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Darjeeling – The Fallen Queen

Darjeeling – The Fallen Queen

Though some British East India Company officials stayed in the village of Darjeeling in 1828 and considered the place suitable for a sanatorium for British soldiers, the remote hilly village might not have turned into a hill city of international repute had the Sikkim Chogyal not imprisoned the British East India Company Director Arthur Campbell and explorer botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1849. This ensured a rescue operation by the British and a renewed interest for this ‘home-like’ territory and by 1866 it came to exist in its present shape and form as a hill station.

Darjeeling has an interesting history of successive annexation and re-annexation intertwined with Bengal, Sikkim and Nepal documented in the treaties of Sungauli (1816), Titleya (1817) and Sinchula (1864), which finally ceded the passes leading through the hills and Kalimpong to the British, who developed it as an informal summer capital of Bengal Presidency. The Colonial British gave Darjeeling, apart from Darjeeling Himalayan Railway , a UNESCO World Heritage Site – having Ghum as the world’s highest railway station, a lot: British style public schools (renowned as convents that draw students from the country and abroad), Colonial architecture (Governor’s House) and world class eateries (Keventer’s and Glenary’s). With it’s temparate climate, magnificent Nature and happy smiling faces all around, Darjeeling came to be called as ‘Queen of the Himalayas.’

What made me wonder, in a recent trip to Darjeeling, was about what India, as a free nation, gave Darjeeling in 7 decades of its existence. Darjeeling, the town, is located in the Mahabharat Range or Lesser Himalaya at an average elevation of 6,710 ft (2,050 m) but it is not what Darjeeling is all about – it is a vast tract of hills, a district now in the Indian State of West Bengal, 3203 square kilometers in extent of which 1721 is in mountains. Darjeeling district has four sub-divisions namely, Darjeeling Sadar, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Siliguri. Since childhood we, the plains people, have been reading about Darjeeling in school geography books as a tourist destination, a place famous for tea and Mulberry Silk, panoramic Kanchenjungha and snowfall. People of Bengal romanticizes the hills, the cold, the mongoloid beauty of the Nepalese girls as is replete in our music, movies and literature – but have we ever ventured outside of a tourist’s view of Darjeeling? The town, with its neighboring town of Kalimpong , was a center for the demand of the Gorkhaland movement in the 1980s. The present movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland is also centered in Darjeeling town. In recent years, the town’s fragile ecology has been threatened by a rising demand for environmental resources, stemming from growing tourist traffic and poorly planned urbanization. The present political leadership in West Bengal is trying to find out the reasons of discord and attempting to unify the people against any separatist ideology; that in itself is a tacit admission of the neglect that Darjeeling received for decades.

‘Did you see those shoes and jeans?’ my friend Somnath asked me. Yes, I saw. With those 2000 bucks jeans and 1000 bucks shoes on almost every local, it might strike you whether the abject poverty and low living standards of the hill people are myths or a fact. But if you see carefully, that’s a cosmetic consumerist make up of a face devoid of nutrition. ‘There are very few jobs and almost no opportunity for women here. I have a family, my children go to school and I am 40. I do all kinds of odd jobs to run my family’, says Vivek, a land broker in Darjeeling, his creasy smiling face belying the stressful life not noticed by tourists often.

Darjeeling has unique problems. It has unique poverty. Its livelihood challenges are unique. I fear if a beurocratic solution and a development package conceived in the caverns of the State Administration will do any good to it.

The approximate ethnic demography of Darjeeling consists of Nepalese (15 ethnic groups including Sherpas), Lepchas, which is an autochthonous tribe, Bhutanese (including Sikkimese Bhutias), Tibetans (refugees who came after 1961), Bengalis (permanent residents and migrants from Bangladesh) and Indian of other origins. Between 1941 and 1981 Darjeeling saw a population explosion and ethnic homogenization of its culture for which it was hardly ready. The primitive, labor and animal intensive agriculture reeled under pressure from population and change in land-use and finally failed to sustain the local demand. Natural Pankhas that used to be next to village homesteads gave way to houses and hotels and people needed to walk miles to reach cultivable lands. The forests receded adding increased hardship to people for transporting fodder leaves, grasses and firewood. As a consequence the age old livestock practice by the people suffered and the per capita livestock count steadily declined.

The disaster proneness of Darjeeling hills has a connection with anthropogenic activities. Under population pressure there had been large-scale deforestation and terraced fields for cultivation on inappropriate slopes came up. The lack of vegetative cover decreased cohesive properties of the soil and water percolation in terraced crop fields on inappropriate slopes are two principal reasons of local landslides here, which, in fact on a decade to decade basis, are getting more frequent.

Population, chronic neglect and consumerism have changed Darjeeling beyond redemption. It is not simply poor, it suffers from an abysmal gap between a urban-rural disparity (per capita income urban Rs. 46,756 and rural Rs. 16, 156). It is no particular case as every place on earth suffers these maladies, but for Darjeeling no ‘plains formula’ will be applicable because we cannot change its geography and ecologic uniqueness. It pains to see that the pricey public schools of Darjeeling hardly enrolls locals, there is no modern health facility, no post graduate institution but shopping malls are coming up in the name of development.

Mary (name changed) runs a deli at Lovers’ point, a place close to Governor’s House in Darjeeling. She comes from a nearby village to set up her shop here daily by walking couple of kilometers as there is no transport available. Mary’s husband works in Siliguri as a watchman but whatever he sends back home is not enough to run her house. Mary is determined to give her children quality education. ‘I don’t want them to run shops like me’ she says. She has a steady customer base of students from a local school and I watched her selling a red colored potato soup, which looked fiercely hot. ‘It is not hot. Kids love it.’ Mary said.

“Do you grow the potatoes?” I asked her.

“No. They come from Siliguri.” She said.

Reference:

  1. 1. Environment and rural development in Darjeeling Himalaya: Issues and concerns by Dr. Vimal Khawas – Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology. Ahmedabad, India.
  2. 2. Transforming West Bengal – Working paper by Indicus Analytics

Post Written by
Pabitra is an Honors graduate in Civil Engineering from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He has specialized in the field of River Hydraulics working for more than two decades training rivers, protecting banks and beaches and fighting erosion of the river banks/beds. He has worked with Bio-Engineering models involving mangroves using them as tools for cost effective and natural means of anti-erosion technology.His work is mostly concerning the extremely morpho-dynamic Hugly estuary with Bay of Bengal In course of his work, he got exposed to indigenous people of the Sunderban wetlands, who are fighting a losing battle against aggressive Industrialization. Pabitra loves to read and write and he is full of crazy ideas. He is a Youth Leader and Adviser to Climate Himalaya. He is also a contributor member of THINK ABOUT IT platform of European Journalism Center and a winner of the recently concluded competitive blogging on Water. Pabitra believes that he has a tryst with the strange river-country south of Bengal.

1 Comment

  1. Would love to always get updated outstanding blog!