Mamata gets rousing welcome in Darjeeling hills

By Pradipta Tapadar, IANS,

Darjeeling : Visiting the Darjeeling hills for the first time after an accord was signed to give more autonomy to the troubled area, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee Monday received a rousing welcome from tea garden workers and villagers.

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The chief minister, attired in her trademark cotton sari and rubber slippers, during travel by road stopped to buy snacks from roadside stalls and interacted with ordinary villagers and bystanders.

Banerjee flew to the Bagdogra airport in Darjeeling district in the afternoon, and had to take a circuitous route to the hills as the main Hill Cart Road has been damaged by landslides.

“Mamata didi swagatam”, “Mamata didi zindabad” slogans were heard as Banerjee was driven around 100 km uphill, accompanied by union Minister of State for Shipping Mukul Roy of her Trinamool Congress party, state government officials and her party unit leaders from the hills.

The state and central governments and the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), the dominant party in the hills, signed a tripartite agreement July 18 for formation of a new autonomous elected hill council. The accord was widely welcomed in the Darjeeling hills.

Banerjee’s convoy had to halt a number of times, as locals presented her bouquets and Nepalese scarf ‘khada’ and rushed to pose for photos with her.

Getting out of the car at a tea garden, Banerjee mingled with the workers and enquired about their problems.

“How much do you get daily?” she asked a worker, to which he replied “Rs. 90 a day”.

She asked if the workers got provident fund, health insurance, ration card and whether they had a BPL (Below Poverty Line) card.

During her stay, the 56-year-old chief minister is slated to discuss development issues and progress of restoration work and resettlement of the people affected in last month’s earthquake with district administration and the dominant party Gorkha Janamukti Morcha. She is also to open a tourism festival, and lay the foundation for a car parking zone.

The three picturesque Darjeeling hill subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong in northern West Bengal have been on the boil for nearly three decades over the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. The hills have witnessed killings, police crackdowns and long shutdowns which severely impacted the region’s economic mainstays – tea, timber and tourism.

At the core of the accord is the formation of a new autonomous elected hill council, the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), which is armed with more powers compared to its predecessor, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), formed in the late 1980s.

The GJM has been spearheading the Gorkhaland agitation for the last three years after sidelining the Subash Ghising-led Gorkha National Liberation Front, which was in the forefront of the movement since the 1980s.

The hills were also rocked by the 6.8-magnitude quake that struck Sikkim Sep 11.