Chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling is an icon in Sikkim. He peers down from street hoardings, his face smiles from the front pages of the local newspapers and his name is reverentially invoked in conversation by the local population. Given that he is currently running his third term in a row since his Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) came to power in 1994, his popularity is on an all-time high. As usually happens with icons, innumerable stories about him float around in the mint fresh air of Sikkim. A famous one goes that when he was a member of the legislative assembly in 1993 he raised his hand in the house to make a point. However, the Speaker, under the influence of the then chief minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, disallowed him from speaking. Chamling took out a candle from his pocket and went around the house as if searching for something in candlelight. He ended his search by coming to the well of the House and saying in a clear voice, “I am looking for democracy in this House. Since it is not here, perhaps it is in the pockets of the chief minister.” A direct consequence of this cry for democracy was that his one-year-old party, SDF, swept the polls in 1994 and has been in power since. Born in 1950, to Nepalese-speaking parents, Chamling has authored a number of books, both in verse and prose. Apart from that, a few volumes of his collected speeches are also available. A recipient of a number of awards, including Chintan Puraskaar in 1987 for poetry, Bharat Shiromani in 1996 for national integration, public welfare and strengthening democracy and the Greenest Chief Minister of India in 1998, Chamling has successfully created an image of a visionary that elevates him from the status of a mere politician. He spoke to FORCE about the opening of the trade route and other issues related to the development of this border state.
During your recent visit to Delhi, you gave a memorandum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging for a tribal status for Sikkim. You have cited the opening of the trade route with China through the Nathu La pass as one of the reasons for demanding the tribal status for the state. How are the two issues related?
Pawan Kumar Chamling: There is no relation between the two. But my demand for a tribal status for Sikkim primarily stems from the fact that before Sikkim became the 22nd state of the Indian Union in 1975 all communities enjoyed equal status and rights in all spheres. However, after 1975, the majority Nepalese community was denied seat reservation in the assembly. The minority Lepcha-Bhutia communities not only got seat reservation in the assembly, they also got the tribal status. It is true that no where in the country does the majority community get reservation but Sikkim is a peculiar case. If the Indian income tax laws are enacted in Sikkim then due to the tribal status the Lepcha-Bhutia communities will be exempt from it, while the Nepalese who do not have the tribal status would be liable to pay the tax. The Nepalese community is bound to resent this. After all, it was because of the efforts of this community primarily that Sikkim became part of India. It was their movement and their endeavour. But today, as part of the Indian Union they are being denied the privileges that even the Chogyal gave them.
Granting the tribal status to Sikkim will not only benefit over five hundred thousand people of the state but the entire country. Given the strategic location of the state, it is very important from the national security perspective to ensure that the state remains peaceful. Today, the people of the state feel Indian at an emotional level. By our efforts, we have created an example that a border state can remain peaceful and free from internal strife.
To mark the first anniversary of FORCE in August 2004, we decided to turn east. FORCE visited Sikkim in July 2004, an area with the highest concentration of troops in the world. In the week that we spent there, FORCE travelled to both Nathu la and North Sikkim. The result was this comprehensive cover story, spanning past, present and the future. Read on
China has silently indicated Sikkim as a part of India in their World Affairs Year Book 2003- 2004, yet not one official has openly said this. What are the implications of this move now that we are talking trade and tourism?
This is a matter between the government of India and China. As far as we are concerned, the opening of the trade route will yield rich dividends. It will have a positive implication for Sikkim and the rest of Asia. Moreover, with the growing environment of peace, the expenditure on defence would come down. And I don’t agree with those who say that opening of the Nathu La trade route would impinge upon our national security. I don’t foresee any compromise on security, intelligence and counter-intelligence. This is an age of satellites and information technology. What is it about us that is hidden from our enemies? Just as we know about their capabilities, they know about us. Moreover, Sikkim became part of India by choice and by a referendum. If one country in the world feels that Sikkim is not part of India then it is their problem.
Preserving the environment is one of your abiding interests. Yet, trade and tourism demand better infrastructure. How do you propose to balance infrastructural development with environmental security?
We want development, but not at the cost of our environment, culture, traditions and way of life. We want to maximise the benefits but minimise the fall-outs. So infrastructure has to be built in such a way that it does not cause environmental hazards. Roads have to be built without felling trees.
Yet there seems to be a problem with the Alternative North Sikkim Highway that the army is keen on constructing. The state government is objecting to the road as a certain portion of it will have to pass through the Kanchenjunga Reserve Forest.
National security is our priority number one. So we are willing to compromise a bit on that. In any case, the highways are beyond the jurisdiction of the state government. The issue of the Alt NSH (Alternative North Sikkim Highway) is currently with the ministry of environment. I will go along with what it decides. I have laid out my priorities very clearly. Topping the list is people security, which is an important component of national security. Environmental security comes next followed by water security. Yet, despite our efforts we get no appreciation from the central government.
