The wind appears to be blowing in a different direction in the Darjeeling region ahead of the June 26 Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) election, which is taking place after a gap of 10 years.
With local residents mainly concerned about burning issues like the lack of employment opportunities and basic amenities, which have worsened in the wake of the Covid pandemic, the long-standing demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland seems to have been relegated to the sidelines of the poll campaign.
A 26-years-old resident of Kurseong’s Siruvari village, Pritam Sandas, hopes to get regular supply of drinking water in his area one day. Once in favour of a separate Gorkhaland state, he now appears to be mainly concerned about the development and availability of basic amenities like regular water supply in his area. There have been days during the pandemic when he did not have drinking water. “Water is a big problem in our life. Now it is rainy season, so it is fine. But during the summer we don’t get water to drink sometimes. Anyone who can give us regular supply of water is welcome. A separate state is not in my mind right now,” he said, while waiting for a long time to get a cab to reach an optician shop, his workplace.
A Siruvari-based departmental store owner Krishna Hingmang said, “I pay Rs 700 monthly for water. Earlier we used to walk for two kilometres in the hills to get water. It’s been few years that they they have installed a pipeline but we don’t get regular supply of water,” adding that “Gorkhaland is a permanent solution to the problems of the area which no political party has been able to resolve, but it won’t happen in a day.”
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Many Gorkhas living in the hills of the north West Bengal seem to have lost hopes for Gorkhaland state due to shifting political alliances in the region.
Pappu Gurung, the owner of a shop located opposite the Sonada train station, which was set ablaze in 2017 by demonstrators after the death of Tashi Bhutia, a Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) supporter, during one of the worst spells of violence over the Gorkhaland demand, is uncertain whether he will cast his vote in the GTA polls.
“There are issues like tea garden worker are not paid well, there is no employment opportunities for youngsters. So better we concentrate on these things instead of fighting for something that looks unreal now. Kispar bharosa karein (Whom to trust?). Everyone has joined hands with each other. In 2017 (during a protracted period of agitation over Gorkhaland), we remained at home for months. Then we were hit by the pandemic. With everything shut, no one was visiting our place. Gorkhaland will always be our one permanent demand. GTA has no relevance at all. State will manage it by their mechanism – it won’t offer anything to us,” said Gurung.
In one of the worst incidents of violence over Gorkhaland, three persons were killed in alleged police firing in Darjeeling and the Sonada station set on fire in July 2017.
Padam Baraily, 47, who resides close to the Ghoom railway station, which at an altitude of 7,407 ft is the country’s highest station, while speaking to The Indian Express, said that the GTA election was “not very relevant for the people of Darjeeling”.
“What has been done after the GTA’s formation. We still have only one hospital in entire Darjeeling. For serious health issues we travel to Siliguri, which is about 70 kms away although due to bad weather and traffic congestion it takes four hours. So many people have died due to lack of health facilities. Until we get our separate state, things won’t change but we are tired of the violence that we have seen in the past, which actually yielded no result till date. For three generations we have been fighting for Gorkhaland and have ruined the future of our next generation in the process too,” Baraily said.
A semi-autonomous council for the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of Bengal, the GTA was formed in 2012 to replace the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, which was constituted in 1988 and administered the Darjeeling hills for 23 years. Following the expiry of the elected GTA’s term in 2017, the Bengal government appointed an administrators to run the body till this year.
P Gazmen Lepcha, a resident of Batasia Loop, situated below the Ghoom station, said: “Bengali speaking people don’t know our history. We are different from them, we have always been neglected. Our separate state is our right. Unfortunately, political parties have used our emotions for their benefits. GTA is just a thing on paper.”
Among the issues uppermost on the minds of locals are unemployment, bad roads and poor traffic management in the belt. A common refrain among many voters is that very
little has been invested in healthcare, education, sanitation, livelihood projects, tourism and agriculture in the region so far.
“I just wish whoever forms the board after winning GTA should win on the ground of development. We have been emotionally fooled several times. A separate state is our dream and a lengthy process and it also depends on the Centre. So, better we vote for basic infrastructure now,” said Nirmala, a resident of Sonada.
Interestingly, during the recent civic body polls, the debutant Hamro Party, which campaigned on issues like education, scholarships and basic amenities, clinched the Darjeeling Municipality, winning 18 of its total 32 seats.
On the ground that Gorkhas are culturally and ethnically different from Bengalis, a separate state of Gorkhaland has been a demand for decades during which the Darjeeling hills have witnessed protracted socio-political turbulence.
Tipen Thapa, a resident of Batasian Loop, seeks to sum up the current mood of the locals, saying “Do waqt ki roti mil jaye bacho ko, naukri mil jaye… vote dekar kya hoga koi bhi jite Gorkhaland to hone se raha (Let our children get two square meals and jobs… regardless of the GTA poll outcome, Gorkhaland is not going to fructify).”
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