The business of tourism – a traditional economic scaffolding -is facing a slump in the hills of Bengal in a strange paradox. The swathe of the country stretching north from the district of Siliguri – and veering off at intervals into the tea lowlands of the Dooars – has been a tourist attraction for over a century since the erstwhile British Raj – embedded in Kolkata – trudged up with entourages of carriages, mule trains and buggies hand-carted (palkis) to beat the Calcutta summers till the onset of winter. The hill station of Darjeeling was the “ summer capital” of British India before the “vice-royalty” decided to move hub to New Delhi.
But in the last 100 years – or may be a few decades more – the hills have changed natural landscapes, but tourism has continued to boom despite the mercurial changes in the fortunes of undivided and divided Bengal till this day – when the terrain is in a midst of bloody tussle between the votaries of the autonomous Gorkha politics and the state dispensation in Kolkata led by the Trinamool Congress of chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The political and economic autonomy in the hills led by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has to hark back to tourism as the economic backbone to dredge resources for the battle despite the inherent “lag” in promotion of destinations between Siliguri to Darjeeling – an odd dozen of stops along the Hill Cart road looping through the lush slopes of the lower Himalayas. The Trinamool Congress is reluctant to espouse the cause of total determination of Gorkhaland – a separate state named after the dominant Gorkha people, an old ethnic stock of Nepalese origin which make the bulk of the hill population with the “Sherpa” and “lepcha” communities.
The agitation began in 1980 with a call for a separate statehood by Gorkha frontman Subhas Ghising who spearheaded a violent movement that killed more than 2,000 autonomy activists. The movement culminated into the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988 which has “administered” the hills for the last 30 years with “partial” autonomy. But the clamour for statehood has refused to die with sporadic agitation that turned violent in 2013 after the creation of a separate Telangana state out of Andhra Pradesh – and in 2017 – to protest the invasion of the ethnic cultural identity of the hills when the West Bengal government decided to clamp Bengali as an linguistic medium of instruction in schools.
In the scope of this fire has been the praxis of travel travel and the wild splendor of the hills – botched by shanty settlements, clogged tourist infrastructures – hotels clustering cheek by jowl like urban sprawls, makeshift bazaars, bad roads beset with illegal encroachment, auto-pollution and the “deplorable” Darjeeling Himalayan Railway cut off half way to make room for the growing fleet of vehicles smoking up the rain-drenched – and cloud fogged hills. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, once the pride of the hill station and an international heritage promoted by UNESCO, now plies tourists on joy rides from Darjeeling to Kurseong on sunny days; chugging like “badly” decked up tin trams fitted with barely a couple of coaches and a “loco” after it was torched by language protesters in a “frenzy of violence” in 2017. The saving grace is the whistle that rings up from deep within the valleys during the day to whip up a slice of nostalgia that “stray” tourists – reconnecting to the hills of the childhood– want to recall from the deep recesses of the once-glorious memories of Darjeeling – the monarch of the hills in the east.
A surprise whistle-stop for 36 hours to the “queen of the eastern highlands” across the rain-washed bends of the Terai (lower) Himalayas this year (2018) opened the doorway to conflicting realities cornering West Bengal’s lone hill retreat to a “political” cranny in which the cross-interests of politics have spilled into the commercial space to squander the “boom” in footfalls, cutting the potential for revenue.
Darjeeling has several engagements with various sets of people – tourists over the ages and generations. The grand-folks, mostly octogenarians and nonagenarians, some having jumped the century bar, remember the idyllic summers in the hills nestled in quiet serendipity and elegant luxury when Darjeeling was cash-flush with the addresses of the “who’s who” and the moneybags. The urban landscape sprawled in tandem with the fragile topography – bearing the burden of human encroachment in smooth proportion to the space, the density of built areas and visitors. The corridors were wide and verdant as the human factor fizzled out at the arrival of the first draught of fleecy snow. The colour of tourism then was colonial British – fragrant with the scents of the erstwhile Raj.