What is the reason for that?
It’s all politics at the end of the day. We are a small state with only two members of Parliament, one each in the two houses. So we make no difference to the government in power. We don’t have enough numbers to wield some kind of influence at the Centre.
How do you want to exploit the tourism potential of the state?
I am not in favour of tourism that takes a toll on natural resources. We want to develop Sikkim as an eco-tourism destination, which is why we are emphasising on village tourism, where each village is a complete unit for tourists. Tourists can stay in the villages and explore the rich possibilities of Sikkim, whether it is trekking or adventure tourism. Hence, it is important that the poor have a stake in the growth of tourism. The tourism in the state has grown to five lakhs this year, which includes foreign tourists as well.
It is true that Gangtok, being the state capital receives the maximum number of tourists, but we want the tourists to disperse to other areas. Currently, west Sikkim is slightly more developed as far as tourism is concerned, but we are very keen to develop east and north Sikkim as well. The army has proposed to develop adventure tourism in Yumthang Valley in the north. We are looking at that possibility as well.
It is clear that Sikkim has a lot of potential for tourism. But the road conditions are a discouraging factor. Given that there is only one main artery that connects the capital city Gangtok with north Sikkim shouldn’t the road be maintained better?
The border roads and the North Sikkim Highway is not our responsibility. They are controlled and maintained by Border Roads Organisation and GREF which are under the jurisdiction of the Central government. We have been pushing for a two or a three lane road, but nothing has come out of it. There is a national policy that all state capitals will be linked through a fourlane highway. Yet, we do not even have a two-lane road. I agree that given our topography, it may not be possible to build big roads here, but we should have rail and air connectivity. We have put in a request for building the airport at Pakyong in east Sikkim, whose foundation stone was laid down a few years back. I don’t want the Centre to do us any favours. All I am asking for is justice for Sikkim.
According to you, how should the Union government prioritise development in Sikkim?
To begin with, we need an airport and better roads. They should also increase the assembly seats from 32 to 40. And most importantly, all communities should be given reservation in the assembly.
Your have been credited with taking the democratic process down to the grassroots. How have you achieved that?
I believe in empowering the people. I believe that people should be motivated and inspired enough to work for their own development, which is why I have decentralized power. We have Lok Adalats in every village, so that the people know that justice is at their doorsteps.
In the last decade of your governance the forest cover in Sikkim has increased almost by 10 per cent. You were also given the greenest chief minister in India award. But at the same time, you are also accused of declaring large portions of the state as reserve forest area, including in the border region which is coming in the way of army’s work.
I don’t think that is true. All I have done is create awareness about forests among the local population. They realise the importance of forests vis a vis their survival and development. I have banned grazing and forest fires. I also replaced wood fuel with kerosene and LPG cylinders which have been distributed free throughout the state. Cutting of forest has been banned. And all this has been complemented by a massive afforestation drive. Planting of trees has become a religion for the people of Sikkim. I tell my people that rich leave a big bank balance for their children. But we are poor people we can only leave trees for them. I have also started a ‘Hari-Pariyog’ or a Green Fund scheme for school children. Each child contributes one rupee in a month to the fund which is used for planting of trees in schools and villages.
Sikkim is a small state. We have no industries. So we know that our biggest strength is our environment, which we must preserve at any cost. We are blessed with abundant forests and water reserves. There are so many springs and waterfalls throughout the state which speaks of a great potential for hydel power generation. Big power projects are coming up and I am confident that once they come up, we will be able to not only supply power to other parts of the country but export it as well. Currently, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) gives 12 per cent of the power it generates here free of cost to us. If we don’t work towards preservation of our forests all these assets will be lost.
Sikkim has traditionally been looked upon as a strategically important state, as it is surrounded by foreign countries on all the three sides, Nepal in the west, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in the North and Bhutan in the east. Then there are neighbouring Indian states which have internal problems. Do you think Sikkim can remain unaffected?
I feel we should not go on blaming only Pakistan and China for our problems. We should focus on our internal situations and try and look for the reasons for discontent within. Sikkim is a peaceful state primarily because the people are content and happy. As far as its remaining unaffected by neighbouring turmoil is concerned, all I would say is that even in the scorching heat of a desert, you find oases. I would want Sikkim to remain an oasis of peace.
Sikkim resists the chilly winds blowing from China
Through the centuries, Sikkim has attracted nibblers
The 1993 agreement adds to woes of the Indian Army
China has always kept India on tenterhooks
While PLA builds capabilities in Tibet, India watches on the sidelines
India should focus on improving its border management against Tibet