Visiting Sikkim this past Dusshera break after a 30-year hiatus was an enlightening experience. So much has changed in India and the world in this time (though not in the spending frenzy to buy votes by Indian politicians). So much has also changed in Sikkim. Roads everywhere, fleets of Mahindra Boleros, dispersed tourism with visitor centres and facilities, the ubiquity of telecom towers, traffic jams, mega hydro projects under construction, (illogical and perverse) dam colonies even after commissioning, multi-storeyed buildings, and landslides. And, yet, as before, stunning forests missing the bane of our forests elsewhere, grazing, and vast vistas of green reaching to the snows in one compact country ringed by the Singalila and Chola ranges. As before, friendly and remarkable peaceful people, even peaceful dogs. And drivers as disciplined as those of the Darjeeling of old.
Is there a broad theme to these developments, seen with the benefit of uncontaminated hindsight? Clearly, Sikkim and the Sikkimese have prospered economically. There is even, funnily enough, for us in the rest of India, a state government and committed bureaucratic establishment, which has and continues to deliver. The way the rescue and reconstruction efforts after this earthquake have been undertaken will surely support this view. The cynicism prevalent across India is absent here, people here believe the government is an agency capable of good.
What concerned me, and I am sure these views have some local currency, is the familiar disease of gigantism. Of giant ropeways to eat into pristine and protected forests (at Bhaleydunga). Of large (albeit clean) tourist complexes and viewpoints, even residential tourism complexes, always eating into forests (Tendong, Pemayangtse). Of government departments, schools, giant and empty adventure complexes with large and unused buildings (Chemchay) eating into forests. Legions of PMGY roads leading to de minimus habitations that would not qualify for roads elsewhere. Always, every time eating into mature oak and rhododendron forests. As if these are inexhaustible. They are more plentiful for the still reduced population pressure here than in the North Indian mountain states, but one look at Pemayangtse hill, which was once verdant and unspoiled, now littered on the one side with the carbuncle of modern Pelling, and on the other with assorted government complexes in the forest, shows this up.
Finally, a major road leading to the holiest of holy monasteries, hitherto approached by a forest path, with attendant Innova traffic jams on the top. Is this what tourists want, to be herded like sardines into despoiled landscapes, with no guided education, with no effort at even being able to walk the final five minutes in peace and tranquillity to see the real monastery, to feel the real retreat from human presence? Is this the mark of Sikkimese tourism? Of Sikkim’s sophisticated, rich, diverse, and restrained cultures?
Can the Sikkimese not learn from Bhutan, and lead and educate us with a more refined, aesthetic model of tourism? This is entirely possible as the real damage from gigantism is yet to come, and there are successful local models of responsible and eco-friendly tourism. The ruins of Rabdentse have been developed most wonderfully. The homestays are working and spreading across the state, and pre-empt the concrete traps of Peling, Chungthang, Ravangla, and Gangtok. The infrastructure created by the existing roads and power projects cannot be wished away, but surely these can be used to promote an alternative to mainstream, contemporary tourism. Possibly to even invest cesses collected from these to specifically heal landslides and promote better standards for road construction.
Finally, does Sikkim (and do the rest of us) wish to address the question of “How much is enough?” How much power to export, how many dams, how many roads in unstable landscape to connect to precious little? Is there a water threshold to development in the galloping urban areas? Addressing the disease of gigantism and debating the merits of learning that ‘less is more,’ would help uncover the gems of what Sikkim offers, create a healthier and less-corrupt lifestyle. After all, so many of these developments are driven by contractor-lobbies, even in Paradise. It is encouraging the recent earthquake has triggered so much questioning on the kind of development path the state is on, specifically hydropower investments, with 28 projects amounts to 20,000MW under development. A similar debate is needed on unbridled road construction, cement-and-contractor-sponsored tourism, and urban development and building construction in hill towns.
This would be the true learning from the recent earthquake in 2011, a society-wide debate on self-imposed “limits to growth,” leaving uncapped an unlimited capacity for refined and philosophical living, an aesthetic tourism, nature conservation, and enlightened water management. A Sikkimese riposte to modern life to teach us why development at some stage can and must become more important than growth.
By HIMRAJ DANG
This article was originally published Business Standard