Friday, June 18, 2010

Darjeeling: Going downhill...

26 April 2005, This was an op-ed piece.
By subordinating people’s interests and democratic rights to political expediency, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-Subash Ghisingh duo has reduced the DGHC to a non-starter. The Congress, of course, has its own axe to grind. And the Maoists may be eyeing the area, writes NIRAJ LAMA

The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a unique exercise in Indian federalism established 16 years ago is about to be discarded as a failure. A general consensus over its inefficacy now prevails and that includes the West Bengal government. Writers’ Buildings has agreed on the need to overhaul the purported “autonomous hill council”, which it has been claiming for long as a “model” for the country. Hopefully, this time the Marxists will be sincere and discard hyperbole. (It is another matter that the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was set up in 1995 on the lines of the DGHC.)

After two years of unprecedented violence for separate statehood rocked the Darjeeling Hills, the DGHC was set up in 1988. The politico-administrative set-up was a result of a tripartite agreement among the State government, the Centre and the Gorkha National Liberation Front, led by Subash Ghisingh. The council’s mandate was to advance hill people socially, economically, educationally and culturally, by lending a measure of autonomy to the region. After 16 years, however, the general feeling in Darjeeling is that of despondency.

Economic opportunities are negligible, education and health facilities inspire no confidence, infrastructure is antiquated and the fragile hill ecology is under threat. The people feel that the DGHC has failed to meet their aspirations. Rather, the council has bred corruption and criminalised politics, even as living conditions of the masses deteriorated. The DGHC elections, due before 25 March 2004, has been put on hold by the state government indefinitely.

Since the beginning of this year, four rounds of tripartite talks have been held in New Delhi, with Mr Ghisingh demanding an “alternative” to the DGHC. At the last round of talks in New Delhi, the Sixth Schedule and Article 371 of the Constitution were discussed as options for the DGHC. While there has been no commitment yet from either the state government or the Centre, the GNLF after Mr Ghisingh’s return claimed it would be “either, or” of the aforementioned constitutional provisions for Darjeeling. The state government has engaged constitutional experts to understand the implications of the provisions. (The hill people are anxious and curious to understand these constitutional obscurities).

The state government would be loathe to lose control over the Darjeeling Hills. Under the Sixth Schedule and Article 371, the influence that the Writers’ Buildings wielded over the DGHC would be significantly reduced. The power struggle that the state government and the DGHC publicly engaged in during Jyoti Basu’s chief ministership is somewhat tempered during Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s administration. There are strong suggestions that this time the Left Front government is mentally prepared to accede, to a great degree, the nearly 100-year-old demand for autonomous rule in the Darjeeling Hills, short of Gorkhaland.

Under the Sixth Schedule, the elected autonomous district councils are powerful enough to not just legislate and impose taxes, but also have its own judiciary. (The DGHC just has executive powers). Any Act of the state legislature or Parliament will not prevail in the Sixth Schedule’s ambit unless the Governor or the President, respectively, decide to intervene. The state has been barred from encroaching on the number of Subjects on which the autonomous district councils can make laws. The above provision, included in Article 244 (2) and 275 (1) of the Constitution, is expressly for the administration of tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. These are areas inhabited by tribals who have well-defined customs and institutions, which the Constitution lends legitimacy to through the Schedule.

In case of Darjeeling, the tribal population is a minority and there are no traditional institutions of the kind that exists in the North-east that can administrate. This throws up problems, when considering the possibility of including the Darjeeling Hills in the Sixth Schedule. The state government has, reportedly, turned down this option. Article 371 has 10 different provisions [from 371- 371 (i)], ranging from creating regional development boards under the Governor in Maharashtra and Gujarat to creating a Central University in Andhra Pradesh and closer home, special provisions guaranteed to Sikkim under 371(F). What is common to these provisions is the special powers conferred on the Governor to intervene in the administration of these areas/institutions. Article 371 does not devolve the powers from the state government to the extent it does in the Sixth Schedule. It won’t be surprising if this option gets exercised. But how exactly it would translate administratively for Darjeeling is a matter of speculation.

