Amid haphazard urbanisation and renewed demands for Gorkhaland, Darjeeling needs a farsighted plan to maintain its fragile economy-ecology balance, says Omar Rashid.

October 2008: The majestic Mt. Kangchenjunga reclined under a spotless October sky as the historic Mall Road bustled with tourists and locals. I sat in a popular restaurant savouring my beverage. The view was sumptuous: green-brown hills and narrow cascades. Disrupting the reverie, some men barged in with video cameras and confronted locals (essentially Nepalis) who were not wearing daura-suruwal (traditional attire for Nepali men).

Sensing trouble, some customers slipped out but those caught off-guard were roughed up and threatened. Their humiliation was unceremoniously filmed. An anxious tourist quickly removed his Khukhri-adorned Nepali cap and stuffed it into his bag. Others were too shocked to react. Barely a week later, some youths had their faces blackened in public view. The reasons were the same: defying the “dress-code” imposed to show tourists the uniqueness of “Gorkha” culture.

Much has changed in Darjeeling Hills since these incidents. Then the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) had issued a series of diktats (and bandh calls) during peak tourist season demanding a separate Gorkhaland state. The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), which came into existence in 2011, put the movement for a separate State in cold storage and partially restored political stability. But, with the creation of Telangana, the andolan (agitation) is back in the hills, paralysing normal life and impacting the livelihood of thousands. Once again, as visitors make emergency exits to the plains, a fresh uncertainty of an indefinite bandh looms over Darjeeling.

I remember asking a French trekker back in 2009: “Why do you guys come here each year when you have the Alps?” And he replied, “The Alps are too customised…arrow heads telling you where to go, when to stop. Here it is raw, natural.” This rugged landscape, coupled with a tinge of colonial Britain, attracts over 50,000 foreign and five lakh Indian tourists each year.

Now, arrow heads aren’t necessarily bad for a tourist. And if we consider the number of arrow heads and signboards that have come up (and gone) in Darjeeling recently, tourists can only rejoice. As a bonus, roads have been repaired and beautified, buildings raised at prime locations, and entire markets shifted to make more space for tourists to walk on. It is understood to be part of a grand plan to sell Darjeeling as a world-class tourist destination. Fair enough — Darjeeling needs some tinkering. But, in the long-term, mere cosmetic development is detrimental to Darjeeling’s fragile topography and to its inhabitants.

It compels us to return to the oft-asked question: How much tourism is healthy? Separate State or not, this question needs to be addressed immediately. The pressures of tourism have led to the mushrooming of buildings well over the prescribed 11.5 metres over the slope. Tourists now have to jostle harder and get past touts to find hotels that provide an unobstructed view of the Kanchenjunga at reasonable rates. But the issues are much more serious than a “snow-view” crisis.

The hill station has its own limited carrying capacity — according to some estimates, just over 10,000 people. Yet, its population density hovers at over 10,000/sqkm; it has grown 47 per cent between 1991 and 2000. The water supply barely meets the needs; many do brisk business simply selling water. The much-hyped Balasun project, which will end Darjeeling’s water woes, is in a limbo. If you are a frequent visitor to Darjeeling, you will have heard the hotel staff requesting people to go easy on the water.

Given the area’s fragile topography, landslides are inescapable. District officials admit that heavy traffic, blockages of the jhoras (little cascades) and construction of motorable roads on vulnerable terrain have aggravated the situation; not to speak of rapid and haphazard urbanisation, encroachments and unauthorised constructions. A high-profile victim is the World Heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Toy Train.

The Energy Research Institute has identified Darjeeling as one of the most vulnerable areas to climatic change in West Bengal. What floods did to Uttarakhand, an earthquake or landslides could do to Darjeeling. Forest cover, now barely 30 per cent, has been on a steady decline, coinciding with its takeover by the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation Limited in 1970s. With its altitude and proximity to some of the world’s highest mountains, Darjeeling is arguably India’s most accessible backpackers’ destination. This generates viable livelihood options for hundreds of local trekking guides. However, there is a downside. To pull in more trekkers, over the years, stone-carpeted trekkers’ tracts have been created by cutting down trees and demolishing huge rocks, which prevented erosion of the slopes. The consequent loss of fuel has also led to unchecked rural timber smuggling, which hardly makes news. Even if it is argued that the environmental costs are little in comparison to the benefits, the tourism practice in Darjeeling is lopsided and poorly managed.

Low land holdings in the rural areas and diminishing agricultural returns compel farmers to take off to Darjeeling town, thus loading it with more pressure. Since traditional methods of crop cultivation are not economically viable, plantation crops have suffered.

A 2010 Planning Commission study observed that, in Darjeeling, the focus had shifted from provision of basic tourism facilities to personal livelihood options, leading to fears of misuse of funds at the expense of civic use. The study also said that the option of low cost eco-friendly toilets for tourists was a major requirement, but had not been yet explored. Add to this, 50 metric tons of solid waste generated daily and poor general sanitation facilities.

Besides building an ethic of over-commercialisation, tourism has also had a negative impact on the social fabric of the Hills. Tourism-related socio-economic changes during the 1980-90s led to rampant drug abuse and HIV/AIDS among the youth. Recently, the media was hyperventilating over the fact that Bollywood films had returned to the hills. Tourism could only grow, many argued. To be fair, it did. Darjeeling has been flooded with tourists over the last two seasons. But Darjeeling has always had tourists, hasn’t it?

Darjeeling’s prime attraction is its natural serenity. This is now under threat. The real challenge is to find a balance between tourism and sustainable growth. There is a need to chart a customised course of development. Support to higher education facilities and employment avenues, boost to indigenous trade and food, health facilities and local regulation of the tea industry will surely help. What the area does not need is over-urbanisation.

That brings us back to the Mall, the 1.5 kilometre stretch of road that defines Darjeeling. Today, construction work is on to build a 300-capacity modern open air theatre. To make space, the historic 115-year-old Brabourne Park — gifted by the maharaja of Cooch Behar and named after Lord Brabourne, then Governor of Bengal — was destroyed. And, just in case you are curious about the open-view restaurant where I sat adoring the Kangchenjunga, it has been transformed into an urbane luxury coffee shop. Business has been good, I hear. But tourists are an unfaithful breed, aren’t they?