By Saumitra Mohan
THE much-awaited day for the people of Darjeeling has finally come. A movement of the local people, stemming from the discontent and dissatisfaction with the earlier state of affairs, culminated eventually in the signing of a tripartite agreement by the representatives of the Government of India, Government of West Bengal and the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM) on 18 July 2011. The agreement inter alia envisaged for Darjeeling a devolution of powers and functions within a well-delineated framework of functional autonomy. The resultant Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) predictably meets many of the demands and aspirations of the local people.
The process for the constitution of the GTA through democratic election of its members was started in right earnest to ensure that a normal development-oriented administration starts functioning sooner under a popularly elected body. The State Government’s eagerness to ensure peace and all-round development of the hills and its proud people is well underscored by the frequent visits by the Chief Minister to monitor and pursue various developmental activities in the region. The GTA is eventually all set to usher in a new era of positive developments and economic progress in Darjeeling. However, there is need to tread prudently and methodically to chart a customized course of development.
The first and foremost thing the new body should do is a SWOT analysis i.e. finding out the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to set out its development priorities in clear terms. Consequent upon such an analysis, the new body should design a development plan, which should be in sync with the local ecology and should be sustainable. Judicious allocation of resources among different prioritized sectors would also be crucial to ensure a bigger bang for the buck.
GTA, with the dissolution of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), will inherit its huge army of around 6500 employees and reportedly a good number of them get their remuneration without their services being adequately utilized. So even while new need-based recruitments are made, it ought to be first ensured that all these people are suitably and rationally redeployed to harness their services in the cause of development. And it is a cinch that all these people would be more than delighted to render their services. DGHC also bequeathed a number of one-time assets, which have all become white elephants. The new body, after having made an inventory of this bequest, should conceptualize a plan to make them gainful and productive assets. With some ingenuous and creative tinkering, these assets could also be easily harnessed towards generating good employment opportunities for local youth.
Many observers suggest that it would be advisable for the new body to avoid the ‘Big Schemes-Big Projects’ focus of the erstwhile DGHC and should, instead, focus on such schemes and programmes as have wider outreach and directly impact the quality of life of the hoi-polloi. Such schemes and programmes inter alia subsume those relating to agriculture, public health engineering, rural development, health, education and disaster management. There are a huge number of cognate schemes and programmes being sponsored by the Union and state governments, which, if run properly, would benefit hundreds of thousands of local people resulting in improvement in the quality of life. This planning should have a judicious mix of long and short-term goals in conformity with perceived and felt needs. The big-ticket projects should be subject to availability of resources without compromising the interest of the priority sectors. And in all big projects, environment impact assessment (EIA) should be made mandatory.
To start with, one feels that it would be very essential to get the basics right. It would be advisable to first restore infrastructure, which is now in a shambles due to multiple negative factors and circumstances. With the right supervision and monitoring, Pareto optimal outcomes could be more easily ensured than has been the case so far. Many of the sectors don’t require as much financial allocation as they require keen monitoring and supervision including those relating to health, education, women and child welfare. A participatory model of development administration, which ensures stakeholders’ involvement at different stages, would suit the region. Enlightened and interested people in various walks of life should and could be associated with the development administration.
Another problem, as noticed by many observers during the functioning of the erstwhile DGHC, was a lack of apposite synergy between the autonomous bodies of the DGHC and the district administration. Observers feel that there was a lack of coordination between the two, thereby defeating the interests of development. So, the new GTA ought to ensure that there is an integrated approach to development with involvement of and coordination with all wings of development administration. GTA is an instrumentality to realize the end of development and is not an end in itself. So while guarding its hard-won autonomy, it should also ensure that this is not at the expense of the larger developmental interests of society. Wholesome synergy and coordination would have to be worked out in due course.
Coming to the four major priority areas requiring attention, one would list them as connectivity, traffic, solid waste management and disaster management. Darjeeling being one of the most favoured tourist destinations in the country, it is very necessary that connectivity to the hills is improved significantly. Apart from using various Government grants and own resources for improvement, there would also be a need to conceive public private partnerships (PPP) for creating new infrastructure and for its better upkeep. Many of the key roads could be turned into toll roads for generating resources to maintain them better. Railways, ropeways and helicopter services need to be conceptualized for addressing the problem of connectivity in a better way.
Solid waste management is another key area, which warrants urgent attention. While these days many urban local bodies undertake the conservancy work themselves, the smarter ones have already either outsourced it or have started levying user charges for better service delivery. A beginning has already been made in this direction in the form of ‘Home-to-Home’ garbage collection by the Darjeeling municipality in almost half of its wards, which shall soon be extended to the rest. The other municipal bodies should follow suit.
Traffic has been a problem in all hill stations and Darjeeling is no exception. But with some planning and thought, the traffic situation could improve dramatically. However, better conservancy and better traffic management both require better regulation by municipal bodies for which they might need to take some unpopular decisions. In fact, all the four major towns within GTA’s bailiwick namely Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mirik share the same problems. Hence, GTA shall need to work out a coordinated action plan in these sectors in consultation with the relevant stakeholders.
Moreover, it would be a challenge to not only the newly elected GTA, but also for all urban local bodies to generate resources without hurting the common man. It would be quite a herculean task to balance the two interests. Like a trapeze artist, GTA would require to walk a tightrope to think of ways and means to generate newer sources of revenue based on the experiences of similar bodies elsewhere. However, for all these developmental expeditions, an extended period of peace shall be required to facilitate Darjeeling’s ushering in a new dawn of development.
The last one year of peace in the hills saw record arrivals of tourists, with multiplier effects for other sectors of the economy. This peace ~ since the signing of the tripartite agreement ~ has already worked as a springboard for development in the area with the active prodding of the government. Many new schemes and projects, including restoration of key infrastructure, have already commenced. Tourism being the backbone of Darjeeling’s economy, the tourism department is preparing a ‘Master Plan’ for composite tourism development in the region.
Today, the GTA is generating positive vibes all over the country. Many regions where similar demands for autonomy have been raised are looking at the GTA experiment with interest. The Hills are really smiling, looking forward to their deserved place in the sun.
(Courtesy: The Statesman)