A Hill Dawn

Kalimpong, so far no more than Darjeeling’s little sister, is in the spotlight. The government has not only declared it a district, but has also drawn up a master plan to revive tourism and infrastructure in the hill town. Saibal Sen analyzes the situation from Ground Zero

Kolkata: It was back in October 2013 that chief minister Mamata Banerjee first spoke of her intent to turn Kalimpong into a second Darjeeling.

Cut to February, 2017 — the chief minister announces the formation of Kalimpong as a separate district, rewriting a 152-year-old history which has always seen it overshadowed by its big sister, the Queen of the Hills.

Most symbolic, perhaps, is her proposal to carve out a mall in Kalimpong to rival the one at Darjeeling, where all tourists inevitably gravitate for a bit of sip-and-bite, shopping, pony-riding and for taking in panoramic views of the Kanchenjungha.

A mall in Kalimpong sounds just like what the doctor ordered to turn ‘little sister’ into a tourist magnet. Banerjee also had other plans up her sleeve. She said the Kalimpong jail — a Raj-era building, now crumbling, in the centre of the town which offers breathtaking mountain views — would be shifted. Shankar Chakraborty and H A Safi, both former prison ministers, had inspected the prison and proposed land to relocate it.

The idea of a mall in Kalimpong isn’t new. And, this time around, the announcement was met with enthusiasm. “We welcome the chief minister’s announcement,” says Harka Bahadur Chhetri, a former Kalimpong MLA who has persistently voiced his demand for a separate district of Kalimpong. “When you enter Kalimpong,” he explains, “the first thing you encounter is the police station, and then the prison. It isn’t a good sight, now that Kalimpong is also the district headquarters. Also, the prison almost occupies the centre of the town. This is a good, bold step.”

For many, the push for Kalimpong is logical, inevitable even. Darjeeling is plagued by poor infrastructure. In 1850, when the British created Darjeeling municipality, it was meant to house only 10,000 people. The 2011 census pegs the Darjeeling population at 1.32 lakh. With space stuck at a mere 12.77sq km, as many as 8,548 people share every square kilometre of the town. Add to this the estimated 30,000 tourists who are in Darjeeling at any given point, and the result is chaos in an increasingly cramped hill resort.

Others see in this move a deft political manoeuvre. It makes sense for Bengal to have another hill station that can rival Darjeeling, the epicentre of the bloody Gorkhaland movement of the late 80s and the post-2007 agitation. The first banner of revolt always goes up in Darjeeling, and it’s the first to be shut down. This hits the state exchequer, as tourists steer clear of Bengal. But can Kalimpong, at an altitude of 1,250 metres, be made to rival Darjeeling, at 2,042.2 metres? More so, as land acquisition in the largely agrarian Kalimpong could be a hurdle.

Within a day of announcing the formation of Bengal’s 21st district, the chief minister rekindled her three-and-a-half-year-old dream.

In an administrative meeting with the 15 development boards she had set up (most headquartered in Kalimpong), Banerjee asked them to fast-track the spending of Rs 297 crore given to them to beef up infrastructure. She set them a March-end deadline.

Many believe that with Kalimpong now becoming a district, the place’s true potential can be unlocked. In fact, before winding up her trip, the chief minister handed her wish-list to state tourism minister Gautam Deb and his deputy Indranil Sen: 20 places, a bulk of them in Kalimpong, which she wanted developed during this fiscal.

With Lava and Loleygaon remaining primary in the tourist itinerary, places like Gorubathan, Rishyap and Pedong have been largely ignored. Forgotten places like Damsong Fort and Rishi Khola have started to draw tourists only recently.

“A 68km stretch is being developed to connect the Lava-Loleygaon-Rishyap route,” said Deb. “This is jointly being done by the state tourism and forest departments. We also have drawn up an ambitious plan to bring connectivity to Ringsey. Now there is no Bengal-to-Bengal route to this place and one has to take a detour via Sikkim. As a result, developing the road stretch is our priority. We are also developing a small but beautiful mountain hamlet called Chitre, which now falls in Kalimpong district.”

The chief minister also announced the state’s intent to create another tourist lodge at Deolo. This is bound to have its own political ramifications. The present lodge, spread over a huge expanse of land, is administrated by the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). This creates problems in booking; tariffs are also very high. Deb said: “This is being built over 13 acres of land, just above the Kalimpong Science City. We hope to complete it within two-three months.”

The state tourism department, under the aegis of the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation, has already been developing the Morgan House and Tashiding Tourist Lodges, scaling up their occupancy capacities.

Chhetri, however, has a word of caution. “This [the tourism push] can’t be done simply by building resorts and hotels,” he says. “They’ve got to build infrastructure. Only then will private entities invest in the superstructure. Look at what they have done to Darjeeling.”

The chief minister, however, has indicated that she was looking beyond the usual tourism-centric growth. “I want Kalimpong to grow into an education hub. Since time immemorial, schools and colleges here have been cited for their quality of education. I want Kalimpong to reclaim its lost glory,” she said. She also indicated that an IT hub could be set up in Kalimpong. “The state welcomes such investment and we will extend all help to them,” she said. Banerjee also announced the setting up of a permanent exhibition hall to showcase indigenous folk art. Separate horticulture and floriculture hubs are also being set up. The state is also thinking about declaring parts of Kalimpong as “organic” zones.

Deb said the education-hub is near-ready. “Once finished, this is bound to draw private investors and reputable educational institutes to set up medical and engineering colleges,” he said.

The question doing the rounds is whether politics will again play spoilsport. With the chief minister already hinting at the long-overdue elections in the Hills, it will lead to an inevitable face-off between her party and the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha. The formation of Kalimpong district can lead to overlapping administrative roles between the GTA — which has 13 sansads in Kalimpong — and the newly created district administration. For example, GTA has a tourism department and an education department of its own.
Banerjee, however, is optimistic. She believes people will negate the politics of strife and shutdowns. “The GTA has power. The municipalities have it too. I do not have a single elected representative. But I felt I need to provide some extra support. Hence, the formation of 15 development boards. They are working to develop housing, water streams and drinking water. I may not have any (elected) representative but people showered me with love. It was heartfelt. It is your spirit and affection that makes me hopeful,” she said.

“When I started coming to Darjeeling [after 2011], I knew I had to develop Darjeeling. But Darjeeling’s development hemmed around it only and other places like Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mirik remained neglected — Kalimpong, being the biggest and most far-flung. I believe now it is the time for Kalimpong to realise its potential,” she said.

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