One thing is clear. A constitutional recognition is in the offing for whatever autonomous dispensation may be created for the Darjeeling Hills. One of the biggest lacunae of the DGHC was its lack of constitutional recognition, though it was created under a state Act “assented to by the President”. For all practical purposes, the DGHC became just another state government department. The so-called autonomy was a farce, with the government not only exercising control over most of the Subjects transferred to the DGHC, but deliberately setting up parallel authorities that undermined the council’s powers. For instance, while panchayat and rural development is a transferred Subject, block development officers, extension officer (panchayats) and the panchayat staff remain with the district administration. There are many more examples.

Though during the signing of the tripartite agreement the Centre and the state had committed to a regular flow of funds to make the exercise of the hill council a success, it turned out to be patchy in practice. The average flow annually is said to be about Rs 100 crore. It is hard to verify details – particularly, that of finance – when it comes to the hill council, and that brings us to the biggest problem — non-transparency and irregularities, under an inept leadership, is characteristic of the DGHC’s functioning. The state government turns a blind eye to it all.

After the assassination attempt on Mr Ghisingh in February, 2001, the DGHC virtually became a one-man’s personal enterprise. For four years, Mr Ghisingh as the Chairman did not convene a meeting of the General Council nor of the Executive Council. It is mandatory for the two bodies to meet once in three months and once every month, respectively. The state government, which has 11 nominees to the General Council, declared ignorance about the meetings not being held when challenged in courts through a writ petition filed by an Opposition leader. Clearly, Writers’ and Mr Ghisingh circled the wagons, keen on mutual preservation.

It is important for the state government to keep the Ghisingh phenomenon going, even if it means postponing elections and making him the DGHC’s sole caretaker, in defiance of democratic principles. The GNLF leader is an old customer and in Kolkata’s view, keeps peace in the Hills. Though the public perception of Mr Ghisingh outside the Hills is that of a man for Gorkhaland, in the hills he is seen as a state-sponsored stumbling block on the way to separate statehood. The latter view is closer to the truth.

Writers’ Buildings cannot ignore the fact that Mr Ghisingh’s popularity has waned with disaffection growing among the people. Writers’ is under pressure from the CPI-M hill cadres to take a clear stand against the GNLF, which has led the political wing of the government, including the CPI-M and the CPI, to align themselves with the three-party Opposition coalition — the People’s Democratic Front, comprising the All-India Gorkha League, the GNLF (C) and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists. It is a fine balance for the government.

While on the one hand the regional CPI-M leaders, including the State Urban Development Minister, Ashok Bhattacharya, accuse Mr Ghisingh on the floor of the Assembly of “blackmailing” the government. On the other, a month later, the Chief Minister apologises for the remarks. That is the reason the CPI-M’s relation with the PDF is peculiar. The government is averse to the rise in the strength of the AIGL and the CPRM, fearing their latent tendency towards a separate state. It cannot be denied that the CPI-M has joined the Opposition group, only to be able to control the growth of the AIGL and the CPRM.

The CPI-M’s long-term aim is to be the GNLF’s alternative in the Hills. When it comes to the Centre, it is also not seen to be fair to the Darjeeling Hills. The Centre had agreed to postponing elections and making Mr Ghisingh sole-caretaker of the DGHC. The Congress, which secured the support of the GNLF during the last parliamentary elections and won the Darjeeling seat, is hopeful for a favourable performance in the region in next year’s Assembly elections. The Congress is ready to keep Mr Ghisingh in good humour – another reason why the state government has been mollycoddling the GNLF leader. It is trying to ensure that the Congress does not advance in the Hills before the Assembly polls.

Complex as the politics of the Hills is, the larger good has been subordinated. The state government, the Centre and Mr Ghisingh are seen to be engaged in a desperate struggle to survive in the Hills, oblivious to the problems of the place. If this is how it continues — now, even the panchayat elections in the Hills have been deferred indefinitely – Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s fears of the Maoists across the border fomenting trouble in Darjeeling may come true. It is the Chief Minister who is preparing the ground for it, by suspending the democratic rights of the hill people. This has also made the case for separate statehood stronger.

Water War

9 April 2005

Vicious wars shall be fought over water soon.

In this part of the world, it will start from homes and neighbourhoods of Darjeeling. Already, the domestic scene resembles a strife torn republic. Battle lines have been drawn as a result of frayed nerves. Even in the same family there are warring factions of those who help and those who don’t help in collecting water, something that entails waking up at 4 am, or even midnight!

