08 Mar 2011 09:48 pm IST

Books vs bullets: Stir hits Darjeeling boarding schools


Darjeeling, March 8 (IANS) The violent agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland in north Bengal has taken its toll on the internationally famed boarding schools of Darjeeling, with some considering shifting to safer areas or closing down altogether.

The 50-odd major boarding schools in the three hill subdivisions of northern West Bengal’s Darjeeling district draw around 15,000 students mostly from well-to-do families in various parts of India and even foreign countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand and South Korea.

These schools are worried about the recent spurt in violence, including the death of three supporters of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), which is spearheading the stir, in police firing in the Shipchu area of Jalpaiguri district early February.

Enraged GJM activists torched tourist lodges, forest bungalows, fire service stations, a checkpost, two police outposts and other government offices. The supporters allegedly also looted rifles and ammunition in the hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong.

“The recent uproar has created a fear psychosis among guardians. They are reluctant to send their wards to school. As a result, the attendance of students in schools, mainly in Kalimpong, has come down drastically. We are finding it difficult to run the school,” said Rabondra Subba, director of the Himali Boarding School in Kurseong.

He said most of his school’s students come from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries like Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, apart from India’s northeastern states.

“The guardians are scared because of the ongoing agitation by GJM and they are pulling out their wards from the schools. A large number of withdrawals has been reported in several schools this year,” he said.

Like Subba, the principals of other schools also admitted that guardians were withdrawing students, but blamed the media for creating a hype.

“Most media outlets came out with the story that the firing occurred in Darjeeling and GJM supporters have torched government properties and vehicles, though it occurred near the Bhutan border. They also published that there was no rule of law in the hills. That’s why parents from outside Darjeeling are scared of sending their wards here,” said Chetan Tiwari, principal of St. Anthony’s School.

“With the implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations, the salaries of teachers have increased; so have the establishment costs; and if the student strength goes down day by day, we have to close down our school,” said Tiwari.

“Either we have to sell out our school here and move to the plains or shift to another business,” he said.

However, students in Class 10 and at the plus two level have started coming back.

“Our school opened a week ago; students have started coming. Five to six students have taken transfer, but others are yet to come,” said Subba.

The principal of a reputed boarding school in Kalimpong said: “The schools in Kalimpong are badly affected. Because of close proximity, students from Sikkim and Bhutan crowd these schools, but most of them are not attending classes due to the agitation. The student strength in reputed institutions like Rockvale Academy has come down by 60 percent.”

The Sacred Heart school has opened its branch in the plains of Siliguri in Darjeeling. And they are toying with the idea of shifting the entire school to Siliguri, said the principal.

He, however, hoped: “Things will change and we will get back to our full strength in the near future.”

Interestingly, the principals said GJM’s leaders are going out of their way to help them in running the schools.

“During indefinite shutdown calls, they allowed us to import food, medicines and other essential goods for the boarders in our schools. Not a single student was harassed or suffered from hunger during the indefinite shutdown period,” said Subba.

GJM spokesperson Harka Bahadur Chetri said: “We are well aware of the situation. It’s an economic blockade conspired by opposition political parties and the ruling Marxist government against the Morcha to tarnish our image. We have nothing to do with it. If the schools close down, we will do something else to boost the economy.”

He urged guardians to come and visit the hills and talk to school principals to understand the situation better, rather than take a decision based on media reports.

Since the late 1980s, voices in Darjeeling demanding a separate Gorkhaland state to be carved out of the district and parts of neighbouring Jalpaiguri have grown louder. For the last three years, GJM has been spearheading the movement and called several indefinite shutdowns which have brought life to a standstill in the hills.

08 Mar 2011 03:56 am IST

Norm reminder on tea wage talks

The Telegraph

Darjeeling, March 7: The apex body of tea producers’ associations in India today almost rejected the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s demand for talks on garden workers’ wage revision, saying the matter could not be discussed with only one union by flouting established norms of the industry.

Members of the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations sat down for a meeting in Calcutta today to discuss the embargo on the first flush of Darjeeling tea by the Morcha to press for the fulfilment of a charter of demands, including hike in the workers’ wages.

Members of the Committee include the Darjeeling Tea Association, Indian Tea Association and Terai Indian Planters’ Association.

The Committee said in a press release after the meeting that there had been a practice of holding parleys with all major trade unions in a composite manner on demands for wage hike and others. “The union (Morcha-affiliated Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union) has departed from these established norms threatening to completely disrupt operations of the Darjeeling tea industry,” said the Committee.

The associations want the Morcha to provide time for negotiations.“Our associations received the charter of demands on March 3 but they again issued a threat of blockade without providing any time for discussions,” Monodeep Dasgupta, the secretary-general of the Committee said over the phone from Calcutta.


07 Mar 2011 09:29 am IST

Hill front to avoid common candidates

The Telegraph

Darjeeling, March 6: The Democratic Front will not have candidates under its banner in the coming Assembly elections in the hills, but the conglomeration of the anti-Gorkha Janmukti Morcha parties might support each other’s candidates.

The ABGL, CPRM, GNLF-C and the Sikkim-Darjeeling Ekikaran Manch are the main constituents of the DF.

Dawa Sherpa, the working president of the ABGL and the convener of the DF, said: “The ABGL today held a meeting and we have decided to actively take part in the elections. An 11-member team of the party has been formed to explore the possibilities of tie-ups and to select candidates for the polls.”

He made it clear that the DF would not have common candidates in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong Assembly seats. “The Front is not an electoral alliance but a political alliance formed essentially to restore peace and democracy in the hills. In fact, this was stated clearly when the Front was formed,” said Sherpa.

