Column : Bridging the trust deficit in Darjeeling

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Jul 20 2011, 09:02am hrs
Mamata Banerjee is in a hurry. She made that clear on May 20, the day she was sworn in as West Bengal chief minister. When names of only two of her Cabinet colleagues were announced, industry minister Partha Chatterjee and finance minister Amit Mitra, the chief minister said the state government had decided to return 400 acres of Singur land to unwilling farmers. Then, in the press conference that followed, she said she would work towards bringing peace to Junglemahal (where Maoist writ runs) and Darjeeling, where the agitation surrounding the demand for Gorkhaland has nearly suffocated three crucial industriestourism, tea and education. On Monday, chief minister Banerjee was present at Pintail in Siliguri in the foothills of Darjeeling where a tripartite agreement was signed between the Centre, state and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) to set up an autonomous body called the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA).

Taking lessons from the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council that was set up by the Left government two decades ago, but which failed to keep the peace in the hills, Banerjee sweetened the new deal by announcing a slew of measures, financial and territorial. But, typically, she left the most critical issuethe demand by the Gorkhaland agitators to include Gorkha-dominated areas of Siliguri, the Terai and Dooars within the GTAto be resolved later, setting up a committee to decide on that. Even in the Singur case, the chief minister hurried through an Act (the Singur Development and Rehabilitation Act), till the case, as she must have known, landed up straight in the courts and will now take its own course.

But even sceptics will allow that the chief ministers daring move on Darjeeling has brought a semblance of peace in the region. Although her dream of transforming Darjeeling into Switzerland may remain just thata dreamwith the setting up of the GTA, the hill station may get some of its glory back with a focus on rebuilding infrastructure, ensuring water supply and making it tourist-friendly like it once was. West Bengal, which sends the largest contingent of tourists to other states, has had to stay away from Darjeeling for far too many years due to frequent bandhs and agitations. Although the contentious issue of including Gorkha-dominated areas in the GTA has not been resolved, the chief minister has managed to create a feeling of trust with the GJM, something that the Left failed to do.

With the Trinamool now one of UPA-2s strongest allies, she has also been able to get a lot more out of the Centre. For instance, she has ensured that the Centre shells out R200 crore each year for three years to the GTA; in comparison, the Darjeeling Hill Council got only R22 crore with a matching grant from the state. With this, the GTA too will have far less to complain about once it begins its business of rebuilding the hills. The chief minister has also given the new authority a lot more responsibilityfor instance, at least 50-odd departments, such as tauzi, agriculture and school education will be under the GTA. The tauzi department is crucial because it will allow GTA to collect the land lease fees paid by tea gardens.

In her speech at Siligurithe signing couldnt be held in the hills because of a spot of bad weatherBanerjee made plainspeople happy when she said, Bangla bhag hochche naDarjeeling is the heart of West Bengal, Darjeeling is not outside West Bengal. We will stay together. With GJM leaders present on the dais when she said this, it can be assumed that they may have put their Gorkhaland demand on hold. Privately, though, GJM leaders must be keenly watching the Telangana agitation. If the Centre gives its nod to a Telangana state, it will be difficult to contain the Gorkhaland agitation to a Gorkhaland Territorial Authority.

There are other pressing issues tugging at Banerjees government. Ever since she became the chief minister, she has announced a slew of populist measures, including rice at R2 a kg for the Junglemahal poor and so forth; but where are the funds True, she has held rounds of talks with the Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, and the Planning Commission has raised the outlay for 2011-12 to R22,214 crore from R18,000 crore last fiscal, but will that be enough to support all her announcements Tax collection is still tardy, the PDS in a shambles and the health sector in total disarray, which means she will need more funds to keep Bengal afloat. Even in the Singur case, although she announced that the government was willing to pay compensation, where will the money come from

Ahead of her partys July 21 Brigade Ground gathering in Kolkata to celebrate the massive victory in the assembly pollsincidentally, this is the first time the Trinamool will hold a rally at Brigade Maidan, Kolkatas lungs and, till now, the Lefts preserveBanerjee has ensured that the key points in her manifesto have been seemingly tackled: Singur, states finances, Junglemahal and Gorkhaland. But in Bengals case, well begun is not half done.

sudipta.datta@expressindia.com