The varied ways in which water can be divined and tapped in the urban area is indeed an art. The art may be of patience or of bandicoots, when it requires one to drill a hole in the pipe of the neighbour. The bigger rats get it straight from the reservoir, or the fire hydrant. Patience also involves suffering reprimands for reaching offices and schools late (because water arrives just when one is leaving home).

As people wait for water, their faces are reminiscent of the ancient forefathers who feared failure of rain and consequently a famine. In modern times it is stinking toilets, smelly piles of dirty linen, festering stacks of dirty dishes and odorous self and family members that one is left to deal with. This is the latest form of humiliation at the hands of political punks.

Indeed at the administrative and political level it is feat to have sustained the water problem for so many years now. It is an extraordinary achievement whereby, they might think of patenting and selling it to some governments, their formula to be called, “sustainable water problem in high rainfall areas.”

The King in our neighbourhood is a potential customer. The technique is quite simple. Add a new “lake” after a couple of parched generations has passed away, but which leaks in the first use. A novelty arrived at by siphoning the cement to build new patios in the homes of all the officers of the department, one is inclined to think. The other thing is to keep patching those leaky supply pipes, incurring a total cost that would have laid new distribution network ten times over.

The old rusty pipes must have been kept in deference to the hill people’s current fad for everything of heritage value. (Interestingly, the other day a well-known hotelier was prospecting in town for a place to build a heritage hotel!)

Down at the Choke Bazaar...oops! sorry, Chowk Bazaar - it is hard to say if the place is bustling or festering - drunken men swear they are on hooch because they cannot find water. Yuksom Breweries may soon decide to use a slogan like “Drink Beer, Save Water.”

Returning to the formula for sustainable water problem, one should not forget the power of suggestion. Hill people belong to a martial race (which again might be a heritage, given the amount we shake in our boots these days) and are given to be herded. If the General holds up a stone and declares that it is a cake, the troops not only yell “Yes Sir!” but sincerely believe it is so.

Our Supremo last year declared water scarcity to be a “minor problem” (this year he added tourism and tea). Empty tumblers in hand, we salute, with a “Yessir!” This - power of suggestion - forms an indispensable part of the strategy to sustain the water problem. (The King is already learning. He declares his Emergency is to restore democracy.)

The situation has also conjoined us with the upper league of development bracket where water is privatised. No matter the breast beating by NGOs, a handful of people have set up shops next to jhoras in the outskirts of the town. The going rate is Rs 15 for 100 ltr, which is expected to inflate as demand goes up. Who says our people lack business zeal? Fortunately for them and our leaders of the thirsty fiefdom, the water problem will continue. Until battle breaks out.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ghisingh's Terrorism

5 February 2005

Ghisingh could have sent a two-way club-class ticket to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and flown him into Darjeeling. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with a million-dollar bounty on his head, is responsible for the most number of suicide car-bombings, kidnapping and beheading of foreigners in Iraq. One of his aims was also to derail the elections by force.
The threat of “naked kukhri” over DGAHC election, that is already overdue by nearly a year, comes from the same stable of political reactionaries. They are more easily identified these days as terrorists. Some are driven by blind religious passions, others by blinding levels of power. Both are dangerous, to themselves and the citizens. For them people are just pawns: more Iraqis were killed by al-Zarqawi’s bombs than foreigners. And they also choose unlikely victims, like the mass-slaughter of Nepali labourers.
Yet there are limits to everything, including fear. This was proved by the defiance of the Iraqi citizens. When 60 per cent of the population came out to vote braving bullets and bombs, there must be no debate in our distant safety about Bush’s cowboy policy. The latter becomes a different issue, when you see women and men dance on the streets with joy for having voted. Those images bring home the meaning of the power of democracy, which the founding fathers wedded our country to more than 50 years ago - government of the people, for the people and by the people. There can be no substitute to that mantra, unless we want to regress back to hunter-gatherer days.
The Iraqis were denied voting for nearly 50 years. The common people came out to cast their votes, even as their towns and villages rocked with explosions. It is another matter whether the Iraqi authorities will be able to form a stable government and stop the insurgency. As of now, the ballots have won over bullets. Similarly, closer home, Kashmiris came out to vote in large numbers for the civic elections against which the militants had issued a fatwa. Again, there were triumphant images of people dancing on the streets. There are so many questions here for us all. Do we realise the importance of voting? Will we risk our life and limb and come out of our homes to exercise our right? Will we rise up, or at least speak out, against those who try to infringe upon our sacrosanct right to vote, which our previous generations struggled to secure? Will we too be seen dancing on the streets? Or shall we cower, like we have been doing for the last 20 years, under the fatwas of Ghisingh?
It is amazing that most common people seem unconcerned about the fact that their right to vote is being threatened. Apart from the Opposition, a man on the street seems to be unaware that the election is late by nearly a year! How is this comatose existence possible? If people like us were in Iraq now, forget coming out to vote, I guess we would have been dead by now out of sheer fright.
And yet we are always proud to describe ourselves as brave Gorkhas! There was no erroneous self-identification by a community as this perhaps.
Ghisingh is coming back from Delhi, no matter what he claims, with just more money and nothing else concrete. He might again rant against the elections; and compassionate Buddhadev Bhattacharya might just oblige. And we the people? Ghisingh need not bring al-Zarqawi. Our indifference is enough.

