The long-drawn demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland has received a fresh lease of life, embroiling the hill districts of West Bengal in conflict once again. The demand for a separate state is often driven by the lack of development. Is under-development driving the demand for Gorkhaland as well?
A Mint analysis of a range of development indicators shows that on most of these, districts in Gorkhaland fare as well as the districts in the rest of West Bengal.
For the purpose of this analysis, the districts of Darjeeling (and Kalimpong, which was carved out of Darjeeling earlier this year) and Jalpaiguri have been considered as Gorkhaland. The demand for Gorkhaland encompasses almost the entirety of the old Darjeeling district as well as significant parts of the adjoining district of Jalpaiguri. The population weights used for combining district-level data are based on the last decennial census conducted in 2011.
Data from the latest round of the National Family Health Survey, conducted in 2015-16, shows that while Gorkhaland districts rank ahead of the rest of the state in certain parameters (such as access to clean fuel), the rest of the state fares better in others (such as access to an improved source of drinking water). Overall, there does not seem to be significant differences between the two regions.
On most health indicators, such as immunisation, antenatal care and institutional births, Gorkhaland districts compare well to the rest of the state. After Kolkata, Darjeeling district has the highest rate of institutional births (94.5%). The district also recorded the third-highest share of mothers who received full antenatal care (33.6%). The share of under-nourished children is lower in Gorkhaland than in the rest of the state, as the chart below shows.
Gorkhaland’s relative prosperity is not entirely a new phenomenon. As the chart below shows, even in 2001, Gorkhaland districts fared nearly as well as the rest of the state in terms of household amenities.
Between 2001 and 2011, household access to amenities grew at a similar pace across both regions. On some parameters, such as access to cooking gas, Gorkhaland districts overtook the rest of West Bengal, while on some others, such as access to toilets, the region fell behind. Overall though, there was not much difference between the two regions either in 2001 or in 2011.
The analysis suggests that economics cannot explain the rising tide of resentment in the hills. Linguistic and cultural differences seem to be a stronger driver of the statehood demand. The hills, originally a part of the kingdom of Sikkim, are dominated by Nepali-speaking Gorkhas. It became a part of the state of West Bengal only in 1947. Even the current round of protests seems to have been sparked by a state government announcement on the introduction of Bengali language in schools in the Gorkhaland region.
The ongoing agitation for statehood in the troubled region seems to suggest that the strategy of addressing ethnic concerns through autonomous councils may have failed to meet the aspirations for self-rule in the hills.