Unpacking the Darjeeling narrative
Rural Darjeeling communities spread across 3 distinct landscapes: tea plantations, forests, and small farming hamlets.
Unpacking ‘Darjeeling Tea’ entails recognising a history steeped in colonialism, being perpetuated even today. A recent report from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce states: “the plight and deprivation of the tea workers and feudalistic set up that alienate tea workers from their basic land rights despite seven decades of independence starkly undermines 7 successful land reform movements in the country”. This colonial legacy perpetuates insufficient wages which are “minimal to the extent of not meeting the basic needs of workers manifests a severe crisis in the tea sector”.
Similar to narratives around tea, there is a simplistic celebration of the forest cover of Darjeeling as a global good with environmental benefits for humanity, leaving out the forest villagers of Darjeeling. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 which sought to address the ‛historical injusticeʼ done to ‛traditional forest dwellersʼ has resulted in limited dispensation and setting up of institutional mechanisms at an extremely slow pace. Dispensation has been mostly for people with tribal certificates, resulting in only a section of the village with formal land ownership, leaving others without. Furthermore, in these remote villages, there has been an increasing amount of human-wildlife conflict that is threatening peoples’ lives and livelihoods, but these remain not adequately redressed, acknowledged, or compensated.
Farmers occupy an important part of the Darjeeling socio-ecology but maintain extremely small land holdings and face severe remunerative injustices. Agriculture offers a bleak life opportunity, being far removed from the social infrastructure and market. Additionally, human-wildlife conflict is now overflowing out of forest boundaries, making agriculture an impossible task.
Across the tea, forest, and farming communities, many families manage their lives through migration to cities and other countries. Thus, in some sense, Darjeeling survives on a repatriation economy. These socio-ecological stressors have contributed to Darjeeling’s long-standing demand for autonomy from West Bengal. It has undergone experiments of autonomy without proper devolution of power since 1988, with the formation of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and the successive three versions of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. Throughout this, the everyday lives of people have had extremely limited recourse to self-governance.