A Happy Race

25 December 2004

In the crowd hands reach out for a shake and lips automatically stretch for a smile, a ‘Hi!’ or a ‘Hello!’ The bustle does not come in the way. Actually, the bustle becomes pleasing. A ten minute walk turns into a twenty minute one but no one minds. This is characteristic of life in Darjeeling. There are smiles and smiles every step of the mile, as it were. Smile to all you know and all you meet. And being a small town, you keep bumping into friends, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances.
There are those whom you know only by sight - people you keep seeing but have never spoken to. It is normal to smile at them too. The hawkers lean out of their shops, playfully bargaining with tourists. Young porters march down the street, smiling. People stand chatting in the middle of a raging concourse, evidently happy to have met each other again – perhaps for the third time in the day.
A giggly bunch of young girls wend their way through the crowd, while old men sit on a Chowrasta bench smiling in the sun. A smile is the mascot of the hills.
Visitors always remark on the abundance of it, taking back photos of smiles from the remotest to the busiest corners. It is hard to imagine the hills without smiling faces.
Noticing the cheer, Indira Gandhi, during one of her rare visits here, is said to have remarked that residents seem to have no problems. For an Indian prime minister, who has to face petitions or demonstrations to which ever part of the country he or she goes, Darjeeling must have been a rare reprieve.
But poet Agam Singh Giri warns outsiders not to be misled into thinking that the the smiling Nepalis here live comfortably.
We smile despite our lot. We are not rich. We are simple, honest and downtrodden. So why do we smile more than anyone, at least in this part of the world? This is my question. Why do our faces break into smiles, sometimes even when we do not want it to? Are we stupid and therefore keep smiling no matter what? Is this the smile of an idiot? Or are we possessed of a rare buoyancy that keeps us riding the course of life through all its ebbs and tides without getting overwhelmed? Or do we have that humour which comes from the innate knowledge of not taking oneself seriously?
The answers may be a vague. But one thing is clear as one looks around the world today – it is a good thing to be a smiling community. As the world becomes more complicated and dangerous and personal happiness is confined to shopping malls, a simple, honest and cheerful people will be God’s own. This is the thought to masticate over during Yuletide, when the season of happiness and giving is here. This is our Good News, our reason for hope –our smiles, which we still have not lost. It takes courage to smile, to remain honest and simple. To not to find excuses to become weak or corrupt. We must beat our oppressors but we must not end up becoming like them. The day smiles disappear from the streets of Darjeeling, we shall be lost.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Cowboy Cabbies

