|Sikkim is a land of perfect getaways, but its tourism potential remains undeveloped.|
"Connectivity to Sikkim is extremely poor and the roads take a severe beating during each monsoon."
Ravi Pradhan: Incredible Sikkim, forgettable infrastructure.
He has no compunctions about saying he quit government service after a short stint because he found it “a little stifling”. And, that too, when his father retired as the Chief Secretary of the Sikkim government after a long spell of government service.
“Actually he was in government service even during the King’s time, and after the merger of Sikkim with India in 1975, when he was the revenue secretary, was inducted into the IAS as a senior officer,” explains Ravi Pradhan, who runs a cosy little heritage hotel called Rhenock House in the Sikkim capital Gangtok.
He serves his guests with such professionalism and personal attention to details — whether it is to do with the crockery in the kitchen or the curtains in the rooms — that one would not imagine he has had such a chequered career.
Pradhan was born in Sikkim, did his schooling in Darjeeling, graduated in B.Com Honours from a Delhi college, and completed his MBA from a Kochi institution in 1983. He joined the ITC in Kolkata where he worked for eight months before returning to Sikkim and joining government service, where he didn’t last for long.
Even though not from a business background the young man decided to get into manufacturing as “there was a big euphoria in the mid-1980s about big industrial houses coming into Sikkim. Actually, the history of industry in Sikkim is quite sad.”
Pradhan explains how after “the merger with India many of the laws in Sikkim were different from the mainland; earlier the provisions of the Industrial Development and Regulation Act did not apply here.” To take advantage of excise exemptions many industries set up shop in Sikkim in tyres, cigarettes, cosmetics, etc. But it was only a matter of time before the laws for the rest of India became applicable here and the industrial activity waned.
But in the meantime he had got tempted by the flurry of industrial activity and in 1986 set up an industrial unit for manufacturing aluminium caps for bottles. “It had several teething problems, but it somehow limped along for three to four years before coming to a grinding halt.” But the loan of Rs 24 lakh that he had taken to set up this industry continued to be “a big albatross around my neck for the next 6-7 years.”
He then got into a series of small businesses to make enough to pay back his loan. One of these was taking a franchise from the dry-cleaning company Bandbox. He didn’t do “too badly”, but had to often suffer the embarrassment of “going to a party where somebody or the other comes up and says: ‘I had sent my coat for dry cleaning and your people messed it up’” or complaints to that effect.
He also tried his hand at several other small businesses and you can clearly sense the relief in his voice when he says, “Finally, three years ago, I paid back all the loans; the present government too was very helpful in rescheduling, etc. Once that was over, I plucked up some courage and with a little business acumen collected over the years, decided to convert the guesthouse attached to my house into a little heritage hotel.”
The spanking new and tastefully done up hotel with only 10 rooms is as good in amenities and service as a decent 3-4 star hotel. The only difference is that the tariff — Rs 3,500-4,200 depending on the season — includes all the meals and guests get the privilege of the pleasant-mannered and soft-spoken hotel owner not only greeting them during breakfast or lunch, but also serving them sometimes. We were a group of nine tourists from Chennai and were almost embarrassed by the warmth with which he and his wife Nisha treated us, taking pains to find out our food preferences and putting as much of this as possible on the table for the next meal.
Business is not bad but could be much better, says Pradhan, voicing the infrastructural woes of Sikkim in general and Gangtok in particular. Connectivity to Sikkim is extremely poor and the roads that take a severe beating during each monsoon are hardly restored before the onslaught of the next monsoon. Gangtok doesn’t have an airport, with the nearest air point being Bagdodra in West Bengal. “All we have is a helipad for air connectivity with a five-seater helicopter, which hardly serves the purpose for tourism, but this is now being upgraded to an 11-seater next month. You see we have the cart but not the horse,” rues Pradhan, while enumerating the advantages of Sikkim in terms of scenic beauty — a vast expanse of greenery, rich cultural heritage and an abundant wealth of exotic birds and spectacular flora and fauna.
Land to build an airport at Pakyong, about 30 km from Gangtok, has been acquired, but the airport project has been hanging fire for so long that “people here wonder if New Delhi is really interested in improving the infrastructure here so that we can realise our tourism potential,” he says.
One of Sikkim’s biggest advantages is an educated and English-speaking population. But Pradhan doesn’t see much scope for big-ticket investment or speedy industrial growth. “Unless the really big industries who see the first-entrant benefit come here, and that too because the government gives them some incentives, I don’t think much will change in the near future.”
But, he adds, industrial development has a flip side too. “Suddenly there is a spurt in 6-7 big pharma industries — many of them multinationals coming here and a lot of construction activity is on. This kind of activity is a double-edged sword because land is a most scarce resource for the Sikkimese people, and if land is acquired here at such speed, then we’ll have hardly any left for the local people.” A more planned and balanced growth is what the State needs, he adds.
The opening of the Nathula pass to facilitate trade between the north-eastern states and China is a good beginning, “but lots and lots more needs to be done. I’m told that what’s happening now is just a token… a namesake trade; it needs to be widened with many more items being put on the list.”
His dream for the future is simple: “I’ve just realised that what I have begun only recently — a heritage hotel — is a passion that was latent and I’m enjoying every moment of it. You might wonder why I have to be present during some of the meals and serve the guests... but I wouldn’t do it unless I really enjoyed it.”
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