Darjeeling: The accounts of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, an autonomous body founded in 1988 under an Act for the “social, economic, educational and cultural advancement” of the people of Darjeeling, have not been audited for 20 years.
Yet, the West Bengal government continued to fund the council, offering it Rs300-400 crore in annual grants in recent years, according to the district administration. While the money was spent, reportedly on building bridges and roads, Darjeeling’s crumbling civic infrastructure—perennial water shortages, roads in shambles—is raising questions on how well the grants were used, say some local activists.
Water shortages and potholed roads are common features in Darjeeling (Photo by: Indranil Bhoumik/ Mint)
“We estimate Rs4,000-5,000 crore was given to the (council) by various agencies (since its inception), but nobody knows on what it was spent,” alleges D.K. Pradhan, a leader of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, or GJM, which has been demanding a separate state for the Gorkhas.
Pradhan was earlier a member of the Gorkha National Liberation Front which, between 1982 and 1988, led an agitation in the hills with similar demands. A settlement was reached in August 1988 when the state agreed to create the council and give it executive power to oversee public works, health, agriculture, water resources, forest management and other administrative functions in Darjeeling.
The council was headed by chief, Subhash Ghisinh, since inception, until he stepped down in March. Ghisinh, now somewhat of a recluse, couldn’t be reached. His party, too, has disappeared, with almost all its supporters joining the GJM.
“The council used to carry out some kind of an internal audit, but that was an eyewash,” says Pradhan, who fought alongside Ghisinh in the 1980s. “He (Ghisinh) unleashed a reign of terror and forced us to keep quiet.”
Even GJM leader Bimal Gurung and general secretary Roshan Giri, who now lead the ongoing agitation in Darjeeling, were close associates of Ghisinh earlier but chose to remain silent during the GNLF’s regime.
The state government, on its part, has never insisted on an audit.
“Our policy was to keep interference at a minimum so that Ghisinh was happy and the hills were peaceful,” says a joint secretary at the home department of the West Bengal government, on condition of anonymity.
Says the state’s urban development minister Ashok Bhattacharya, who until last week had additional charge of hill affairs: “I know the accounts of DGHC had not been audited till 1998-99. I have even raised the issue in the assembly. But I am not sure what happened since and I don’t want to discuss the DGHC anymore.”
Bhattacharya stepped down as minister for hill affairs following clashes between activists of GJM and political outfits backed by the state’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Siliguri last week.
On 10 March, Ghisinh stepped down as council chief under pressure from the GJM, following which the state government has launched a “special audit” into its accounts, according to Rajesh Pandey, district magistrate of Darjeeling.
“I can’t say what happened before we took over. Some people say Ghisinh used to work like an autocrat, but it’s rather amusing that people who now say these things were members of his party until lately,” says Pandey. He says the government didn’t audit until now because it would have been seen as an “intrusion into its autonomy”.
Romita Datta in Kolkata contributed to this story.