The shades began to morph post-Independence. In the first two decades into freedom, the hills were in the midst of transformation striving to shed the “British” colonial idyll and old terms of health tourism trade (it was designed as a sanatorium for the British East India Company garrison in the early 19th century) for a more fusion structure where the nouveau vied for leg-space with the old set. The dislocations of the economy were apparent in the boom in hotels – the budget category with provisions for ethnic and native-style hospitality to tailor to the Bengali and the pan-Indian provincial psyches of the new segments. The tariffs found slots from the top of the chain British-style property to the intimate “guest houses” with mountain side views for the middle level income group. The postcard cottages owned by the former British residents were let out for bed-and breakfast shelters for the early platoons of back-packers – young explorers mostly from the academic campuses in India and abroad.
By the Seventies (1970s), the throng pushed at the frontiers of space during the summer months and even at the onset of winter for a glimpse of the snow atop the Kanchanjungha range – rising to 29,208 ft- in the Everest chain of Himalayas that loomed over the tourist town like an icy wreath flanked by 16 lesser peaks stretching across Darjeeling, Sikkim and Nepal. Most of them were above 23,000 ft, a rare panorama for Himalaya watchers on a sunny morning when the sun broke through the milling banks on mists and dense clouds kissing the lower reaches of the Darjeeling hills.
The unchecked growth of tourist inflow to Darjeeling measuring barely 29 km in length and 26 km in breadth straddling the Jalapahar range (like an “Y”) led to a spurt in concrete construction, replacing the lightweight and traditional “wood” cabins spread across the earthquake-prone hills, with double and triple storied urban “ghettos” spreading in contiguous blocks up from Ghoom to the club-side bends behind the Mall off the Governor’s home in the heart of Darjeeling town. The little half moon of a space with three “sighting points” developed a quaint character with swanky addresses like the Mayfair and the Windamere – and “lower end” properties with “terrace gardens” and trim hedges huddled in dense clusters without spaces to navigate between two concrete structures in violation of basic construction norms that makes “separation space” between two buildings mandatory, more so on hill slopes vulnerable to landslips, earthquakes and cave-in during the rainy months. The Bureau of Indian Standards says the “desirable separation space” depends on the tilt of the top of two adjacent buildings so that “they do not hammer into each other vibrating during earthquakes” or other natural calamities like flashfloods and cloud bursts in the hills.
The rapid urbanization of Darjeeling and the concrete explosion acquired a new twist in the Eighties with the Gorkhaland movement that led to widespread violence, arson, damage to property and the economy as the rifts between the West Bengal state government and the autonomy armies in the hills widened. The polarization between the “natives” and the “visitors” to the hills became perceptible culminating into “enclaves” and cordon zones off the bounds for revellers from the plains. The battering of the economy and the political fault-zones have not been redressed in natural cycles of peace and upturn – the slump is apparent in the trickle of trade transacted in the bustling “bazaars” that break the monotony of the concrete jumbles.
The rows of vends that encroach upon the thoroughfare – the Hill Cart Road – and its arteries fanning out in terraces along the length of the town at varying elevation- deck out like rainbows from a distance. A closer look brings to the fore the morass that the “traditional” trades in the hills are caught in. The “woolies” do not find buyers, they rarely change fashion and hang like “replicas” in kiosks after kiosks peddling similar wares at different prices. The local government- the hill autonomous council – has organized the refugee apparel traders from Sikkim and Tibet (who cross the borders in winter and spring) into souks, but Darjeeling does scant justice to the “sellers” in drawing well-heeled buyers and in firing their creative faculties into innovating the winter pret. The spreads on offer are out of sync with the prevailing fashion trends across the country – and abroad in the international markets where wool is a fibre in demand.
The mire traces its origin – as local traders suggest – to a trough in the money market. The hills have been depleted over the years because of the political “war” of nerves between the ethnic lot and the plains people. The automatic vending machines (ATM tellers) rarely function except for in a odd couple of banks that claims to “powerful” server networks and uninterrupted internet connection to log into the national loop. These money kiosks are far-flung to the first-time traveller – entailing long treks across narrow alleys between the wool “marts”, overcrowded taxi stands and the lines of millennials (hotels & residencies) –dotting the Hill Cart road that winds up from Siliguri, the urban base point to Jalapahar –Darjeeling. Hotels do not operate on the digital modes. The “plastic” card is deemed “irrelevant” by embarrassed hotel managers who struggle to put the swipe machine into the loop every morning. “Network failure”. The message beeps with frequent alarm across the wool kiosks, the Ramada resort, the Darjeeling Gymkhana club and the intrepid Mt Everest Hotel. Rain becomes the great social “leveller” snapping the hills back into mists of artificial making.
