, former president of the Darjeeling Tea Association told this business daily.
Although owing to severe supply shortage and extremely high demand, the average prices from the Autumn Flush are expected to hover around Rs. 800 a kilo as compared to the usual Rs. 400-500 a kilo, it will not be enough to compensate for the crop loss during the prime Second Flush.
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha
(GJM) supremo, Bimal Gurung, who is spearheading the movement for a separate statehood — Gorkhaland
— and led the shutdown, said that the ongoing shutdown has been called off from September 27 (Wednesday) after union home minister, Rajnath Singh, appealed to end the self-imposed blockade in the region and restore normalcy.
Singh said that he had asked Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba to convene an official-level meeting in the Ministry of Home Affairs within a fortnight to discuss all related issues following which Gurung had a change of heart.
An official statement from the Home Ministry said that 11 lives have been lost so far owing to the agitation for Gorkhaland.
The West Bengal government, headed by Mamata Banerjee, had held two rounds of discussions with the hill parties but the shutdown had continued before the Centre stepped in.