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Despite challenges, Darjeelig continues to fight for its identity

Darjeeling's tea industry, that comprises 87 gardens employing 70,000 workers, facing this problem for years now

Probal Basak  |  Darjeeling 

"Have faith in me. I will gift you Gorkhaland," Bimal Gurung's message is all over the Darjeeling in the form of hundreds of posters. Indeed, people of the Hills are relying on the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) chief, and many even at the cost of their livelihoods.

Consider the story of 54-year old Jogen Gurung, a worker in the Happy Valley Tea Estate in Darjeeling, whose fortnight salary is now uncertain due to the indefinite strike in the hills for the last one month. What's worse, he is not even getting his share of rations -- 2 kg rice and 4 kg wheat -- from the tea estate.

He had 22 hens, and is now left with only 12, the rest had to be sold over the last few weeks to run the family. The anxiousness in his voice is palpable. Yet Jogen Gurung supports the strike, as he believes a separate Gorkhaland will be good for him and his 12-year son's future. He does not know how, but he is convinced a separate Gorkhaland will "empower" them.

Deputy manager of the tea garden, Subrata Das is helpless. "Tea gardens are kept out of the strike. Not sure how long we will be continue production if this continues. With this strike we can not take tea out and sell. How will the finances be generated to pay the workers?", he asks.

The fall in tea production from 9 million kgs in 2008 to 8.2 million Kg in 2012 tells the story. "Because of these strikes in the last few years, tea gardens here have often failed to keep their commitment of supplying tea. The industry is losing reliability in the market because of this" says Sandeep Mukherjee, secretary of Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), the nodal body for the gardens in hills. Most of the tea produced in Darjeeling is exported to countries like the US, UK, Germany, Japan.

Darjeeling's tea industry, that comprises 87 gardens employing 70,000 workers, is facing this problem for years now.

After Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) president Subhas Ghising led Gorkhaland movement in 1980's led to the formation of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988, the situation normalised. But, after Bimal Gurung formed GJM to start the Gorkhaland movement for the second time in 2008, bandhs and agitations made even a stronger comeback in the hills.

Mamata Banerjee successfully managed a peace-making formula with formation Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), where Gorkha leaders were given more powers than in the erstwhile Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. But as the Telengana development has once again fueled the "Gorkhaland movement" leading to the current month-long economic blockade in the hills.

While, tea gardens are trying hard to take out some of its production out of the estates whenever there is any relaxation of strike, as was the case on Saturday (GJM relaxed the strike so that locals can store their food etc) tourism even deprived of any such breather.

"The economy of the hills is mainly dependent on tea and tourism. Earlier timber had a major contribution but with stricter rules it's importance has waned. While work is on in the tea gardens, tourism is immensely affected," said Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce President B M Garg. According to him, tourism in the hills generates an average Rs 450 crore revenue annually, equal to that of tea industry in the region.

The unusually deserted look of the popular mall road of Darjeeling is a testimony to that. Only two of the about 700 hotels are partially operating, where media persons are the only inhabitants.

Samrat Sanyal, executive director of Eastern Himalayas Travel and Tour Operators’ Association (EHTTOA) points out tourism industry had shown some signs of improvement after formation of GTA.

"In 2012-13 there was substantial growth with over 7 lakh domestic tourists compared to 4.3 lakh in the previous year. The first quarter was also good, but in the last one month hardly anyone has visited hills and we are back to square one," Sanyal says.

According to Anil Punjabi, chairman (eastern chapter), Travels Agents Federation of India (TAFI), Darjeeling is fast losing its appeal to foreign tourist. "Foreign tourist makes than plan well in advance. Even, if the situation normalises there will be lesser foreign tourists in coming months, as hardly there has been any booking for last one month. Also, a perception is being created about Hills, which has seriously affected flow of foreign tourists in Darjeeling,"he noted.

Same is case with the education sector, which too has a significant contribution to Darjeeling's economy. There are nearly 50 schools, with about 10,000 boarders, which includes including more than 5,000 foreign students. Students from Nepal, Bhutan, Bagladesh, Thailand come here.

Associations of the schools in the region, have made repeated appeals to GJM to keep educational institutions out of the strike. Even if GJM gives in to the demand now tge damage seems to have already been done. "We can not keep our children in such a scenario. We are trying to get our transferred somewhere in Kolkata," says Pujita Chakrobarty, whose daughter is a student of class IX in a school in Kalimpong.

Darjeeling may be staring at the danger of turning into an economically handicapped region, but Bimal Gurung -- the man who calls the shots in the hills believes the Gorkhaland cause is much more important.

"Yes economic activity is getting affected. But, in a movement it does happen and people here willingly making sacrifice. We got swadesh- our country India, but what about swaraj or self-governance. It is fight four our identity," says GJM president.

To achieve that GJM wants bifurcation of West Bengal, for creation of separate Gorkhaland comprising not only the present Darjeeling district, but also parts of Dooars which is in thep northern part of Jalpaiguri district. This would account for 6450 sqkm area and three million population.

With West Bengal government ruling out any such possibility, GJM leaders are planning to take their movement to New Delhi, as it believes the Telegana episode has proved the remedy of this issue is with Centre. But, as the impasse continues, Gorkhas' "fight for identity" has already started taking a toll on Darjeeling's well-known economic identity.

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First Published: Sun, September 01 2013. 13:51 IST