Sunday, March 02, 2008

Darjeeling Hills and the Project of Sixth Schedule

The Sixth Schedule to the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill, 2007 was tabled in the parliament in the last week of November 2007. The overall aim of the bill on paper is to protect the socio-cultural identity of the people residing in Darjeeling hills and speeding up the overall development in the region. Majority of the people of Darjeeling hills, are however, skeptical with regard to the long-term political objective of the West Bengal in expediting the process of Sixth Schedule.

What is Sixth Schedule?

Evidently, the provisions under the Sixth Schedule to the Constitutions were historically evolved to administer the tribal majority areas in the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura through the district council or the regional councils. However, an exception was made in case of Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) located in the state of Assam when the area was accorded Sixth Schedule status even though the members of the Scheduled Tribe Communities were not in Majority and reportedly comprised only 38 per cent of the population of the area. Under the provisions of Sixth Schedule, the Councils are vested with legislative powers on specified subjects and are allotted certain sources of taxation. They are also given powers to set up and administer their system of justice and maintain administrative and welfare services in respect of land, revenue, forests, education, public health etc.

The application of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution has not been extended to any other State of India besides North-Eastern States. It is further clear that the whole concept of autonomous council has its root in the tribal dominated areas of North East where there historically existed tribal councils. Hence, its relevance in the non-tribal dominated areas like Darjeeling Hills is minimal. Darjeeling is a multi-ethnic region where people belonging to various caste, creed, and region have found places for themselves over the years. The region is a melting pot of ethnic diversity.

The Project of Sixth Schedule in Darjeeling Hills

As already highlighted above, Sixth Schedule was originally evolved by the framers of the Indian constitution for the socio-economic development of selected tribal dominated areas located in the North-East India. In this connection, a sample survey was conducted by the office of the Registrar General of India in October 2005. The survey found that the ST population constituted only 31.4 percent of the total population of the DGHC areas. Irrespective of such an uncongenial socio-cultural situation for Sixth Schedule provisions, the Government of West Bengal has been hell bent to get through its project of Sixth Schedule in the Darjeeling Hills in the last few months. The reasons behind the project may be debated in following lines-

First, provisions under the Sixth Schedule to be granted to Darjeeling Hills are the creation of West Bengal. The civil society members and intellectuals were not consulted during the time of its preparation. The lone representative of the people of Darjeeling hills was the care taker Subash Ghishing who has long been hypnotized by West Bengal and who has little ability to internalise the pros and cons of the anticipated Schedule. Consequently, West Bengal has evolved provisions under the said Schedule in such a way that the implementation of Sixth Schedule in Darjeeling hills will have little or no impact on its overall authority on the Darjeeling hills. Hence, if the Sixth Schedule gets through in the parliament, it is a win-win situation for West Bengal and a historic loss for the people of Darjeeling Hills.

Secondly, implementation of Sixth Schedule in Darjeeling Hills means opportunely obstructing the incoming way of a separate state of ‘Gorkhaland’ for at least 50 to 100 years. It will be a historic blunder that will bury the long cherished and aspired dream of the people of Darjeeling Hills. It will further go against the raison d’etre of the original Gorkhaland Movement that sacrificed several young souls and households of Darjeeling Hills. The people of Darjeeling hills should also take note of the fact that Sixth Schedule to the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) has not ended the ethnic conflicts and development aspirations of the people of the said Council in Assam. It has not been able to fulfill the aspirations and requirements of the people so diverse in nature.

Parliamentary Standing Committee in Darjeeling

In view of the fragile situation in Darjeeling Hills and given the fact that there was a sizeable section in hills who were against inclusion of the areas there, under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution, several of the senior political leaders of West Bengal including the Chief Minister camped in New Delhi during the last week of November. They did this precisely to diplomatically and politically expedite the process of Sixth Schedule in the parliament. However, West Bengal had little knowledge that Darjeeling too has produced some of the intellectuals in the last 25 years with the ability to exercise diplomacy and can deal at the highest level of the country. Further, GNLF also knew that there are individuals produced by Darjeeling who can deal at a much higher level than its leaders.

As a result of the untiring effort of few farsighted and learned individuals of Darjeeling Hills, who dealt at the highest level of the country to convince the national political parties/leaders, policy planners and decision makers, the Centre decided to refer the Sixth Schedule Bill to the parliamentary standing committee. As expected, the decision came after the main Opposition BJP decided to oppose the bill if it was not referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee. The Parliamentary Standing Committee members will now visit the hills of Darjeeling in the near future, discuss the issue with the people, civil society organisations and political parties and then give their opinion on whether the Bill is appropriate to be passed. The visit is expected within the next two months. It is now entirely on the general mass of Darjeeling Hills to decide what do they want. It is important for them to internalise the situation collectively and scientifically decide their future. The iron is hot and the issue is on the fore front yet again. The need of the hour for Darjeeling Hills is unity. There are enough reasons for the people of Darjeeling to enlighten why should they not settle for Sixth Schedule.

**Published by Sikkim Express, December 14, 2007**