Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The bane of bandhs Caught in neighbourhood politics, Sikkim suffers

GANGTOK, June 17:
The tiny, landlocked Himalayan State of Sikkim has become a victim of neighbourhood politics it has little to do with.
The unrest in the neighbouring Darjeeling Hills, punctuated with frequent and unpredictable bandh calls have left Sikkim not only completely cut off from the rest of the country but with a huge dent in its exchequer.
Sikkim is losing a staggering Rs 6 crore a day whenever the Darjeeling hills shut down and the National Highway 31A, the vital road link connecting Sikkim with West Bengal, is subjected to closure by the agitators. About 60 percent of the National Highway 31A connecting Sikkim runs through the Darjeeling District in West Bengal.
This figure is based on a survey conducted by the State department of Economics, Statistics, Monitoring and Evaluation in February this year. The survey was carried out during a two-day bandh called by the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM) in Darjeeling around the same time. It calculated the daily financial loss suffered by various sectors in Sikkim because of the shutdown.
This figure includes losses in terms of revenue loss in taxes and losses incurred by businesses, taxis, companies, losses in exports and imports; and losses incurred by hotels.
The per day loss is estimated to be around Rs. 7 Crores during the peak tourist season of April, May and June.
The highest loss is suffered by businesses - a huge Rs. 1.65 crores in lost profits in a single day; followed by the losses suffered by State government to revenue loss from VAT and Sales Tax - Rs. 1.54 crores. The State exchequer also loses Rs. 1.1 lakhs in excise duty on import and another Rs. 15,000 on tax on animal imports, taxis plying on the highway (Rs 75 lakh), goods carriers (12 lakh) and various industrial and manufacturing companies (Rs 64 lakh).
The per day loss suffered by the State’s economy every time National Highway 31A becomes out of bounds for Sikkim traffic, whenever some political outfit calls a bandh in the Darjeeling Hills or in Siliguri, is enough for the Sikkim Government to worry about.
As if landslides along the National Highway 31A during the Monsoons were not enough to paralysis normal life in the State, the bandhs have added to the problems the State has to face.
The closure of National Highway 31A means that the vital supply line to Sikkim is completely blocked. The supply of essential commodities, including foodgrains, fruits and vegetables, and petroleum products (petrol, diesel and LPG) is snapped as the State has to completely depend on the Siliguri market for the supplies.
With the supply line cut off, the prices of foodgrains and vegetables shoot up, with inflation in the State going up by almost 50 percent. It also means untold hardships to local residents travelling to outside of the State for personal works, medical treatment or securing admissions in Colleges across the country.
When the GJMM called the indefinite strike earlier this month, the State was forced to ration the distribution of LPG and fuel from various depots and petrol pumps. Sikkim remained cut off from the rest of the country for four days following the simultaneous bandh call by another outfit opposed to GJMM in Siliguri. The Highway remained closed which led to a mass exodus of tourists from the State.
The agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland has surfaced again, and the recent clashes between the GJMM and those opposed to the idea of a separate state of Gorkhaland have once brought to light the unnecessary hardship that Sikkim has to endure, caught in a struggle it has little to do with.
The strategy adopted by the GJMM is similar to the strategy its predecessor GNLF adopted 20 years ago when the Gorkhaland movement gathered momentum. Block the National Highway 31A and choke the vital lifeline of Sikkim. This may be seen as a tactic-pressure on Sikkim to perhaps support the Gorkhaland demand more openly than before or force the Centre to accept the demand for Gorkhaland keeping in mind the hardships Sikkim faced because of the unrest in its neighbourhood.
The hardships faced by Sikkim are manifold and as said by the Chief Minister Pawan Chamling on many occasions, the State cannot be held at ransom. Chief Minister Chamling has said time and again that National Highways belonged to the nation and to forcefully keep it closed on the pretext of some political agenda by anyone would be anti-national and anti-Constitutional. Last week, Mr. Chamling wrote to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh informing him of the hardship the state is facing and asking for his personal intervention.
The GJMM has, in the past, always refused to relax its frequent bandhs for Sikkim, although the State and its people have emotional and social ties with the Darjeeling Hills and have supported the demand for Gorkhaland. The Sikkim Government has brought up this matter a number of times before the Centre as well as the West Bengal Government but this issue has largely been ignored.
This time around too, the GJMM has declared that the National Highway 31A will be blocked during the indefinite bandh call starting Monday. While the State administration has assured that there is adequate stock of essential commodities like food grains petrol, diesel and LPG in the State to last at least a week, it will all depend on how long the bandh will continue or whether the Highway is opened for Sikkim.
Taking into consideration that the Monsoons have begun, the State Government cannot effort to remain a silent spectator while the State is being held hostage. Analysts say that political intervention is needed to permanently solve this problem, which has to come from the Sikkim Government before the situation goes out of hand.