4 December 2004

Those of you keen on time-travel can go down to the motor-stand and board a jeep to Siliguri. Every time one journeys down to the plains in these public jeeps and back, it is feared they would be losing two years of their lives. So, done frequently, you can be ensured an early entry into the next realm.
If you are lucky - and you don’t have to be very lucky - those adolescent cowboys on the wheels might assist you to escape the bind of present time and space right on your first trip. The nerve-wracking and gut-jarring experience on the National Highway 55 is a novelty in times of prime minister’s Golden Quadrangle Project. When rest of the country will soon be zipping around - some of them are already - on their four-lane pothole and encroachment-free highways, our nearly 130-year-old NH 55 is being maintained, one suspects, for heritage.
Since there is nothing prime ministerially-golden about our roads, it could perhaps well be that we have been included in the prime minister’s Gram Sadak Yogna - the country-wide road network being built to link villages to highways. If not, we should be. Because those roads being built in remote villages make us envious. Or this could be one way to keep our village folk from migrating to the towns - give them beautiful roads in and around the villages and make the last mile to the town a nauseating experience to the extreme. Car-sick villagers swearing never to set foot to the town again could be a wonderful thing for planners.
The only ones who seem to relish the potholes are our young drivers of public transport. Most of these kids look like they have just hit puberty. They seem to be grappling more with testosterone than the bends on the roads. If we were a rich country we could have organised go-karting for these boys. With these zit-marked boys on the wheels of public transport, every body gets to enjoy extreme sports. Thanks to our system which allows under-aged kids to drive around passengers on dangerous roads. With such level of regulations, one day you and I could be flying airplanes.
But such a thing will never happen. Not only are these airplanes costly machines to lose, but their passengers are rich and therefore the important. We who travel by public transport are poor and dispensable. And we can be driven around by under-aged teens who have illegally procured driving licenses. And since the system has been mentioned, we have to marvel at how we have managed to turn it into a beauty. How many of us went through the “mandatory” tests to get a driving license? It involved paying Rs 500 to a dalal in our days.
It has never been so easy to handle a machine that can kill. Gun licensing is tough, but tougher should have been driving licenses. Those tests should take place particularly for those who drive passenger vehicles. Repairs along the highway have finally resumed at long last. It’s good news. But when these driving kids come to mind, one is scared. These boys, will now only get rasher.
“Drive Carefully, Your Family Waits for You” reads one of the signs along NH 31A. Unfortunately, on NH 55 the matter is not in our hands. Here our lives are entrusted with kids who smoke, swear and speed. As far as the authorities are concerned, it seems they are there just to pay compensation.

Darjeeling's Durga

24 October 2004

At what point do realisations turn into practices, then into traditions and rituals and finally end up as dry habits? What happens to the civilisation when its beliefs become reduced to mere badges? When it has given up its faculty of thought, volition and discretion? When history reigns but not historicity? These questions confronted me as I read about the significance of Durga Puja in a local daily last week.
Not that one has not read or, for that matter heard, about it before. It has been a staid affair, just a tale told by grandpas to little sleepless kids. But this was one of those occasions when understanding, without a warning, opens and the routine drops its mask of familiarity. All the lights, buzz and glitter suddenly release a different set of explosions in the head.
The gaudy goddess jumps out of the soiled poster on the wall of the barber’s shop. She descends to destroy the demons. Riding on the wrathful cat, the terrible beauty wins the battle with the beasts with a Monalisa smile. For each of the 10 days, she assumes a different identity. Until the Maa arrives. Bijay Dashami - the climax. We celebrate victory - the victory of good over evil.
It’s a victory celebration. In the beating dhaks, the ape rears up to pound its chest after vanquishing those after children's lives. It’s been a deadly duel; the celebration is passionate, and the joy. She has been coming every year exciting us mortals. We have offered a hill of decapitated animals. Every year the evil has been defeated, until we forget about it. We do not care anymore. Because it is only a forgotten story summed up in terse “Happy Pujas!” of greeting cards.
We have other “victory celebrations” too. The term inevitably reminds us of the other dhol and dhak beating ritual - called victory celebration - by our leaders. A deadly criminal sitting in jail won by over 2 lakh votes in Bihar last week. His supporters staged a delirious victory celebration. These have become more real than stories.
Mikes have been blaring mantras and bhajans all over the town. The Pujas are not as elaborate as in the plains, but it is getting here. May god not turn a deaf ear to these amplified supplications. Like every year, the DGAHC and the Darjeeling Municipality have set up an 18-handed goddess at Chowrasta. Their boss - political boss, for the municipality - has decreed the celebration. It feels like a dirty joke: for under 16 long years of his rule, mostly evil has won. The good has been silenced. “Happy Pujas!”
But he is a religious man; and we are a religious people. And between our rituals and our realisation, there lies a tragedy. Amidst all the puja of Durga, what we see is the boot of Evil on the face of Good, stamped so hard. We do not have the will to do anything about it. Our pujas do not inspire us anymore. They are just a time for self-indulgent celebration, in the name of God. Victory? What victory? Durga is just a gaudy goddess on the soiled poster at the barber’s shop.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Deciding Our Destiny

