Why the small state in the Himalayan mountains could become a big story
If you have been listening to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches intently, in India and abroad, he praises the organic mission of Sikkim, the beautiful little state in the Eastern Himalayas.
In Germany this year, Modi spoke about tea, his favourite brew, how it brings people together and the forward linkages needed to market and popularize it globally. He hailed Sikkim as an exemplary instance of a silent revolution making giant strides towards organic farming. Modi has brought up Sikkim more than once, right from June last year—during his maiden speech in Parliament—to more recently, when he addressed eager crowds in Dubai.
Sikkim’s “silent revolution” towards organic farming is admirable, environmentally restorative and in tune with the current needs of the country. But, unfortunately, it remains just that: “silent”.
Bleached out from everyday national newspaper consciousness, lost under breaking news from other politically or economically significant Indian states, pretty little Sikkim is put aside as some place in the North East.
The “North East” itself is a reality that suffers from developmental challenges, while being a complex Indian metaphor. It stands, of course, for a bunch of states in the region and is also symbolic of the political neglect these states receive. Guwahati has a National Institute of Fashion Technology and Arunachal Pradesh an upcoming film institute but as filmmaker and entrepreneur Ugyen Chopel will tell you, “Sikkim still doesn’t even have a Doordarshan Kendra”.
I met Chopel some months ago in Gangtok. The managing director of Yuksom Breweries Ltd, Chopel is a very well known person locally. He is the nephew of Hindi cinema stalwart Danny Denzongpa and a film director himself. He also directed the much talked about Hindi television serial Ajnabee for Doordarshan, besides being the owner of what’s billed as one of India’s best spas—the Chumbi Mountain Resort in Pelling.
Chopel’s Nepalese films have starred Denzongpa as did Ajnabee, the TV series. Little surprise then that the famous actor’s name (who is a co-owner) is on the popular beers brewed and bottled at the brewery located in Melli, a two-hour drive down from Gangtok’s mountains. The most known is Dansberg Blue, a premium lager beer, while the others are Hit Super Strong and He Man 9000. Yuksom also brews beer in Assam and Odisha and distributes it to Eastern cities. It is easy to find a Dansberg Blue in Kolkata but not in Delhi. “Yuksom Breweries is the first big enterprise of Sikkim,” Chopel proudly told me after I toured the sparklingly clean brewery bursting with heady beer fumes. “It stands as the flagship of Sikkim’s industrial development,” he had added.
Chopel and I kept in touch. He would make some thoughtful observations about the superior status of women in Sikkimese society and how the family-oriented Himalayan culture is conducive to retaining the organic links in farm production and agrarian relationships. Recently, when the “North East” came up in Indian newspapers again as an aside, Chopel told me how, despite the physical beauty of Sikkim’s mountains and the big fuss about organic farming that our country made in its socio-political agenda, it remained ignored and its people relegated to the background. “The government, whichever it may be, and the media retain a patronizing attitude towards Sikkim. We don’t even have an information and public relations (IPR) division,” he lamented.
Chopel’s concerns are valid. These echoes of neglect and disinterest kept resurging among the locals when I reported a story on the Himalayan nettle from Gangtok. Can you remember the last time you heard about Sikkim’s local arts and crafts? Do you know about the delicious pickle made from our local red chilli called dalle? Can you name any one of our monasteries? I was asked. I drew a blank.
“Forget that, they still call our children ‘chinky’ in cities,” says Chopel, adding that he himself was “labeled” unkindly in the Hindi film industry with barbs shot at him for trying to be the next Danny Denzongpa.
The fact is that Sikkim’s natural produce and its organic farming mission will have no resounding global-local echo if no sensitivity or understanding is developed for its industrial, civil and artistic needs. Sikkim doesn’t look impoverished or backward, but just one heavy rainfall blocks all roads from and to Siliguri, the largest nearby market place. Till the onerous process of mountain road clearing is done, all supply of vegetables—organic or not—gets suspended. Also, Sikkim has fabulous potential for Himalayan tourism but as Chopel will tell you, the number of tourists that visit the state annually are barely 250,000-300,000 in number. That itself is revelatory of the way Gangtok or Pelling figures on tourism advice for Incredible India.
Thankfully, Modi’s repeated mention of Sikkim keeps bringing back a sort of fleeting spotlight to the state. But for the light to stay and grow enough to find a shadow, it may need organic attention.
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