Scaling new heights

Print edition : October 08, 2004

The Sikkim government lays emphasis on policies that can transform Sikkimese society into a well-informed, efficient and robust entity.

in Gangtok

Lake Tsomgo near the Nathu La in east Sikkim.-PICTURES BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

NESTLED in the shadow of its `guardian deity' Mount Khanchendzonga (8,598 metres), the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim merged with India on May 16, 1975, to become its 22nd State. Flanked by Bhutan in the east, Nepal in the west and southern China including Tibet in the north, Sikkim covers an area of just 7,096 sq km whose strategic importance cannot be overstated. Majestic mountain peaks and frothing rivers that weave their way through virgin foothill forests and lush paddy fields lend to the State a rich biodiversity of breathtaking beauty.

The State has four districts, each with its own special flavour. East district, where the capital Gangtok is located, is the hub of all administrative activities. Also located in this district are the famous Rumtek monastery, Lake Tsomgo, Nathu La (pass), and the Saramasa Garden, home to many exotic orchids and rare tropical and temperate plants.

For white water rafting down the Teesta or treks through dense rhododendron forests and other such adventure sports, one has to head to West district. North Sikkim, with its Valley of Flowers and hot springs, is considered to be the most beautiful of the districts, while South houses some of the oldest monasteries and is the preferred area for mountain biking and trekking.

A view of the Khanchendzonga.-

Under the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) government, influx of tourists into Sikkim has increased by over 60 per cent in the last 10 years. Tourist arrivals have recorded an annual growth rate of almost 10 per cent in the last six years.

The SDF government's main thrust is to make Sikkim the "number one ecotourism destination in India". Special efforts have been made to develop tourist villages, trekking routes, adventure sports, biodiversity parks, hotels and cultural centres. Thirty model villages having all the modern facilities are being constructed to give tourists a first-hand experience of the traditional rural lifestyle.

Sikkim, endowed with a variety of flora and fauna, many of them unique to the Eastern Himalayas, is a paradise for nature lovers, environmentalists and botanists. They include more than 400 species of flowering plants, 33 species of ferns, 11 species of oaks, 144 species of mammals, 600 types of birds and 400 kinds of butterflies.

The State also draws a large number of pilgrims to its holy shrines and monasteries. This has prompted the government to promote `pilgrim tourism' vigorously; it has decided to support at least one tourist centre in each gram panchayat. Sikkim has 107 Buddhist monasteries, 32 Lhakhangs, 11 Tsamkhangs (meditation centres), nine hotsprings believed to have curative powers, 320 Hindu temples, 74 churches and six mosques.

A pilgrimage-cum-cultural centre is being developed on top of Solophok Hill near Namchi, the headquarters of South district, to attract tourists to the region, which is known for its natural beauty. A ropeway will link Namchi with Samdruptse, where a 108-feet (32.9 metres) statute of Guru Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Sikkim, is being constructed.

A variety of orchids in bloom.

One of the main achievements of the SDF government is decentralisation and devolution of financial powers to panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). To empower rural communities and ensure human development, the government is focussing on a number of inter-related areas. The emphasis is on decentralisation and participatory and beneficiary-driven approaches to improve the delivery of drinking water, sanitation, connectivity, micro credit, health and education to the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. This would help bridge the gap between urban and rural societies.

Fiscal and administrative decentralisation is given adequate thrust in order to enable local institutions to undertake various development programmes. At the same time, community management for the sustainable use of natural resources and common property resources is encouraged through Joint Forest Management (JFM). The government is also trying to create off-farm employment opportunities so that rural enterprise can become the engine of growth and poverty alleviation.

In fact, 70 per cent of the State budget goes towards the development of rural areas. Gram panchayats have the power to prepare, sanction and implement schemes up to Rs.3 lakhs and the zilla panchayats up to Rs.10 lakhs. To enable the panchayats to exercise these powers, in the last fiscal the government provided Rs.10 lakhs to each of the 166 gram panchayats and Rs.50 lakhs each to the four zilla panchayats. The government is contemplating increasing the amount in the current fiscal.