15 May 2004

The Election Commission wants to make voting compulsory. Wake up early morning, or stand in queues in the burning sun, or in the rain and cold, when it comes to the hills, to press the almighty button.
I met Tirtha Tamang, a 62-year-old local woman at Pashupati. This is the border town which was raided recently by the Maoist guerrillas, of course on the Nepal side.
On the Indian side there are only a few houses – they all possess a middle-of-nowhere look. Tamang had walked nearly two hours through the forest path in the morning to get to her booth. She complains of the long trek, but what makes her take all the trouble?
“Well, they say one must exercise the right to vote.” But to what purpose? Tamang fumbles for an answer; she has none. In the windswept cold Simana, not too far from the Pashupati, men reeking of liquor huddle in the fog, looking for their names in the voters’ list. The party men helping them also stink of cheap alcohol. Gun totting SSB men squat on the roadside in boredom.
At Sukhiapokhri, always grey with fog, a crowd has gathered in front of the police station. CPI-M men are complaining they have been beaten up by the GNLF in Chamong. Their local leader, face burnt by over consumption of alcohol, jaundiced eyes, and wearing a blue beret(possibly inspired by Che?), calls out. A frail looking, fine complexioned man, comes shakily out of the crowd. Blood has dried around his nostrils.
Another young man, still a boy, actually, around 17 perhaps, also comes to the centre of the crowd and starts turning round, and round. He is displaying blood marks on his second-hand, imitation Nike jacket.
At the edge of the assembly, a senior party leader sits inside a maruti van. He is writing the FIR. He tells reporters that his party will win if the turn out in the hills is under 50 per cent. “More than that and it will be very difficult for us,” he says without irony.
As the day progressed, the Congress candidate expressed happiness at the proceedings. Reason, according to him, 55 per cent had polled in the hills. “That’s a good figure. It means I will get at least 2 lakh votes from the hills.” That figure should be able to secure his victory.
We enter a picture postcard Patabong tea estate, just outside Darjeeling. My
colleague is apprehensive. Young men from here are regarded with fear in the town; they are held to be a murderous variety. In a public meeting the local councilor had warned any party, besides his own, from campaigning in this area. He has fantasies of wearing out doctors with autopsies. People at the booth in the tea garden stand quietly in queue; their faces reminiscent of that of the masked students in the Pink Floyd video “Another Brick in the Wall.” Not a single smiling relaxed face is to be seen.
The landscape of the area is movingly beautiful. Last year, couple of cable cars of the Darjeeling Ropeway had dropped on it. At North Point school, it looks like an invasion. Thousands of officials and hundreds of vehicles swarm about –to ensure that the biggest democracy remains the biggest democracy, no matter the quality of that democracy.
A friend – possibly the best computer wizard of the town - calls up. He has voted for the elephant symbol, wants to know to which party it belongs. “I don’t think many would vote for it. I felt for sorry for the candidate,” he explains his act. Later repolling was held at two booths where the EVMs were supposed to have malfunctioned. There were reports that the polling personnel who were manning those
booths were tipsy.
In a push of a button will all these things change? Do we need to spend couple of hours, walk maybe for two hours through the forest, just to say – none of the
above? The fact that half the population does not vote screams out the same fact. Let the EC, if it dares, rather make sure that only good men and women are allowed to contest. The recent ruling of the Patna High Court would be a good place to start the process from.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Assembly Elections, 2006

