Darjeeling has been reeling under a strike, and no one — from local residents to major hill party leaders who had called the strike — knows when it will be withdrawn. The strike has been going on for about a month, but even in the midst the complete shutdown, with no transport, closed shops, banks and ATMs, no internet and not a single tourist, life goes on. How are residents making do without the basic requirements of urban life?
Almost every family in the Hills town stocks up on rations for the entire month at a time. Now, with stocks drying up, several residents have been knocking against downed shutters and buying grain, oil and other essentials at black-market rates. Thankfully, milk is still available in abundance as it has been brought under emergency services like medicines and LPG. But that is about it. As the days roll on, people are forced to subsist on watercress plants and homemade vegetables sold on black from behind car boots or shopkeeper’s homes. At dusk, the usual sight is of people walking with battery-run torches on unlit streets, knocking on every downed store shutter in quest of some food, even at a premium. “We had stocks for close to a month and somehow managed, but now there is a serious scarcity. Food stocks have dwindled in every home,” says Pema Sherpa, who works as a tourist car driver.
While GJM, the party that had first called the bandh, blame the cops and administration, alleging food trucks are bring stopped at Siliguri to cut off the supply to the Hills, the administration alleges that GJM supporters have been looting the trucks and taking the resources to Patlebas, where GJM is headquartered, to feed their own leaders and supporters.
With bus service stalled and no shuttle tourist vehicle operating, the transport system in the Hills have now become dependent on emergency vehicles like ambulances, hearses, funeral cars, school pool cars and doctors’ vehicles. Cars with ‘Ambulance’, ‘Funeral’, ‘On school duty’ stickers on windshields, or with a red cross, to signify it as a vehicle on “emergency duty” are plying within the town as well as to and from Siliguri, carrying multiple passengers, most of whom are neither sick, dead or school-goers. If the entire vehicle is taken on rent, the charge is around Rs 6,000 for a trip from Darjeeling to Siliguri. For an SUV running shuttle service, each passenger has to pay around Rs 600. “People have to commute and they were pressuring us to take out our cars. We checked which are the vehicles exempted from the strike and decided to paste such signs and started taking passengers. We know we are taking a risk but have no other choice,” says a driver who had pasted an “Ambulance” sticker on his Tata Sumo and was spotted carrying a group of locals.
At least eight cars and 13 mini trucks were attacked by strike supporters, causing the death of a driver. Five NBSTC buses were also either damaged or set on fire, following which the bus service has been withdrawn.
With no transport available, people who still have to attend government offices and those on emergency duties, such as in hospitals and colleges, are forced to walk for miles. Labourers carrying two full LPG cylinders were spotted walking for over 5km uphill for delivery at households; examinees appearing for a PSC examination had walked 16km to the exam venue; and some hotel workers who were in urgent need to get down to the plains were also reported to have walked 70km in three days. “Gorkhas by nature are never shy of hard work. So, walking a few kilometres every day is not a problem for us. It is just the incessant rain that is causing a bit of trouble in this period,” says Vincent Pradhan, a teacher at a government college in Darjeeling, who walked 16km every day to and from his home at Ghoom while practical exams were on.
The indoor game of Ludo has found a new shot at life in the strike town with everyone — from cops on duty to local residents — seen engaging in the game at one time or the other, with nothing much to do for the most part of the day. Hooked on to their smartphone, a group of heads cluttered around a screen has become a common sight across every nook and corner of Darjeeling. “What else can we do? The evenings have become dull, with all bars and pubs closed. And with no work and loads of free time, Ludo is the best time-pass,” says tourist guide Pawan Tamang, who finds himself out of work.
Among outdoor games, cricket, football and badminton are ruling the streets. However, with all shops closed, rubber or tennis balls have been replaced by strips of hard paper rolled and glued in the shape of balls, and badminton shuttlecocks have been replaced by bunched-up paper projectiles.
With ATMs and banks shut and people out of business for close to a month, almost every family is suffering from an acute shortage of cash. In this situation, the age-old barter system has made inroads back into Darjeeling — vegetables for biscuits and rice, fuel for liquor, fruits for flour, and milk for nutrition bars and chocolates. For ages, the Nepali-speaking population of the Hills have relied on a unique “exchange plan” of sorts to tide over tough times. When in need, people don’t hesitate to approach neighbours for cereal or flour, only to return the exact quantities when things improve. Now, they have moved a step ahead and turned to barter.