The ABGL is of the opinion that the identity of each party in the DF must be safeguarded. “We will not have a common candidate but we might talk to other parties to work out a situation where we might support the other party’s nominee and similarly seek their support for our party candidates,” said Sherpa.

The ABGL leader’s announcement is significant as during the last Assembly elections in 2006, the same parties had come under the banner of the People’s Democratic Front (PDF) and had fielded three candidates in the three hill seats. All the three candidates came second in the elections, polling together nearly one lakh votes in the hills.

It was largely expected that the DF would field common candidates in the hills this year also. Observers believe that a common candidate could have strengthened the anti-Morcha forum.

“Even if the parties do decide to support each other’s candidates, there will be no united fight to win the elections as the onus will be on the party fielding the candidate in a particular seat to ensure victory. The other parties in the front will only support their partner’s candidate and not actively campaign in the polls,” said an observer.


05 Mar 2011 04:22 am IST

Interlocutor calls it a day

The Telegraph

Darjeeling, March 4: Vijay Madan, the Centre’s interlocutor to hold talks on the Darjeeling impasse, today tendered his resignation, indicating that not much progress could be achieved on the issue.

“With the Assembly elections round the corner, there is no possibility of some dramatic announcement. I have tendered my resignation as I did not want to hang around uselessly,” Madan told The Telegraph over the phone from Delhi.

Observers believe this is an indication from Madan that a new government in the state could think of a different arrangement which could nullify the entire negotiations that Madan had been working hard to get through. He had been appointed by the Union home ministry to co-ordinate the talks between the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the Centre and the state.

The fact that no concrete settlement could be reached on the impasse shows that the interlocutor could not influence the negotiations much.

Sources said Madan had been pressing hard for an early settlement on the interim set-up for the Darjeeling hills before the model code of conduct came into force in Bengal on March 1. Madan had also called Morcha president Bimal Gurung, hours before the Assembly polls were announced on March 1, to impress on him the need to sign an agreement, claimed a source.

“Gurung was, however, adamant that unless the formation of a joint verification committee featured in the settlement, he would not agree to ink the deal. This, perhaps disappointed the interlocutor,” said the source.

Harka Bahadur Chhetri, the spokesperson for the Morcha, said a text message had been sent to the party by Madan informing them about the resignation. “It (resignation) is his personal choice and we cannot comment on that,” said Chhetri.

It is, however, not clear whether the Union home ministry has accepted Madan’s resignation.

05 Mar 2011 04:21 am IST

Tea embargo kicks off to extract more


Darjeeling, March 4: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha today upped the ante by enforcing an embargo on the first flush of Darjeeling tea to fulfil en extended charter of demands, which include housing and medical benefits, apart from a double hike in wages for garden workers in the hills.

Morcha chief Bimal Gurung had announced earlier that the embargo would be in force from March 7 if the wages were not hiked by the previous day. However, the party changed the tack and advanced the embargo today as “gardens have started manufacturing the first flush.”

“We have learnt that some gardens have started manufacturing the first flush and that is why we have decided to advance the embargo,” said Suraj Subba, the general secretary of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union.

Besides the demand for the increase in the wage from Rs 67 to Rs 120-154, the union affiliated to the Morcha sought negotiations with garden owners on dearness allowance (DA), variable dearness allowances (VDA) and uniform rate for extra leaf price. The other demands relate to housing, ration, firewood, clothing and medical benefits.

Asked about the reason for raising more demands, Subba said: “Wage negotiations take place once in three years and it is a routine practice to place a charter of demands before the talks.”

Among the new demands is a hike in the DA, which is payable to the staff and sub-staff. “Since the agreement on wages and other payments is for a period of three years, the industry would not pay DA in the first year. Garden employees get DA at the rate of 8 per cent and 16 per cent for the second and the third years respectively,” said a source. (more…)

04 Mar 2011 04:32 am IST

Gorkha protests bleed north Bengal

Shine Jacob
Kumani / Darjeeling
March 3, 2011, 0:44 IST

Economy takes a hit, with tourist arrivals declining 70% and tea production 17% since 2008.

“Tell them you are not a Bengali.” The survival tip from a top Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader was almost ominous.

Streets draped in green-white-yellow GJM flags, a small procession on every street, road blockades and candle-light vigils gave an appearance that the hills were backing the Gorkhaland movement, or, perhaps, just wanted to sever ties with West Bengal.

The resentment was against the West Bengal government’s policies, or the lack of them. But, ironically, the agitation demanding a separate Gorkhaland has been slowly, but steadily, eating into the economic backbone of this part of the state.

With strikes and bandhs becoming a daily affair in the last three years, tourists are deserting their once-favourite holiday destination. The streets used to be buzzing with tourists and the economy zoomed, with the lush tea industry. But for Darjeeling and North Bengal, that’s history.

Today’s reality is a 70 per cent drop in tourists and a significant impact on an already stressed tea industry.

“The number of tourists has halved since the movement by GJM gathered steam in 2008,” says Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce President B M Garg. (more…)

04 Mar 2011 04:23 am IST

Fast withdrawn

The Telegraph

The Morcha on Thursday lifted its indefinite hunger strike in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Gorubathan.

The withdrawal came on a day when the Centre asked the Bengal government to shift those on fast to hospitals. Fortunately for the Left Front government, the Morcha lifted the fast before anything was to be done.

Five Morcha members each had been on fast at the four places since Friday to demand a CBI probe into the Sibchu police firing. The party withdrew the hunger strike as the government couldn’t recommend the CBI probe after the model code of conduct had come into force with the declaration of polls.

Meanwhile, the GNLF today formed its Kurseong branch committee with Palden Lama as its president.

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