“You can pay in cash,” the manager fumbles an apology and a wan smile. “Not much to run to the ATM,” he adds as an afterthought. The hotel tariffs range between Rs 5,000 a night to Rs 2,000 or even less depending on the category. The unsuspecting visitor needs a word of warning to keep to the itinerary – a pool of Rs 20,000 in cash that covers four nights and three days with some extra “grands (Rs 3,000 approximately)” for the trip to and from Siliguri in a private taxi. Food is a Spartan affair – a limited choice of erstwhile British continental flavours (though the old bakeries have palled in the quality of the dough cakes, doughnuts, cookies and puff pastries that taste like gelato flour baked in rancid butter and sour cream), the traditional Bengali fare of rice and fish, north Indian staple meals and the Sikkimese-Bhutanese fusion of momo (Bhutanese flour dumplings), noodle soup, pork & chicken “chowmein” served with a strange assortment of fried meats in a glob of chilli, garlic and soy dips. Street food fetches brisk business in the evenings along the Mall Road and the delis are crowded. “Strolling along the pathways and inclines whets appetite,” laughed a hotelier. Tea is a succour but the “tea cafes” are difficult to find. “You can buy a packet of Makaibari or Happy Valley from any of the retailers down the road,” divulges a server at the Café Coffee Day, a coffee and snack bar on the Mall.
The tea is scented at Rs 3,000 a kilogram – worthy of being tagged “Darjeeling”. The price lines point to the state of the Darjeeling and the Dooars (foothills or the Marh) economy that sustains on the proverbial “two leaves and a bud” – the lush acreages of tea gardens which extend well into Assam along the Teesta Road to the Brahmaputra lowlands. Green and undulating, the moist hills drenched by frequent showers and cloud blankets heaves under the burden of sagging production, labour unrest, poor wages, militancy and inflation in the gardens that face the race from China, south India, Sri Lanka and south-east Asia. The chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee is keen to solve the crisis in the gardens (she has announced a hike in the daily wage of the tea labourers in July, 2018), but the denizenry of the hills, who take pride in their autonomous status, have been on an unofficial “economic squeeze” to press their demand for a separate Gorkha state.
Reports in the media estimate that “the tea industry in north Bengal” lost 70 per cent of its production in 2017 because of a three-month protest by the ethnic groups demanding a separate state. Operations in 87 gardens in the Darjeeling district were suspended for three months leading to an estimate loss of $ 535 million (USD), the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) said. “It is expensive,” a buyer exclaimed at a retail vend. “The flavor is worth it,” the shop-keeper explained. Most visitors settle for a 100 gram packet to take home as a souvenir. The hills are forlorn. Restrictions on felling timber and a sliding tea exchange have robbed the lower Himalayas of their commerce feasibility – the timber barons of the early decades of the century have downed shutters in the flurry of legal enactments, environmental lobbying and “politics” to secure forest land to the original “ethnic” settlers who are integral to the movement for statehood – shrinking trade avenues.
Tourism is the only viable option to keep the hills economically afloat, but a conspicuous wanting in political will to promote travel as the economic lifeblood is taking Darjeeling gradually off the Himalayan destination map. The politics of “determination” and “identity” is detrimental to the promotion of trade of tourism in a tragic paradox – despite the relentless arrival of short-haul revellers for a weekend getaway to the hills. The business of travel in north Bengal requires a planned fillip- right from the approach roads to destinations like Sonada, Kurseong, Kalimpong, Ghoom and Darjeeling, optimal and eco-friendly hospitality to complement the weak ecology, a meeting of interests between the Gorkhaland advocates and the government in Kolkata, which pulls the shots, environmental awareness and investment in soft sectors to augment the “chaotic” tourist infrastructure with a measure of sanity to check the manic concretization, visitors management, civic resources and an efficacious money market to harness the power of Kanchanjungha. The tourist has to feel secure on arrival.
Only then, the tea, wool and the nostalgia will begin to weave their old spell.
Madhusree (Mopani R.) Chatterjee
Senior Editor/Foreign affairs analyst/Special Correspondent