19 March 2006

For the largest democracy in the world, elections are necessarily a vital spectacle. Millions of voters, thousands of polling personnel, battalions of security, mountains of stationery, months of preparation, hyper campaigns, media frenzy, all combine to foist the best on us. Or so, at least, is the intent.
In exactly one month from today, Assembly elections will kick off in the state of West Bengal. Unprecedented in its history, perhaps the history of any other state, the polls have been staggered into five phases stretched over a period of four weeks. It’s indeed going to be a spectacle of staggering proportions. One of the basic ingredients that goes into making Indian elections — a great level of hope and expectation.
For a country where more than a quarter of its billion citizens live below the poverty line, even after 50 years of Independence, elections are a giant leap of faith. Our half-clad, half-fed voters queuing up at the booths, uphold for human civilisation the best working political system it has evolved so far — democracy.
Elections inspire hope because your vote counts, your opinion matters; your voice is heard. In this massive nation this is a very important feeling! In fact, one of the best gifts our founding fathers left us. In the chaos of Independence, it would have been easy to adopt harsher measures.
The hills send three representatives to the Assembly. The trio brings to the heart of the state, affairs of its northernmost end, which is nothing like the rest of the province. The developmental issues here are different, so is the temperament of the people. And for 99 years they have been seeking political autonomy. It’s a lot on the shoulders of our three legislators.
The CPI-M is the only party that has already begun its campaign, which is already now two weeks old. The rest are still engaged in completing their homework. There is no reason to complain why the Left Front keeps coming back, relentlessly now for the 30th year. They are the only ones who take the polls seriously.
The showing of the Opposition thus far only magnifies their desperation. A desperation arising out of leadership bankruptcy. They struggle for a clear vision, the path they would take to come to power. They are only waiting for the people to be fed up with the ruling party, and choose them by default. That they still have not been able to declare the names of their candidates only reflects their un-preparedness.
The GNLF on the other hand, won’t say a word about the polls yet. But that is their style. They have the machinery (muscles and money) so there is nothing for them to worry about. And with the Opposition non-starting, they don’t have much to fear. The most unfortunate part is none of the MLAs sent by the GNLF to date have had much impact at the Assembly. Their presence is not evidenced in any state policy.
Regrettably, the lukewarm political scene will turn hot, only once the GNLF jumps into the fray. The Opposition will be left defending attacks from the GNLF, who will steal the polls’ agenda. The history of the party is such that a boycott of the polls is not an improbability. The biggest irony of the forthcoming Assembly elections, which cannot be overlooked, is the fate of the elections to the DGHC and the panchayat in the hills. Both now terribly overdue, the council elections by as much as two years and counting.
By denying the hill people their most important elections, the state agencies have undermined the most vital democratic process here. Despite all that elections mean, despite all the promise they can bring, despite all the sacrifices and suffering it took for our founding fathers to institute the system, here in the hills, it is reduced to naught. No matter the forthcoming Assembly elections and all its hullabaloo, we are decidedly a disenfranchised lot.
25 March 2006

Water gives life. But when scarce, makes savages of people.
Last week in Kalimpong, the infernal problem of water scarcity drew it’s, perhaps, first blood. There have always been skirmishes among residents of neighbourhoods in hill towns during the lean months. However, murder was unheard of. According to newspaper reports, two men fought over water in a nearby dhara (spring). Such fights are a daily fact in the hills. No one expected that it would end with one of the men brutally murdering the other.
The incident took place when the town was going through a torrid time. Everyone was complaining about water problems. It forced the normally silent-sufferers to come out on the streets and demonstrate. People with empty buckets marched to the Kalimpong Municipality and gheraoed authorities there.
The water situation is getting worse with every year, because nothing is being done to alleviate the long-standing crisis. The only thing that our ostentatious VIPs who occupy chairs of responsibility can do is look up to the sky and wait for the rains.
They do keep up the pretences of course. They will tell you they are talking to this agency and that agency at the Centre, at the state level, and have extracted this and that assurance. But this brood of so-called authorities are not bothered, which is best exemplified by Subash Ghisingh’s repeated denials of water problems. Until of course, he could not resist the temptation to be present at the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the Balason drinking water project recently, forcing him to grudgingly accept that there is indeed water scarcity in the hills.
However, people of Kalimpong and Kurseong must know that Ghisingh did, on that very occasion, say that these two towns did not have water problems. There was no need for him to make that call when he was actually speaking on the occasion of the Balason project’s unveiling. The only thing that could possibly be the reason for his utterance is to reassure the chief minister that he comes cheap.
While Ghisingh continues to dwell in his make-believe world, our other authorities refuse to move their backsides on the issue because they all have their “special arrangements.” These people either have tankers regularly supplying them water at no cost, less cost or official cost; or, they have illegal hook-ups directly from the water mains. They have no clue what it is like to regularly have a pile of dirty dishes, dirty clothes, not enough water to cook or bathe, or even shave.
How these “authorities” under such bleak circumstances, still go around self importantly this mind will never grasp. Congratulations to Kalimpong for having organised a demonstration against this glorified ineptitude. (Here and in Kurseong, we just bitch and whine, which reflects more our impotence than anything). Kalimpong citizens have always been more responsible, ready to defend their rights and self-respect when challenged.
Recently, a retired-marine engineer from Kalimpong took a well-known private bank to the district consumer court for delay in services. The district court ended up ordering the bank to pay compensation for the harassment caused to the customer. How many of us like the engineer would bother to complain? In other words, how many of us possess the integrity and the self-respect to revolt against things that demean us? For two decades now we have been humiliated by having to wash, cook and bathe with a water supply that is nearly 70 per cent below the national average. We have been reduced to existing like savages.
Or is this the precursor of things to come under Sixth Schedule tribal living?

