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Northeast Echoes
‘What might befuddle the visitor to Sikkim are the badly constructed and poorly maintained roads’

Post-earthquake Sikkim

Sikkim is a sort of interloper to the Northeast fold. In the consciousness of the average Northeasterner, there are only seven states and when we express our individual or collective angst about developmental backlogs or wax eloquent about our cultural wealth it is about these seven states that we refer to. So why is Sikkim tagged to the Northeast? And how does this help the cause of the seven states?

Sikkim is a late entrant into the Northeast loop. The only reason it was appendaged to the seven states was for development convenience of the ministry for the Development of the North Eastern Region (DoNER) which works through the North Eastern Council (NEC).

In all other aspects, Sikkim is not culturally or emotionally connected to the seven states of the Northeast. A pragmatic look at the issue would also reveal that Sikkim is now going to share a major portion of the development funds of the region. Essentially, this means that Sikkim is cutting into our share of the cake. But thatís no big deal considering that the Government of India is ready and willing to pour in more money here to fatten the ruling elite. Much is touted about the development path charted out by Sikkim particularly under the dynamic Pawan Kumar Chamling. And yes, for those who only visit Gangtok, the scene is certainly impressive.

The scenic capital

Hotel Mayfair is out of this world. Its architecture is no less than any of those seven-starred hotels in the tourism locales of South East Asia. The hotel has a casino (Majong) to boot. Its ambience reeks of opulence and is befitting for a royal guest. And that I suppose is the problem with Sikkim. It may not be a kingdom any longer but rulers, no matter how democratically they are elected, behave like royalty and people treat them as such. At the wedding of the daughter of a dignitary of Sikkim, Chamling came with his entire cabinet entourage. They queued up royal style to wish the couple. The groom (a Chinese from Malaysia) was evidently bowled over by the attention he received from the dignitaries.

Now thatís one part of the story. What might befuddle the visitor to Sikkim are the badly constructed and poorly maintained roads. Reaching Gangtok from Bagdogra airport is a nightmare. The four-hour journey is bone rattling. Visitors with weak stomachs have to stop at several places to get back their breath and their composure. Itís certainly not a joyride to Gangtok. Beyond that if one is to travel to some of the picturesque locales that Sikkim boasts of in its northern peripheries then one must have the physique of a robot. The roads have turned worse after the earthquake. Some drivers like to defend their state saying that the roads have sunken after the recent quake but the locals who are not too loyal say that the roads have always remained the way they are.

There are whispers of rampant corruption in the Pawan Chamling government. It appears that his son and other family members own shares in the casino and also in other businesses. Now there cannot be too many businesses in Sikkim other than the power projects, which are threatening to completely destroy the ecology of that entire region.

In the Northeast we are well aware of the bribes paid by power producing companies to chief ministers and power ministers just to get a toehold in the states. The cuts are huge and no one is really bothered about the ecological impacts of the projects. And nowhere is this more visible than in Sikkim where the Teesta is sought to be tunnelled to generate energy.

Budget bonus

Sikkim is the smallest state with only 7,906 square km area and a population of six lakh. Sikkimís annual plan size for 2011-12 is Rs 1,400 crore. Its budget for 2011-12 is a whopping Rs 8,090 crore.

Compare this to Tripura which has a area of 10,491 square km and the highest population among the seven North Eastern states (36.71 lakh), nearly six times that of Sikkim.

The annual budget of Tripura for 2011-12 is only Rs 6,859 crore. The plan size of Tripura is a mere 1,810 crore. Is there any justification in the manner that the Planning Commission allocates funds to the states? And I cannot help but wonder how a state with a population of 0.6 million can actually have a budget of Rs 8,090 crore. No wonder some of the elite of Sikkim are filthy rich and no development is evident in that state except for the plush MG Marg area in the capital city.

What is appalling is the condition of Sikkim University, which was set up five years ago in Gangtok. Till date the university is functioning from rented accommodation all over the city. Different departments are housed in different little places making it difficult for the university to function efficiently. It is learnt that chief minister Pawan Chamling is unable to see eye-to-eye with the current vice-chancellor, Mahendra Lama, a noted professor of economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. The state government has put up a series of roadblocks for the university such as allocation of land for its premises. According to the local grapevine, Prof. Lama is reverting to the JNU after what appears like an unsuccessful stint in Sikkim. A registrar for the Sikkim University was appointed only very recently. So this is the state of affairs, of the single centre for higher education in the Himalayan state. Clearly Sikkim University is an unwitting victim of politics.

On a flight from Agartala to Delhi I had the rare opportunity to be sitting next to Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar, known to be one of the most effective and least corrupt chief ministers of the region. His plaint was that while states ruled by the Congress had no dearth of funds despite their poor performance, Tripura suffered for being a Left-ruled state. There is a huge difference between the quality of roads in Tripura and Sikkim or any other hill state of the Northeast. Yet all the states devote a huge chunk of their budget to the PWD. The four-lane roads in Agartala are one of the best maintained in the region and perhaps in the country. They should be a role model for all the northeastern states.

Sarkar also lamented that while the Congress-ruled states submitted utilisation certificates for unfinished projects and got away with it, Tripura, which has maintained a principled stand of not indulging in such hanky-panky, is punished for being honest. Well said, indeed, and these are the double standards of a Centre that pays off all those who show allegiance to the ruling dispensation.

Ethnic churning

Sikkim may impress people with its cleanliness and the swish look of Gangtok but there are undercurrents of ethnic churning that are for the time being dormant but are likely to erupt sooner than later. When people get wise to the politics of the day and when they get wind of the huge corruption that people in power indulge in, they are unlikely to remain quiet. Sikkimís manageable population is perhaps the only reason why the unemployment graph has not shot up. But letís not forget that Sikkim today has the highest suicide rates among its youth, higher than even Kerala. This, surely, is a cause of concern.

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)

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