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FREEDOM IN A STRETCH OF LAND

Ever since Subash Ghisingh raked up the Sixth Schedule in 2005, almost every community among the Gorkhas — from the Brahmins to the Newars (the trading class) — is running from pillar to post to get itself enlisted as a schedule tribe.

The hill people believe that the ST status would lead to economic empowerment by opening up job opportunities. They are right in thinking along these lines, but there is still no hope for a certain section of the hill people who can broadly be classified as the “plantation class”.

This class comprises more than 75 per cent of the hill population. They were the first to clear the forests in the hills and set up tea gardens and cinchona plantations way back in the 1830s. They are Gorkhas and composed of Brahmins, Newars and other Nepali-speaking communities, but till this day they remain deprived of their land rights. Darjeeling perhaps has the largest tract of contiguous land in the country which has been housing landless people for nearly two centuries.

The demand for “tribal status” is a relatively new phenomenon, largely orchestrated by the urban, educated community leaders, but the more important issue of providing land rights to the plantation people remains ignored.

Leaders are oblivious to the fact that the majority of the hill people are landless. For generations, these people have lived in labour quarters set up in these leased land by garden owners. A lucky few have kitchen garden but they can never call it their own.

In the cinchona plantations, the situation is no better. These plantations were set up in the late 1800s and the people still continue to live in land that has been leased by the forest department to the directorate of cinchona and other medical plantations. Generations have lived and died in government-owned staff and labour quarters in these plantations.

It is time for the leaders to revert back to history and trace the issue of land possession before the tea gardens and cinchona plantations were set up. Many historians believe that the hill people might have lost their land rights with the coming of the British raj and continuation of this system in post-colonial India. In the past, there have been demands for pattas for plantation workers. But these demands have been drowned by the larger outcry for a Gorkhaland.

It is true that people living in tea-growing areas elsewhere in the country, too, are facing similar problems, but the case of the hill people of Darjeeling is unique. Unlike other tea-growing regions, the entire stretch where the hill people are living — except for some parts of Kalimpong sub-division — is leased land hemmed in by forests.

Building community assets was a Herculean task in these areas even a few years back. It was only in 2001 that these areas were brought under the purview of a two-tier panchayat system — once again, a unique constitutional arrangement made for the Darjeeling Hills. Sadly, the panchayat too has remained defunct and elections have not been held for the past two years. This has not been addressed in the Sixth Schedule Bill for Darjeeling Hills.

If the government, and, more importantly the leaders of the hills, are serious about empowering the hill people, a concerted effort needs to be made to provide land rights to the majority of the hill people. Demand for self-rule and greater autonomy are actually offshoots of the people’s economic aspirations.

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