A few decades may seem like a blip in India’s history. Yet, those who’d care to remember can fondly recollect that Darjeeling used to be one of the prime vacation spots in independent India.
Here, it would be instructive to go back to the colonial era – to the time when the British curved out the winding roads in the hills from Kurseong to Ghoom and Darjeeling. After a prolonged struggle with the Gorkhas and the states of Sikkim and Bhutan, the British finally formed the district of Darjeeling in 1866. They initially found the district suitable for building sanatoriums. So, the early British settlers in the area were army men suffering from tuberculosis. From a sanatorium-site, Darjeeling was envisioned as a hill station, and even later, as an ideal site for tea plantation.
With the advent of antibiotics, the need for sanatoriums declined throughout the world. But as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, hill station and the producer of the world’s finest black tea, Darjeeling has made her mark in the global arena. I refer to her as ‘she’, because of the fond epithet she goes by – Queen of the Hills.
However, the Queen of the Hills has a very different meaning to her name. In Tibetan, Darjeeling roughly translates to ‘land of the thunderbolt’. Whether it refers to the continued struggle of the people in the hills to gain autonomy from their rulers, is anybody’s guess.
Since my recent visit to Darjeeling, Mirik and Kurseong, I’ve been wondering why people from eastern India are so drawn to Kerala, when the same hilly landscapes can be found in Darjeeling, Sikkim and north Bengal. It appears that there are several factors that have stunted Darjeeling’s potential to become a tourism hot-spot.
The first necessity for any tourism site is its ease of communication. Darjeeling has to be invariably accessed via Siliguri (Siliguri bus stand or New Jalpaiguri railway station or Bagdogra Airport). There are shared jeeps, hired cars, buses and an infrequent train service – all of which make the 60 kilometer ride an uphill one.
Needless to say, the connecting roads are narrow and when two vehicles ‘meet’, it’s like a disaster waiting to happen. Moreover, because it is a hill station, no outsider is allowed to drive vehicles inside the district. This limits the options for international travellers, when it comes to finding a reliable cab service, without being fleeced. If the locals – and by extension, the Gorkhaland Territorial Authority – set up a centralised service for renting cabs, which can be booked both manually and via mobile apps, if would go a long way in alleviating the plight of the visitors.
Also, the devastating effects of landslides need to be better-controlled by erecting walls around the slopes. However, it’s reassuring to see that measures are being taken, at least in this regard.
Political unrest has also made Darjeeling a less-than-savoury destination for travellers. Various tribes and minority groups have been agitating for a long time to keep alive their demand for autonomy. While their demand is not without merit, the implementation of policies by such factions is not beyond disapproval.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha received a greater autonomy in governing the district in 2011 with the formation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. It is now time for them to divert attention to the economy and infrastructure in the area, and improve the facilities in and around the towns. Many of the popular destinations like Tiger Hill Observatory, Simana View Point and the Darjeeling Mall remain exceedingly littered. The restrooms are notoriously fetid and haven’t seen maintenance in a while. Strict vigilance and prompt maintenance will make these places more appealing to nature-lovers who make up a large chunk of the tourists visiting these places.
On the other hand, apart from cleanliness issues, there are the problems of good lodging provisions, water supply and means of travelling around the city. Good hotels with proper management are a rarity in Darjeeling and visitors are exposed to brusque hospitality, quite often. Then, there are issues with the water and electricity supply in the area. While visitors who frequently visit the area are quite accustomed to this, this is a cause of concern for the foreign tourists who visit the area.
Moreover, a major portion of the roads that lead to the Darjeeling Mall (the Hill Cart Road and the Laden La Road) are steep and without well-demarcated footpaths. The elderly, thus, face troubles while plying those roads. If the roads cannot be extended or widened, then railings should at least be constructed along these roads to help people with bodily or physical ailments traverse these roads.
Poorly-planned city spaces here also dampen the experiences of many. While the wide and open spaces and roads in Kerala are a treat to watch, the overcrowded spots and the raucous nature of people-gatherings in Darjeeling serve as a repellent. This ‘manufactured’ over-population can be relieved by restricting the permits given to establishments that proceed to encroach upon the roads and open spaces.
Darjeeling Mall and Batasia Loop are two such places that have been affected by poor planning. A strong tourism drive should ensure a cultural exchange with the local populace. However, there are no regular attempts made by local bodies to display the local culture and folk music to the visitors – in spite of existing facilities in Darjeeling Mall and Batasia Loop.
The state government or the local governing body cannot address these issues alone. Instead of being divided by their differences, they both have to strive tirelessly to reach a consensus. Instead of focussing solely on staying relevant, they have to divert resources towards uplifting the area.
Darjeeling has a vast untapped potential that hasn’t been realised yet. If newer places are developed and that takes off the pressure from the already popular ones, Darjeeling can look like any hill station of the West – bristling with a multi-cultural vibe and diversity.
With places like Gopaldhara Tea Estate, Japanese Peace Pagoda, Bokar Monastery and Sumendu Lake up for grabs and an indigenous population that treats fashion as its religion, the district could easily become ‘god’s own country’, some day .