Biju Rai, who runs a stationery shop near the old TV station in Darjeeling, had stacked four crates of biscuits two days before the strike, along with other items. At the onset of the shutdown, he still has ample resources to last days, but no vegetables and very little cash in hand. “Biscuits have become extremely prized in these circumstances. So, I have started trading the biscuit packets with vegetables like tomatoes, watercress and pumpkin from a local vegetable seller, who grows vegetables in her farm,” Rai says.
With all schools and colleges in the Hills shut and GJM using children, some of them as young as three-year-olds in their rallies and political programmes, the future of thousands of little ones in the Hills are in jeopardy.
Schools like Himali Boarding School and St Joseph’s School have all extended summer vacation and say they won’t reopen until the unrest is over. Darjeeling has a number of schools that attract students from abroad as well as from other parts of the country. The ongoing turmoil has been a major cause for concern for teachers and parents. GJM had relaxed the shutdown on June 23 to let students return home. Even as most schools held classes for boarders, day-scholars missed out. They could not even take their mid-terms.
GJM leaders like MLA Amar Rai, Anmol Thapa and Roshan Giri have openly claimed that students need not go to schools and should focus on the fight for Gorkhaland. “If students miss out even one or two years because of the movement, their parents will happily agree,” Rai has said. As a result, most students have no option but to take part in political rallies and play street games all day long.
A rally here, a rally there…
For Hills people, rallies and political meetings have been a part of everyday life. Now, from 10am, some party — it could be GJM, GNLF, ABGL or CPRM — takes out a rally either jointly or alone from Darjeeling station, takes a tour of the city at times through Mall Road and then congregates at Chowk Bazar. At times, they even go to the district magistrate’s office or the local police station and demonstrate for some time. The crowd, comprising the same faces almost every day, is anything from 500- to 2000-strong. The rally ends with the speakers addressing the crowd from the first floor of the Chowk Bazar super market for around an hour before the crowd disperses in the afternoon. “I attend the rallies every day as there is nothing much to do otherwise,” a resident of Chowkbazar admits.
Since June 19, internet services have been in the Hills to ensure residents cannot reach out to the world or spread information through social media. But when nothing is on, the internet ban has made life even worse. A group of enterprising youths, however, have discovered a trickle of network in a pocket behind the Mahakal Temple on Mall Road, from where glimpses of north Sikkim can be caught if there is no cloud cover and rain. Since then hundreds, especially young boys and girls, have been flocking there every day with their smartphones, often under umbrellas, from dawn to midnight. People had been carrying laptops to file passport applications, transfer money, file income-tax returns online, check Facebook or simply play online games. However, for the past two days, even that connection has dwindled.
“With no internet now, we practically have nothing to do. My regular routine has been to jog in the morning along different parts of the city for two hours, and on my way back, to hold my phone up and look for a feeble connection from here and there. Life without the internet is indeed one of utmost pain,” grimaces Amit Tamang, a first-year college student.
Cops are now everywhere in Darjeeling, mostly in riot gear, lining the streets and route-marching every now and then but for the past one month but people no longer approach them. Since June 9, there has not been a single complaint reported at the Darjeeling Sadar police station. All the 39 complaints registered so far have been suo motu complaints by police against unidentified people or known men, mostly for vandalizing government property. “On an average, there are around 30 complaints, mostly of petty crimes, thefts, assaults or property disputes. But since the start of the movement, there has been no complaint,” said an officer.
An appeal to our fellow countrymen concerned with the plight of Gurkha people- the proud ultranationalist, nation builders and sentinels of the frontiers. Support our cause and our legitimate demand for Gor kha land.
Hotels and tourists
For a hill station that is entirely dependent on tourists, no other section of the society has been more hurt than hoteliers and tour operators. With not a single tourist in the Hills and even Puja bookings being cancelled, hotel owners have asked their employees, mostly from the plains, to go back to their homes and return only after the strike eases. “I have 19 employees. Keeping them means paying their salary and arranging for food. With no business and acute scarcity of food at this moment, there is no point keeping them here. I have asked all of them to go down and have promised to call them back once the situation eases,” says a hotel owner on HD Lama Road.