It’s coming on to a month of agitations in the Darjeeling Hills. Shops, businesses and schools have shut. Those who can afford to, and have managed to get transportation, have left for the plains or neighbouring Sikkim. This isn’t the first time the Hills has seen strikes. Since 1986, when the demand for a separate Gorkhaland concretised under the leadership of Subhash Ghisingh till it resurfaced with renewed vigour in 2007 under Bimal Gurung, strikes have been a regular feature in the region — but no strike has been this unrelenting.
Ajoy and Namrata Edwards, owners of the 110-year-old establishment Glenary’s,had left for Siliguri for their children’s admissions early. They remember the 46-day strike of 2013 vividly.
“But it wasn’t a continuous strike like this. Every once in a while there be a two-day break so people could restock,” said Namrata who stood for municipal elections in May as an Independent. “It is now a people’s movement and we all support Gorkhaland movement.”
But her establishment has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the strikes. In 2007, when an agitation turned violent, Glenary’s was gutted.
“Every time there is a strike like this in Darjeeling, it takes us two to three years to recover economically. Since the strike we have already incurred losses to the tune of Rs 50 lakh. We lose Rs 55,000 a day,” said Ajoy Edwards, whose family has owned Glenary’s for the last 50 years, having bought it from an Austrian. “It isn’t just about us, moreover. We employ 240 people in all — in Darjeeling and in our other outlets in Siliguri — that’s Rs 15 lakh for the salary of the Darjeeling staff and another Rs 10 lakh for Siliguri staff. We can’t not give them their salaries just because there is a strike, so where will this money come from? I have spent three-fourths of my life in Darjeeling, living through strikes. It happens every couple of years and then takes several years to get back to normal because tourists won’t just start pouring in as soon as the strike gets over. If you think about it, as far as business is concerned, this is not the most conducive atmosphere,” he adds.
Edwards points out that most establishments in this tourism-driven region are suffering huge losses. A friend, he says, opened a hotel barely six months ago, and has already incurred losses of Rs 70 lakh.
In Siliguri, the Edwards’ and friends have gotten together to send supplies for those suffering due to the shutdown.
“We have already sent three trucks to Mirik and two more to Darjeeling. One more truck will go up today. We are giving 10 kgs of rice, half-kg oil and half-kg dal for a family,” said Ajoy.
The owner of another landmark establishment in Darjeeling — Keventer’s — is suffering similar losses.
Rahul Jha is the third-generation in his family that owns and runs the 106-year-old establishment, which has been with his family for 50 years. Keventer’s employs 30 people.
Jha also laments of the strikes that happen in Darjeeling every few years.
“And it’s always for the same reason. In 2013, it happened because Telangana had just become a state, so demand for Gorkhaland rose once more. This strike will soon be a month-long standoff. If something comes off it then it’ll be worth it — but if it all comes to naught, then what’s the point? Our business is losing Rs 60,000 a day, “ said Jha, who went to Bihar to attend a family function before the strike began, and has not managed to return. Instead, he has now gone to live with his sister in Gangtok. His parents remain in Darjeeling.
“It will benefit us to have a separate administration. Especially economically. Even if it is declared a Union territory, that will be better than present circumstances. The place is in utter neglect. The town is in shambles and tourist spots in disrepair. The state government does nothing and when it formed GTA, it wasn’t given any powers to work,” he adds.
There are no universities in the Hills, and apart from one hospital, hardly any medical facilities in the region. Geetu Dewan, part-owner of the high-end Cedar Inn says it isn’t just losses incurred over the past month — the tourism industry in Darjeeling and Sikkim will be hit till 2018. In the month of June alone, says Dewan, Cedar Inn has incurred losses running into Rs 50 lakh. “And its not just the summer… but Durga puja break and Christmas as well. Travel agencies start booking around this time for these two year-end seasons — especially for foreign visitors who book rooms and draw up travel plans months in advance. Summer begins in March and ends in June, and we mostly see domestic tourists around this time. From October onwards, both domestic and foreign tourists visit,” she said, adding after this year’s agitation, tourist are likely to steer away from Darjeeling and therefore Sikkim next year as well.
“Travel agencies are already hesitant in booking. Those who have are reconsidering. Since Darjeeling and Sikkim are a circuit, when foreign tourist visit one place they tend to move to the other too they do the circuit, Sikkim tourism is likely to be affected by this as well. We are also refunding tourists who had already booked and were unable to come because of the strike,’’says Dewan who is in Kolkata for a medical check-up.
“Like all other years, it’ll take us several years to get back on our feet again,” she added.