Feb. 5: The state cabinet today cleared a proposal to set up a Lepcha development board under the backward classes welfare department, setting up a fresh point of confrontation with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in the hills.
The Morcha is opposed to the formation of any hill body outside the purview of the GTA Sabha and Bimal Gurung, the party chief and the chief executive of the GTA Sabha, had made it clear that any development board of the Lepchas should be under the GTA Sabha. Today, when asked about the government’s decision, senior Morcha leader Roshan Giri said the move was “arbitrary” and “an encroachment on the powers” of the GTA.
The board has been named the Mayel Lyang Lepcha Development Board — Mayel Lyang Lepcha in Lepcha language loosely means the land of the Lepchas.
A senior minister said: “Mamatadi had promised the Lepchas that a board would be formed for their welfare and development. The community members were apprehensive about their survival. The chief minister felt that they needed support and has kept her word.”
Lepchas, who are regarded as the original inhabitants of the hills, make up about 20 per cent of the population there.
During her visit to the hills last week, Mamata had a meeting with representatives of the Lepcha community at Algarah, near Kalimpong, and had assured them that work would start soon.
On January 31, when the chief minister came down to Siliguri after her trip to the hills, she told a news conference: “We have decided to form a development council for the Lepchas. It will work for the development of the Lepchas who also reside in the hills. There are also large numbers of Buddhists in the hills for whom we have decided to form a separate development council.”
Government sources said the proposal was added later to the agenda for the cabinet meeting that was held this afternoon.
According to sources, the details on the formation of the board would be worked out later. The chairman and the vice-chairman of the board would be from the community, a government source said.
“The number of members in the board... is yet to be decided. An officer of the rank of joint secretary would be appointed as member-secretary,” a senior government official said.
The focus of the board would be on overall development of the community, preservation of their language and culture, their education, support for improving lifestyle through agriculture, horticulture, pisciculture, tourism and cottage industry, the official said.
Mobile health units, rural health centres and also indigenous treatment procedures of the Lepchas would be promoted.
The Lepchas never had any territorial demand.
“The board will be set up under the Societies Act and will not have any political powers,” the senior official said. “The council will be based in Kalimpong.”
Funds for the projects to be taken up by the board would be released through the departments concerned of the state government. “Central funds would also be provided,” the official added.
Morcha leader Giri, who is now in Delhi, said over phone: “It is an arbitrary decision taken by the state government and an encroachment on the powers and functioning of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration Sabha.”
He said if “the Lepchas are given such privileges then the other communities residing in the hills should get the same. We protest this decision strongly.”
Representatives of the Lepcha community were reluctant to speak on the matter. L. Tamsang, the president of the Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association, and N.T. Lepcha, the co-ordinator of the Lepcha Rights Movement, refused to take calls.
The president of the Lepcha Youth Association, Dorji Lepcha, said he had heard about the cabinet’s decision. “I have heard the news. However, I am not the right person to comment on the development,” he said.
In the GTA memorandum of agreement (MoA), there is a clause for nomination of minorities to the GTA Sabha. “The GTA Sabha shall consist of forty five elected members and five members to be nominated by the Governor to give representation to members of SC, ST, women, and minority communities,” the MoA says.
The Lepchas are a minority section in the hills. At present, the GTA Sabha does not have any nominated member from the Lepcha community.
At least one rival party of the Morcha, the CPRM, raised a question on the “intention of the government”.
Tara Mani Rai, the CPRM secretary, said: “What is the intention of the government (in forming such councils)? Could it be a conspiracy to divide hill people?”