Revisiting Chowrasta Chatter

The other day I got this spam message via my long-lost blog. I had created it many years ago, wrote a few pieces and then things had just fallen by the way side. I had left journalism and the writing habit petered off subsequently.
Friends have always told me how they missed my writing. Especially when times got tough in hills. It still is tough out there, even after the change, which many had hung their hopes on. It has been nothing but one big disappointment.
Anyways, there will be lots to talk about that. Because yes I am returning to writing. Many of you would be knowing that I am no longer in Darjeeling, but on the other side of the world. But that does not mean I have abandoned the hills. Life for me had to expand to include all that it was offering. For me home is Darjeeling, and now, home is also the US. Home for me has come to mean this whole big world.
Because of the improved communications, distance now is but only psychological. I video-Skype my parents regularly and they see their grand-kids and talk to them. And indeed one can fly back to India in matter of 24 hours - a little less than a train ride from Siliguri to Delhi!
I follow Darjeeling news on the internet closely. And I still feel the angst.
But before I begin to blog actively, I will undertake a project I had been thinking about for a long time. Actually, it was a suggestion from some of my friends: to put together a collection of my articles that got published as Chowrasta Chatter on Fridays in The Statesman. What better way than to put it on the internet, so that everyone can have access to it.
As I scanned through my old pieces, I just thought how things have remained frustratingly the same, if not worse. Gorkhaland is not a dream anymore, it is a nightmare, if this is the political caliber we can manage.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Watch Out Darjeeling!

In Kenya, James Finlay and Sotik Tea Companies are trying to introduce tea plucking machines! The move was opposed by country's labour minister and now the companies have taken the matter to the Court. They contend that the minister has broken a trade agreement with them in opposing the introduction of the plucking machines.
Gut feeling is that the companies will win. And not too far in future, one dark night, these machines will make their way up to our hills on trucks. We have to prepare. Is anyone listening?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Vote the swagger out!

What are the Leftists going to say after the US election results? Oh that this is just another tactics in Imperialism where they rig the votes so that they can pull out of a no-win war? Or may it was their rallies that influenced US voters?
The US has its problems but when it comes to empowerment of people and practice of democracy - which our leaders keep reminding that our country is - it is certainly in an enviable position. In our state the Marxists who bring out mammoth rallies to protest US Imperialism, like they did several times against the Iraq occupation, do not hesitate to let loose their hooligan cadres to intimidate the voters. Not to forget the notorious "scientific rigging" that the Leftists can be found to be proud of in many unguarded moments.
Now that the US voters, as we all understand have voted against the war, will the Leftists agree that US is not all about Imperialism? Or will it be too much to give up their bogeyman? Nay, their raison d'etre - the only reason why the Leftists are around is because they have US Imperialism to fight. Going by their own talk they have no other ideological reason left.
From Darjeeling such a voting outcome literally seems a million miles away, although we both practice democracy. No matter how big the leader, or the leader's swagger, people have to cut him/her down to size. Ours is badly in need of a good pruning.