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CHENNAI: It has been almost three months since the Gorkhaland protest started and the strike does not seem to be nearing an end soon. Lives have been lost, normalcy has been disrupted but yet no final conclusion has been arrived at by the centre with regard to the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state.
Schools are shut, government offices are not functioning, the busy highways that lead one to Darjeeling from Siliguri and Sikkim are deserted.
The hill station, which was once full of tourists, looks like a ghost town now with everything being shut down.
July, August and September are the peak months when most tourists visit the hill station. But since the strike and the total shutdown, the tourism sector has been completely affected. This has impacted the lives of people who were solely dependent on tourism for livelihood.
Rajesh Pradhan, whose daily income comes from driving tourist vehicles said, “This is the time when we get maximum tourists in Darjeeling. But now due to the protest, my income is zero rupees a day. Till now I have been supporting my family through the money I had saved all these years. But till when?” he wonders aloud.
Pradhan believes his suffering is for a good cause. “I am not upset that I am not earning now because this is my sacrifice for Gorkhaland. It is okay that I suffer now, I don’t want my son to suffer later,” he says. Pradhan is sure that the protest will not end this time. He is ready to suffer through it all. “Even if there is more bloodshed, we are prepared, come what may, to sacrifice for the sake of Gorkhaland,” he adds. During peak tourist season Pradhan used to earn Rs 2000-5000 a day.
It’s not just tourism, which brings revenue to the region and employs several people like Pradhan that is affected. Children’s education has taken a back seat as the movement for Gorkhaland is a priority. Schools and colleges have been completely closed for the last 80 days. Students who are to appear for their class X and XII board exams in a few months are struggling to complete their syllabus before the pre-board exams.
Lasang Lepcha, who teaches in a college in Kurseong said, “I moved to Siliguri last month. The situation is very tense up there (Kurseong). Most college and school students from Kurseong have moved to Siliguri to attend classes and complete their syllabus. Some of them have rented rooms and are taking private coaching classes.” But not all the students are lucky enough to take extra classes, as it requires a lot of money.
A few of the hills’ private schools have rented out rooms in Siliguri and they are providing extra classes to their students in order to complete the syllabus before the board exams.
Bebika Khawas, a PhD scholar at the North Bengal University, said, “Everybody here is supporting Gorkhaland. It is a collective force that is driving these people to take part in the protest. It is the same force which is making the school children participate too.”
While most of the village students are facing a problem, Khawas also pointed out how people are trying their best to find a solution. She said, “In a remote village, Chumthung, the teachers are providing classes to the students who want to complete their syllabus, in their homes.”
With next to no vehicles running on the roads, the food supply chain in the hills has also been cut off. Even though relief operations are trying their best to provide food, it is not enough for a population of over one million people living in the hills. The price of food items has skyrocketed. There were also reports of vehicles carrying food being looted by people who could not afford to purchase the expensive food.
Asish Thapa, a resident of Kurseong, said, “People travel in the night secretively to Siliguri to buy food and other daily requirements. When there is some emergency, people who have their own vehicle travel easily in and out of Darjeeling town, but others have to book taxis. Sometimes the taxi drivers are scared to ply their vehicles, as they fear the protestors would burn their cars. At other times, they take a chance and demand a lot of money to go out of the hill. It’s the poor that are facing the brunt of the strike.”
Biwas Pradhan, a resident of Mirik, said,”It is like an emergency in the areas affected by the Gorkhaland protest. The state government has shut down internet services since the inception of the strike and local news media channels have also been shut down. They fear that the locals would spread news against the state government. The people out here are cut off from the rest of India.”
The protest has also put Darjeeling tea sector out of businessDaily-wage labourers, who depend on the work at the tea estate for their livelihood, are left without jobs. Bebika Khawas, who is also a social activist, says the labourers will have to forfeit their festival bonuses too. “Around festivals, the labourers usually get a bonus every year. This year they will be deprived of the festival bonuses as the state government offices are closed and there is no processing of daily wages and salaries.”
Not only aren’t people able to make a living. They’re unable to access whatever savings they had managed to squirrel away. ATMs in the hills are empty, in a rerun of demonetisation nightmares for the hill folks. One has to walk either to Sikkim or Siliguri to withdraw cash. While hospitals and pharmacies are exempted from the shutdown, they are barely staffed now as most of the doctors working in the hospitals in the hills are Bengalis, and they’ve made themselves scarce. Rajesh Pradhan said, ”The doctors have run away fearing the strike. There are too few doctors so even when the people suffer from not so critical sicknesses, they have to go to Siliguri for treatment.” In medical emergencies, things are bound to be even more difficult.
Despite the all-round shutdown of economic livelihood activities affecting the livelihood of the people, they are not willing to give up their fight for a separate state. Having been discriminated and seen as different from mainstream West Bengalis, they want the strike to continue, as they believe that this time their demands will be fulfilled. They are prepared to face the worse situation and won’ give up at any cost. That’s a common refrain among the people of the hills here. The hope of getting a separate Gorkhaland state has kept their spirit alive. Now, it’s left to the government to find a quick resolution.