“Don’t worry,” said Daniel, our soft spoken driver, as we drove towards our destination, “these are political matters, but no one will trouble tourists or students. There is so much that has improved here, but no one talks about it”.
Reading press reports on tensions in the region, and recalling the deforested hill slopes, ravaged by land slides from my previous trip 19 years ago, I had almost cancelled my trip to Darjeeling last week.
However, as we navigated the steep bends of the scenic Punkhabari route, on our way back from this Queen of Hill stations, I recalled Daniel’s words, and was so glad that I had continued with the trip. In addition to the lovely cool weather that was such a welcome respite from the heat of the plains, Darjeeling was cleaner and greener than I had remembered.
The overwhelming impression, was that there was someone thoughtful, in charge of the small things that make a city beautiful and welcoming – something that is sadly lacking in many of our cities today. Shared below are a few of the things that lifted my spirits :
The Tea : It is said that there is more tea sold as Darjeeling leaf, than is produced on the slopes of Darjeeling. However from the very first aromatic cup that I tasted, it was clear that there was both intent and investment on re-establishing the Darjeeling brand as the most premium tea in the world. There were small boutiques selling both regular and exotic teas, and also a few tea houses, where one could sample teas from different estates, including the delicate first flush teas which had just been produced.
Following in the lead of Rajah Bannerjee of Makaibari tea estate, most Darjeeling tea estates have gone organic. Rajah has set the lead in more ways than one, most notably in empowering the women working on his estate, through the innovative Hum Tera Homestay Eco- tourism program, where visitors to Makaibari stay as paying guests at the homes of villagers. Given the stress that had existed between planters and locals not so long ago, it was very nice to see an example of enlightened management. In Rajah’s words : “The new mantra for the future is holistic partnerships not ownership”
The Trees : At an average height of 6700 ft Darjeeling is a part of the Eastern Himalayan zoo-geographic zone. Flora in this region comprises semi-evergreen, temperate and alpine forests. In the past century, dense evergreen forests of pine, sal and oak surrounded the town, where a wide variety of rare orchids were found. Over the past several years, deforestation due to increasing demand for wood fuel and timber, had denuded the slopes, and landslides as a result, were frequent.
It was therefore a real pleasure to see Darjeeling green again – clearly the bulk of the credit must go to the Forest Department for a systematic and sensible afforestation campaign. However as was clear from the simple hand painted signs on tree after tree, citizens have played their part too. Trees have been planted over the past 15 years by senior citizens and school children, and the girth of the trees is testimony to the fact, that they have been carefully nurtured.
The Plastic : In 2009, the Darjeeling Municipality, like many others across the country declared a ban on plastic bags. Unlike in other cities however, this ban seems to have been enforced. Experiencing this first hand in the Bata shop at the Mall, I was somewhat bemused to be handed my purchase wrapped in newspaper !
The consequences are visible on the streets which are noticeably not just free of plastic, but also remarkably clean, given the rush of tourists. There are segregated waste bins everywhere and I was reminded by the courteous young man serving me an ice cream cone, to make sure I disposed the wrapper correctly ! Perhaps it is the sense of ownership and pride that permeates the residents, or just simply the pleasure in having a clean environment that has led to this result – either way it was very good to see.
The Schools : Having been the summer retreat for the British in Eastern India, Darjeeling became the place of choice for the establishment of public schools on the model of Eton, Harrow and Rugby such as St. Paul’s School, St. Joseph’s (North Point) and Loreto Convent. In the years of strife many of these institutions suffered. It was wonderful to see how they have been restored and how many of them have reinvented themselves. Under the guidance of Father Tshering Kinley, for example, St Joseph’s North Point, started a program during the winter months, when the school was otherwise closed, to open it’s doors and offer its excellent facilities to the poor children of the tenements around the school.
As I walked through the precincts of these beautiful institutions, listening to teachers exhort their students to “pay attention to clear enunciation”, I was struck by the debt of gratitude generations of Indians, including myself, owe to the missionary nuns and fathers, who gave us our education.
The Sights : Given that a major contributor to the economy of our Hill Stations is tourism, in most places little thought is given to making local “places of interest”, interesting.
On my past visit to the Darjeeling zoo, I recall the same sad feeling that one experiences in many zoos across India – crowded and dirty cages & enclosures; insensitive visitors teasing and tormenting animals and litter everywhere. Though the zoo had a host of interesting and rare animals not found in other zoos in India, such as a Siberian tiger and a Peruvian Llama, I was glad to leave after a short visit.
It was a delight to have an altogether different experience this time. Starting with the ticket counter (where one paid Rs 40 for a beautifully printed entrance ticket offering joint admission to the Padmaja Naidu Zoo and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute) till the well appointed Internet cafe on the premises, it was clear that both institutions had adopted best practices from tourist destinations across the world. The facilities were spotless, attendants were courteous but firm, sign boards provided interesting information and there were flowers everywhere.
The small but well cared for selection of native Himalayan animals (such as the Red Panda, Himalayan wolf, Snow leopard to name a few) were part of a Scientific Conservation breeding program. In the HMI, the quest to conquer Mount Everest, initially by Mallory & Irvine, and finally by Hillary & son of the soil, Tenzing Norgay was beautifully detailed.
At many times during the visit, I found myself smiling with the pleasure of learning something new and unexpected – and walked out feeling I had spent a wonderful morning.
Were there areas that needed attention and improvement ? Yes.
The roads were in worse shape than I have seen anywhere else on my journey so far – including some remote village roads. The tax of this on the taxi operators who ply tourists up and down the Himalayan foothills must equal at last 50% of the life of their cars. For a city that relies on tourists, this seems to be an area that needs urgent attention.
The water situation was grim. For ordinary residents of the city, long waits with jerry cans, and carrying these heavy loads to their homes is a daily occurrence. Given the heavy rainfall in the Darjeeling area it is inexplicable that there is not more focus on water harvesting.
Notwithstanding the greening of the slopes, it does appear that town planning is under stress, and the pressure of construction, much of it haphazard is taking its toll.
And of course, there is the simmering tension of unsolved political matters, that lies beneath the surface…
Nevertheless, all said and done, this was, on reflection a cup that was more than half full, and one which many of our other cities could do well to savour !