Kamal Karki had been running a dairy business in Kalimpong for over a decade, not only selling his cheese, cottage cheese and ghee not only locally but also supplying these as far away as Kolkata. Then from June 8, his comfortable life with his wife and two children started to unravel.
As a strike over a renewed demand for Gorkhaland shut down the Darjeeling hills for 104 days, Karki’s stocks started to rot. He puts his losses at several lakh rupees. “My wife and I have thrown away the cheese and cottage cheese. I was worried how I would pay my daughter and son’s fees,” says Karki, 56.
While the strike was on, “there was the satisfaction that it is for a greater cause of Gorkhaland and a better future”, said Karki, 56. But when it was called off on September 27 without Gorkhaland and instead with a board similar to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), Karki — and many others — felt betrayed. Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leaders Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa met West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, without GJM chief Bimal Gurung, and accepted a new GTA board.
With his stocks ruined, little cash at home, banks shut a long time and ATMs still empty, Karki paid five months’ school and hostel fees for his daughter, amounting to Rs 60,000. “The dues had to be cleared on the first day of school. I had to go to Siliguri to withdraw my little savings from an ATM there, and I borrowed some from a cousin,” says Karki, whose daughter is in class XI at St Joseph’s Convent.
Unlike Karki, Nirmal Rai could not even withdraw from an ATM, his salary having not been credited for more than four months.
“We are in service, dependent on salary. Imagine living four months without it. There is still no clarity even in October if we will get paid. Along with a few others, I requested schools to give us some time to pay the fees, but they didn’t agree. It is understandable, for they too have to pay their teachers,” says Rai, who works at the sericulture office in a village in Kalimpong.
Thousands of teachers in government and private schools remain without salary. Robert Lepcha, 67, a retired teacher, has been calling up the bank everyday to find out about his pension.
Rai’s wife, meanwhile, reminds him of a recurring deposit they have not paid for four months. “I am told now that we have to pay a penalty for the months we have not paid. Now who will give us this extra money? The leaders have sold themselves and accepted money, but what about the common man?” Rai says.
A little distance from Rai’s home lives Kailash Tamang, a taxi driver. He owns a Scorpio and runs it on a daily service between Kalimpong and Siliguri. He had bought the car only a month before the hills went on strike. His car insurance has lapsed and he is worried about getting a notice.
“From the daily service earnings, I would have set aside the money to be paid on insurance. When the car remained parked at home for 104 days, how am I supposed to pay? Even after the strike ended, there is this constant fear that we will get caught by police in Siliguri for not having all the car documents,” says Tamang, the sole earning member of a family that includes his wife, his parents and a young son.
“During these months, we would normally have been called by hotels to cater to tourists. This time there is nothing. Now I wonder, why did we sacrifice these 104 days?” says Tamang, 33.
What has taken a hit, additionally, is the business of fireball chillies, popularly called dalle. August-September being the season for dalle to ripen and sold, people who grow them had to watch it rot. Manu Thapa says she must have thrown away 30-40 kg dalle, which she earlier supplied to Gangtok, Siliguri and farther.
“Last year, for 1 kg we were getting Rs 100 to 150, now the rates are as low as Rs 60,” says Thapa, whose daughter will appear for class XII board exams next year from a government school 20 km away. With four months of studies lost, Thapa wonders how he can afford the tuition she might need.
School administrations, for their part, are worried about covering the syllabus. “Even before the first term began, the schools had to be closed. We are under great pressure now,” says Sabitri Chettri, principal of a government school in Kalimpong.
Schools are an important part of the hills’ economy, with the reputable ones drawing students from as far away as Nepal and Bhutan. Principals tell The Indian Express some students have withdrawn, and they fear fewer students will come back next year.
Colleges of the hills, all affiliated to North Bengal University based in Siliguri, have their own worries. “The university will expect us to follow their calendar and will not make any special provisions for our hill students. With classes not held, our students are going to suffer hugely. Those who could afford it took tuition in Siliguri, but the majority cannot,” says a professor at Kuresong Government College.
For many students, the first day in college came only after the strike was lifted. “Who is going to compensate for the time we have lost? We are back to the same day from where we started. It is such a shame that our leaders accepted GTA again,” says Palzor Bhutia, a first-year English honours student at Kalimpong Government College.
For traders, the worry stems from an exodus of labour during the strike. “For lifting and transporting, we do not get any labour now. Most of those who come from Nepal to work as porters have gone back,” says Sanjay Prasad, who has a clothes shop in Kalimpong.
He is still reluctant to bring fresh stocks. “Anything can happen. There are rumours that the strike might resume as Bimal Gurung has been sidelined. In this silence from Gurung, we cannot say what the situation will turn to,” Prasad says.