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26 Jul 2017

Why the Darjeeling model failed

Mahendra P Lama, HT, 26 Jul 2017, Delhi :Kolkata has never given real powers to the hill councils and neglects the needs of the people.
It took three decades, reportedly more than 1,200 deaths, huge destruction, unprecedented public suffering, uprooting of traditional livelihoods, demolition of well-founded institutions, severe ecological dislocations and loss of two generations to declare that the much-trumpeted Darjeeling model has failed.
The Gorkhaland movement today is much fiercer and national where people have withstood 41 days of bandh, without Internet and cable connections and no food and basic necessities in sight. The Trinamool Congressled Bengal administration’s intention to deprive and alienate the hills so much that the people will be emasculated and go voiceless has again fallen flat.
Today leaders remain sidelined and clueless as people have taken over the driver’s seat. Both the State and central governments have maintained a competitive indifference and abandoned the region despite it being in the geographical core of national security interest.
What went wrong in this conflict resolution initiative? Both the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) and Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) were institutions created to end the violent movement. They were a result of the tripartite agreements between the central and state governments with the Gorkha National Leadership Front and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha respectively. These bodies led to semi-autonomous institutions of governance mandated by a notification of the Bengal government. This was considered both by the Left front and Trinamool Congress as the panacea for addressing protracted injustices in Darjeeling and Dooars and their 110-year-old demand for a separate state. These institutions injected higher expectations: It started with elected members and received State funds. The story, however, ended there.
The state government literally duped the two inexperienced hill leaderships by giving them a range of departments without any powers. Minor social activities like cattle tresspass and management of cremation grounds and non-existent fields like fisheries, lotteries, markets and fairs, and, birth and death registration were listed as departments. Major transforming projects were cleverly listed in the annexure as wish lists.
Except the first plan in 1989, both the DGHC and GTA never prepared even the blueprint of development projects. Except the few individuals deputed from the state government, it had no technocrats and experts who could think big and link it substantively with the national agenda. More critically, it got entangled in the worst quagmire of Bengal’s bureaucracy. The famous Sadar hospital was under the DGHC but the chief medical officer came from the government; the tourism department remained with the DGHC and the revenue fetching tourism corporation with Kolkata. For every small project, the investment proposal and plan allocation officials had to go to Kolkata. Both the DGHC and GTA euphemistically became ‘helicopters with tractor engines’.
In order to have absolute political control, leaders systematically demolished institutions and took shelter in a wrongly inserted constitutional provision in 1992 to discard the crucial three tier-panchayati raj.
In critical areas, like the Gorkhas’ Indian identity, Darjeeling’s membership in the North EasAern Council, bringing foreign direct investment and international development agencies, constitutional sanction to the GTA, devolution of the state’s planned resources, minimum wages to tea workers, setting up of panchayat and newer institutions, and the scheduled tribe status, the Bengal government just did not move. It consciously injected a perceptible demographic shift in the plains and ghettoised the three hill sub-divisions. The idea was to limit the statehood movement to a segregated geography.
The historical hill towns witnessed mushrooming of concrete structures, a collapse of educational and heath amenities and a sharp increase in political crimes. ‘No system’ became the system. In the absence of accountability, audit and evaluation in both the DGHC and GTA, the government concentrated more on assuaging the leaders rather than addressing the plight of people. Leaders became a source of terror and public apathy. Hunger deaths in tea gardens coexisted with the illgotten opulence of these leaders. The Trinamool government unabashedly went a step further and created and funded several ‘castebased development boards’ and registered them under NGOs. This ‘divide and rule’ policy was a ploy to protract internal colonialism. Today it has boomeranged on its architect.
Bengal has lost the rare opportunity of proving the Darjeeling model as the celebrated instrument of conflict resolution. Its leaders have been warned not to compromise this time. The statehood status to Darjeeling and Dooars is inevitable today.

Mahendra P Lama is professor, Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies and former member, National Security Advisory Board The views expressed are personal

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