Poor upkeep for decades hampers tourism in Darjeeling

July 10th, 2008 - 1:54 pm ICT by IANS  

By Aparajita Gupta
Darjeeling, July 10 (IANS) The full tourism potential of this hill station in West Bengal remains untapped due to lack of planning, poor infrastructure and political short-sightedness over the decades, a visit to the town reveals. Narrow and poorly maintained roads, inadequate water supply and garbage dumps at various places present a picture of neglect in the town known in this region as the “Queen of the Hills” - and there is a lurking fear that the tourism industry could be permanently affected in the future.

Though the tourist flow has remained unaffected so far, except during periods of political turmoil, tour operators are apprehensive that the recent series of indefinite shutdowns could deliver a crippling blow to the industry.

Charges and counter-charges fly thick and fast.

The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), which is agitating for a separate Gorkhaland state in the hills, puts the blame squarely on the West Bengal government, which lobbed the ball back saying the political ups and downs have badly hit the tourism sector.

“The West Bengal government did not do anything for developing the tourism sector here. It has huge potential but it has remained mostly unutilised,” GJM general secretary Roshan Giri told IANS.

However, state Tourism Minister Manab Mukherjee claimed the government had constantly provided funds to the autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) and that “it was up to them to decide how to use it.”

“All the industries in general and tourism in particular have incurred huge losses due to political ups and downs in Darjeeling,” Mukherjee contended.

Former DGHC chairman Subhas Ghising, who led the Gorkhaland movement in the 1980s and 1990s but has now faded into the background after the emergence of the GJM, also drew flak.

According to Pradip Singh Arora, vice president of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hotel Owners’ Association, “Darjeeling is an extremely neglected area. The road conditions are very bad - narrow and without fencing.

“Infrastructure-wise, the DGHC has not done anything,” he maintained, adding: “Ghising did not spend any money for the beautification of Darjeeling, which could have attracted more tourists.”

“(The neighbouring state of) Sikkim has done extremely well in tourism. Despite having the potential, we could not do so well. The potential of this region has remained untapped,” Arora lamented.

On the inadequacy of water supplies, Arora said: “There is only one water reservoir for the entire Darjeeling town catering to more than more than 200,000 residents.”

The numbers go up considerably during the peak season when tourists come flowing in.

Arora said the DGHC failed to construct a second reservoir - and there are no means of storing the rain that falls during the monsoon.

“We have to pay through our noses to buy water during the peak tourist season,” he complained.

This apart, “half of Darjeeling stinks. Garbage lies scattered around at many places,” Arora added.

“More than Rs.100 million in revenue is generated during the tourists season every year. Some of this goes to the state government, but hardly anything has been spent on the development of the hills,” he maintained.

Known for its scenic beauty, Darjeeling is situated on the lower range of the Himalayas that extend 2,000 km from Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast.

Its rise to fame began in the early 19th century when two British officers found the area around present Darjeeling suitable for establishing a sanatorium for British troops.

Over 350,000 tourists, including 100,000 from abroad, visit Darjeeling every year to cool their heels on the famous Mall and enjoy the beauty of the sunrise from the Tiger Hill. The surrounding areas of Mirik and Kalimpong are also major draws.

Apart from those directly engaged in tourism, there are many other businessmen and shopowners who benefit indirectly from tourist arrivals.

The recent political turmoil has left the economy of the region tattered. Tourism, tea and timber that form the financial backbone of the region have been badly affected.

Travel Agents Federation of India (eastern India) chairman Anil Punjabi said: “The tourism industry has been badly hit by the recent political turmoil. We are extremely apprehensive regarding the tourist turnout in the coming season.”

Venugopal Dhoot, managing director of the Videocon Group, had in 2006 proposed a “new Darjeeling” spread over an area of 18,000-20,000 acres in the vicinity of the existing town.

Ghising, however, shot this down, saying land cannot be allotted for “Darjeeling in Darjeeling”.

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