Darjeeling In The Midst Of Corona Pandemic
People living in the hills are more afraid of poverty than of the Corona pandemic. As a result, they are trying various new ways to earn the livelihood.
Telegraph India & Teacupsfull
Darjeeling, the northernmost part of West Bengal, has always been known for her natural beauty and tea plantations, which attracts a huge number of tourists from throughout India and across the world. It is believed that about 50000 people are employed in this industry. As a result, tourism becomes a significant source of income in Darjeeling. With the unprecedented Corona pandemic and constant rising cases across the world, tourism and other sources of income have been stagnant since the past few months in Darjeeling. This has wreaked havoc among the people.
The administration that runs the hill under the West Bengal Government, i.e. Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) decided to suspend tourism and prohibit the entry of tourists to Darjeeling. This closure severely affected the local businesses, like the market at Mall Road, curio shops and hotels as their primary source of income depends on the tourists.
Another set of people who were hit by this lockdown were the ones who are in the transportation sector. There are almost 68 motor syndicates in the hill region, and the number of drivers varies from 7000-9000. Since there is lack of job opportunities in Darjeeling district, driving as a medium of earning livelihood has been increasing over the years. Within the four months, there was little or no income for this sector of people. There are around 16000 families who rely on driving or transporting through syndicate as their main source of livelihood. According to the Motor Vehicle Act, Section 39, 1988 of West Bengal, people who have vehicles are charged with road tax known as token tax. The tax differs depending on the automobile. Despite the pandemic, the Government has made the penalty for not paying token tax, and therefore the tax has been doubled because of late payment of three months. The regional political representatives have requested the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee and Transportation Minister, Shuvendu Adhikari of West Bengal to diminish the penalty during the lockdown.
Tea industry being another major industry in the hills, employs a large number of labourers. Darjeeling Tea industry comprises of 87 gardens, employs nearly 70000 workers and produces around eight million kilo tea per annum. The Darjeeling Tea Association, being the largest organization of the planters in the region, has predicted that there might be a 50% decline in the tea export. In this current season, the loss of production and revenue of the Darjeeling tea industry is estimated to be 1.5 million kg and Rs 200 crore respectively. Hence, the Darjeeling Tea Association has appealed to the Centre for an air freight subsidy. Despite the huge contribution of the tea industry in the revenue of the Government, no special subsidies have been provided to these workers.
In comparison to the other regions of the country, Darjeeling hardly has diversity in the medical facilities. In the advent of COVID 19, the lack of proper medical facilities created chaos among the people of the region. So, when the pandemic outbreak occurred, there was only one testing centre for Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim. Though the Government has not provided COVID centre in Darjeeling, the samaj(societies) have been doing commendable jobs in facilitating home and mass quarantine in the local level and also extended help to its needy members. The NGOs have been playing an active role amid the pandemic. For example, “Mukh Band Kaam Suru” basically run by the youths of the region has shown their constant support to the needy people of the tea estates by providing them ration packages. Sometimes when people have to stay home for a more extended period, an individual is psychologically affected. Some group of people have been thoughtful enough to think about mental health at an hour like this. For instance, the ‘Project Manauta’ is an ongoing four months project funded by ‘Edward Foundation’ and executed by ‘ Siliguri Abhaya Upchar Kendra’.
Few landlords have been generous to the tenants by not collecting the rents. Some hoteliers have also been paying their employees. There are also schools like Loreto Convent, which has been giving some relaxation in the monthly fees.
It seems that people are more afraid of poverty than of the pandemic. As a result, people are trying various new ways to earn. The daily wage earners, who previously used to engage in multiple sectors, have now been trying their fate in farming or growing local vegetables which are being sold and consumed at home as well. A number of people are also earning by selling meat or delivering grocery products. Some youths have started doing part time in medical shops, grocery shops or as a delivery man. Free ration distributed by the State and Central Government since April have been the main aid to the daily workers. Most people of the hills are being compelled to use their bank deposits which they had been saving for a better future, as most of us living here belong to the middle class. It appears that the shortage of food has not been the major issue for most of the people as there are reliefs provided by the state Government as well as the locals, but it is a financial problem which emerges as crucial one. Therefore, we can see the problem of income generation among those group of people who have other expenditure like paying house rents, shop rents, fees etc.
We, the people living in the hills have some kind of coping mechanism for situations like this due to the frequent political strikes. As the motto says, United we stand, divided we fall,’ I firmly believe that together we can survive this pandemic.
Anamika Subba is post-graduation student of University of North Bengal.