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Darjeeling ruined

Going downhill


Prolonged political agitation, pollution and government neglect has ruined Darjeeling, once known as the 'Queen of Hill Stations'.

This is the oldest hill station this side of the Suez, and also one of the most troubled. And also, perhaps, the most decrepit. Darjeeling, nestled in the mist-shrouded verdant hills of the lower Himalayan range, has been restive for nearly three decades. Prolonged agitations, interspersed by spells of tenuous calm, over the long-pending statehood demand have wracked and nearly ruined this once-beautiful hill station set up by the British as a sanatorium for officers and men of the East India Company in 1835.

Incidentally, this statehood demand is also the oldest in the sub-continent - it was first made by the Hillmen's Association of Darjeeling to the Minto-Morley Commission way back in 1907. Post-Independence, the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League kept the demand alive, but in a low-key fashion, till the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) launched a violent agitation in the mid-1980 s that ended with the formation of a semi-autonomous council in 1988 that miserably failed to meet the aspirations of the people. In 2007, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) launched the second spell of agitation that ultimately ended with a tripartite agreement last year to set up a more powerful Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA). But the GJM's demand to include Gorkha-dominated areas of the plains in the GTA has been turned down by a state-appointed committee, which submitted its report last weekend recommending inclusion of just over one per cent of the total area asked for by the GJM. Dubbing it as an "insult", the GJM has lined up a series of agitations that will derail the fragile peace in Darjeeling.

"This is the latest in a series of insults heaped on the people of the hills. We have got nothing but neglect and indifference from Kolkata. That's why only a separate state will meet the aspirations of the people of Darjeeling, " says GJM legislator Harka Bahadur Chetri. Though the Morcha has refrained from calling for a total shutdown of the hills - its preferred form of agitation - just now, there are fears that this is what ultimately awaits Darjeeling. The state government is unlikely to concede to the GJM's demand for inclusion of more areas in the foothills in the proposed GTA and, thus, the Morcha will be left with no option but to re-launch its agitation for statehood (the Morcha never gave up this demand, anyway) sooner rather than later. And that would translate into hastening this hill station's journey down the road to ruination.
Darjeeling, which two years ago celebrated its dodransbicentennial (175 years), is a pale shadow of its former glorious self. Once known as the 'Queen of Hill Stations', it is today little more than an ugly, congested and concrete sprawl on the steep slopes of a few hills with overflowing gutter and garbage, potholed roads and only a few relics of the Raj to remind visitors of this town's splendid past. Apart from being a major tourist draw, Darjeeling was once an education hub with excellent schools run by missionaries, fine restaurants and clubs and boasting of a climate and lifestyle that was the envy of all plainspeople. But that is all in the past, and successive rulers in Kolkata are to blame for this sorry state of Darjeeling today.

"Darjeeling town today exemplifies the criminal neglect of the hills by the Bengal government. Little of the revenue generated from the flourishing tea and tourism sectors gets ploughed back for the development of the hills. Healthcare, even in Darjeeling town, is rudimentary at best and poverty here is much higher than in the plains. The Gorkhas have, at the most, a marginal stake in the Rs 750 crore Darjeeling tea industry. Nothing has been done to preserve and promote Darjeeling's rich heritage. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a Unesco world heritage site, has been allowed to degenerate and even a year after its tracks were swept away by landslides, they are yet to be restored. The condition of National Highway 55, the arterial link to Darjeeling, beggars description. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee may glibly say "Darling Darjeeling is smiling" (at a function to mark her completion of a year in office last month), but the ground reality is that Darjeeling is crying, " said GJM general secretary Roshan Giri.
Giri's grievance and sense of hurt finds wide resonance in Darjeeling. "This was such a wonderful town steeped in history, with beautiful colonial-era buildings and a gentle pace of life. The systematic neglect of the hills by successive Bengal governments led to deep resentment among the people here and so they started demanding statehood. The rulers in Kolkata are to be blamed for the decline of Darjeeling and the pains and sufferings of the people, " said Arun Agarwal, 65, a prominent trader and a thirdgeneration resident of Darjeeling. "It is easy to blame the series of prolonged agitations by the GNLF and then the GJM for Darjeeling's decline into chaos and physical disorder, but the agitations have always been manifestations of the resentment and hurt that the hill people harbour over decades of neglect and subjugation they have faced. I blame the Bengal government for this, " said Mohit Deb, 65, a retired college teacher and another old resident of Darjeeling.

Many among the non-Gorkha residents of Darjeeling feel that the demand for Gorkhaland is justifiable. "The Gorkhas have nothing in common with the people of the rest of the state. Their language, culture, ethos and temperament are vastly different from the plainspeople, " says Agarwal. He, and the Gorkhas in general, take umbrage over the assertion by successive chief ministers of Bengal, including Mamata Banerjee, that they wouldn't allow a "division" of Bengal. "The Darjeeling hills were never a part of Bengal. It was under the Chogyal of Sikkim till the British annexed it in 1849. The foothills west of the Teesta, including what is now Siliguri, was part of Nepal till the British forced Nepal to cede it under the Treaty of Seagoulie in 1816. Bhutan used to rule over the Dooars and other parts of the present-day Darjeeling hills, including Kalimpong, till the British forced Bhutan to cede these territories under the Treaty of Sinchula in 1865. What is now north Bengal was never a part of Bengal till the British annexed these territories from Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, " said Chetri, adding that the proposed Gorkhaland state would be an economically viable proposition as well.

Be that as it may, the long suffering residents of Darjeeling want a permanent solution to this political problem so that their beloved town can get back its lost glory. But that may be a very fond hope that will remain just that, a hope.

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