All government institutions within a gram panchayat, such as primary schools, primary health centres and libraries, as also rural tourism, minor irrigation works and so on, are under the administrative control of the president of the respective gram panchayat. (In the panchayat elections, 33.5 per cent of the seats have been reserved for women.) "Transparency and accountability are the salient features of this democratic decentralisation. The common people of the villages are given equal opportunity in the decision-making process in all development activities," a government official told Frontline.

A positive fallout of the implementation of this system, including the devolution of financial powers to PRIs, is that life has become a lot easier for the common people in the villages. They no longer have to run from pillar to post in the district headquarters and in Gangtok to get their work done. All their requirements can be met at the gram prashashan kendra in their village.

The government is determined to make Sikkim poverty-free by 2015 by laying stress on pro-poor and poverty alleviation schemes. The government is promoting the use of modern and scientific methods in agriculture, which is the main source of income for the majority. It is encouraging the use of organic manure so that the soil retains its fertility. The low consumption of chemical fertilizers (5.8 kg a hectare) and the widespread practice of mixed farming are factors that will aid in the State going "fully organic" in terms of fertilizer use. One of the targets of the government is to make Sikkim an `organic State' by 2019.

"Sikkim's economy is dependent mainly on agriculture. Almost 85 per cent of the population live in the rural areas and only improvement in agriculture can better their lot. Agriculture, horticulture, livestock, fisheries and agro-forestry can be integrated to give viable farming systems to farmers," said Chief Minister Pawan Chamling. The government is also giving priority to the cultivation of cash crops such as cardamom, ginger, peas, pumpkin, squash, mushroom, and fruits such as pear, orange and passion fruit. Cymbidium orchid is also a thrust crop. Sikkim, in fact, accounts for 80 per cent of large cardamom produced in the country. The total food production in the State has increased steadily from over 58.56 thousand tonnes in 1980-81 to 1.03 lakh tonnes in 2000-01, all produced on just 64,000 hectares of net sown area.

"All possible avenues for self-employment shall be explored for the benefit of the educated unemployed youth in the State. All programmes undertaken by the government shall have a special bearing on the needs and aspirations of the youth,'' Chamling stated in his Independence Day address this year.

Sikkim occupies only 0.22 per cent of the total geographical area of the country, but it is home to about a third of the flowering plants of India. While forest cover accounts for over 44 per cent of the State's geographical area, 84 per cent of the State's total area is under the administration of the Forest, Environment and Wildlife Department.

Despite the considerable tree cover, its density in the main areas is low, and for that reason the government has initiated a major afforestation programme. The `Smriti Van' (memorial forest) project is an idea conceived by Chamling and involves all sections of society. Under this programme, social, religious and educational institutions; departments of the government, including Police and Tourism; and non-governmental organisations are voluntarily undertaking massive plantation programmes across the State in memory of their loved ones. The government has also launched a scheme called `green road', under which trees will be planted along the entire 2,025 km of roads in the State. This project is expected to be completed within five years.

To protect the eco-fragile forest areas, the government has banned the use of non-biodegradable products such as plastic bags. According to forest officials, Sikkim holds the distinction of being the first State in the country to implement this ban effectively. The government has also banned grazing of domestic and semi-domestic animals in the reserve forest areas. "The State government took this step at a considerable political risk, as this practice of grazing has been continuing for ages. But the government realised the importance of stopping this and went ahead with its decision,'' a forest official told Frontline.

Medicinal plants are another area that the government has focussed on. Sikkim harbours over 1,200 medicinal plants, of which only 424 species have been identified and documented. To oversee the formulation of projects and schemes related to these plants it set up the State Medicinal Plant Board two years ago. The Board has approved the creation of `herbal gardens' at 13 locations in the State, which will provide farmers material for the cultivation of medicinal plants.

