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8 Jul 2017

When a city stands still.....Gorkhaland stir: How Darjeeling is coping with food shortage amid bandh

Abel Rai, Business Standard, 8 July 2017: After the clashes on June 17, in which three supporters of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha were killed in police firing and many others injured, an indefinite strike was announced in the hills of Darjeeling. The renewed demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland left the tourists scurrying home, while all commercial establishments and educational institutions shut down. Vehicles also stayed off the roads. Instead of the packs of tourists, the hill streets now only had khaki-clad security forces marching on them.

The strike caught us by surprise. Earlier bandhs for Gorkhaland were announced in advance and people stocked up. This time, there was no preparatory period. My wife’s first worry was that atta (flour) was in short supply at home. For health reasons, we prefer chappatis for breakfast and dinner. She was concerned that our stock would last only a few days. We had enough rice, so there was nothing to worry about on that account. We also had about a dozen eggs and some vegetables. The refrigerator held some meat and packaged food. Overall, we shouldn’t have any difficulties for at least a week.

The bandh is now entering its third week. We depleted our food stocks in the first week. But before we could become alarmed, my wife eavesdropped on a neighbour discussing the arrival of some supplies in the shops near Lal Kothi (Gorkhaland Territorial Authority headquarters). These shops, which run out of  residences, are a 20-minute walk from our home and we hurried our way there. Luckily, we were able to get our much-needed atta. Vegetables and other essentials were a bonus. 

We asked the shop owners how they had brought the supplies. From Siliguri, late at night, they replied. One of the shop owners asked us for our phone number and said that she would inform us when chicken and fish were available.

This is the thing about Darjeeling. My Delhi-based brother says the one thing he misses about home is the neighbourliness of people in the hills. During the bandh, this has been on marked show. Everyone has been exchanging phone numbers to be able to help each other. They share information about available resources without any selfishness. 

Last week, a truck arrived loaded with vegetables from the rural areas for free distribution in the towns. People lined up in a disciplined way to accept the gift, while remembering to take some for the neighbours who could not come.

This is not the first time that the Gorkhas have found themselves in this situation. In the 1980s, during the earlier movement for a separate state, families cheerfully weathered a 40-day strike. In August 2013 too, after Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh, there was a prolonged protest that the people bore stoically. Yes, people love a drink or two in the evenings and the closure of the liquor vends, restaurants and bars are a disappointment, but it is a small sacrifice for Gorkhaland.

One Sunday, while returning home from church, a fellow church member told us that a residence-shop near Circuit House was selling eggs. There, we asked for a crate of eggs, but the seller politely told us that she could give us only six. She had put a restriction on the number so that others could get their share too. After much persuasion she gave us seven eggs at Rs 7 apiece. 

Another day, while returning from court — the courts are open because we feel people will need help if they have run-ins with the authorities — my wife and I saw a crowd at the corner of the main taxi stand in Darjeeling town. We peered past the people and saw fresh beans, dalley chillies and ginger on sale. My wife quickly replenished the stocks at home. At a second corner, some women were selling fried corn and people were heartily munching on the Rs 15-a-piece cob.

Pigs, goats and chicken are regularly slaughtered in village areas and the meat is ferried to people in urban areas. A fortnight ago, a friend of my elder brother, who lives in the floor below ours, was promised 3 kg of meat by a friend. Half an hour later, another friend called to say he had 2 kg reserved for us. We happily forewent the first offer since the source for the second was closer.

Those related to army personnel have proved especially helpful. There is no break in the supplies to the army canteen, and we can say with honesty that the army stores have played a big role in alleviating people’s difficulties.

People are coping with the bandh with a willingness to suffer the privations for the greater good. The one concern that remains is money, as banks and ATMs are closed. I cannot imagine how the daily wage workers and people in the lower economic strata are doing. However, while going around Darjeeling town, everyone, rich or poor, has a resolute look on their faces. Gorkhaland means so much to the hill people.

The Gorkha finds humour in everything. Just the other day, I ran into my cousin. He said that after the strike was over, the tailors would be busy. The reason — everyone will have to have their clothes altered since they would become loose by the time the strike is over. The other joke is that the only thing definite in Darjeeling now is the indefinite bandh.

Our two families share whatever food we can get our hands on. We have not had much to complain about. I suppose every family in the hills and the terai (plains) where the bandh is in progress is surviving in this fashion. As I am writing this, a close friend called to say he had got hold of a kilo of chicken and had kept half for me. I am looking forward to a hearty dinner tonight.

Abel Rai is a lawyer based in Darjeeling.


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