The government also places a lot of importance on pollution control. Sikkim has four Air Quality Monitoring Stations, of which two are in Gangtok. "Pollution here is very much within the national standards. What we have here is mostly vehicular pollution as there are a lot of cars plying up and down the State," said Dr. Gopal Pradhan, Senior Scientist at the Sikkim Environment and Pollution Control Board. Sikkim has 227 water bodies, including three important lakes and five hot springs. Keeping a check on their pollution is also important. There are nine regular monitoring systems on the Teesta itself, and the pollution control authorities conduct bio-monitoring of the lakes in eastern Sikkim.

Apart from these, the State government conducts mass awareness campaigns on environment and pollution through ad-films, songs and the local cable network. "We also go to schools to deliver lectures and carry out different programmes," Pradhan said.

Census 2001 recorded Sikkim's population at 5,40,493. The literacy rate is an impressive 69.68 per cent and the State government is focussing continually on improving it. On Independence Day, Chamling announced that his government was determined to make Sikkim 100 per cent literate by 2015. Recently, the State won an award for best performance in the field of education among the smaller States. "This has further encouraged us to achieve our target of zero literacy in 10 years' time," said Chamling.

A house-to-house survey conducted by the government in 2001 showed that 15,000 children between the ages of six and 14 did not go to school. By the end of 2003, the number was brought down to 7,000. The Education Department's thrust area is to bring all these children within the fold of the education system, and it intends to accomplish this in a phased manner by 2007. "To attract these children to schools we have launched schemes such as supply of free uniforms, textbooks and exercise books up to class V; free textbooks and uniforms to girl students up to class VIII and textbooks at 50 per cent discount for girls from class VI to class IX," said an Education Department official.

The government has also started a `Total Literacy Campaign' for those between the ages of 15 and 35. Four hundred learning centres, managed by volunteers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), have been established for the purpose. The government has projected that 75 per cent of the 50,000 illiterate people will be covered by the campaign in the next three years.

The Education Department has also introduced the vocational stream in 40 senior secondary schools from the current academic session. Such vocational education is designed to cater to the needs of those outside the organised sector and aimed at reducing the mismatch between the demand and supply of skilled manpower.

Sikkim being a relatively new State, and also because of its topography, is not particularly developed in the organised sector. Hence the government's emphasis on the unorganised sector. The government is also trying to identify new vocational courses that will be able to realise the potential of local resources.

At the Nathu La, on the old Silk Route.-

Apart from its widespread forest cover, which is the source of timber, herbs and medicinal plants, Sikkim boasts rich mineral deposits of copper, zinc, dolomite, quartzite, graphite and talc. A recent study by water scientists put Sikkim's hydroelectric potential at 8,000 MW, of which only 0.2 per cent has been tapped. Aware of these natural advantages, the government is taking concerted efforts to attract more investments into the State.

With the opening of the Nathu La Trade Route after the recent accord between India and China, the State government is looking at a quantum jump in bilateral trade between the two countries. This is expected to give a great boost to the industrial sector in Sikkim. Apart from banking, transport and warehousing activities, tourism is bound to increase enormously.

The State has identified certain thrust areas for concentrated industrial development. These include floriculture, animal husbandry and dairy products, handloom, handicrafts and village products, electronics and software and tea, besides tourism and agro-based industries. To facilitate development in these sectors, investors have been promised additional incentives.

In its efforts to encourage more investments in the State, the SDF government is leaving no stone unturned to develop infrastructure. A new airport is being constructed at Pakyong, east Sikkim, to give a fillip to travel and tourism. The Gangtok Ropeway system, with three terminals and a total length of 1,000 metres, is complete and open to tourists.

One of the main reasons for the government's success in implementing its projects to promote tourism and investments is the tight monitoring and evaluation system it enforces at every level of operation. The vision for a new Sikkim is aptly put by Chamling: "Our aim is to transform the entire Sikkimese society into a conscious, well-informed, robust and capable entity. Our hallmark is competitiveness and efficiency with solid emphasis on respect for and conservation of our rich traditional heritage."

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