`Sikkim is among the best performing States'

Print edition : October 08, 2004

Interview with Chief Minister Pawan Chamling.

Sikkim Chief Minister and president of the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) Pawan Chamling was voted to power for the third consecutive term in the Assembly elections held this year. His chequered political career began in 1972 at the age of 22. He first got elected to the Sikkim Legislative Assembly in 1985. After being dropped from the Nar Bahadur Bhandari government in 1992, Chamling formed a new party, the SDF, on March 4, 1993, thus throwing the gauntlet at Bhandari, his former political mentor. In the Assembly elections the following December the SDF recorded a convincing victory and assumed power. Known as the leader of the `bare-foot people', Chamling's main political thrusts have been the development of the rural belt, eradicating poverty and fighting illiteracy.

Chamling is popularly known as the `poet politician' of Sikkim. His collection of poems, Antaheen Sapna - Mero Biapana, won him the Chintan Puroskar Award in 1987. His new book Prajatantrik Andolan Ko Aatma Sangharsh, based on his political career as a believer of democracy, was released on July 15 this year. He also set up a publication unit called Nirman Prakashan and brought out a literary magazine Nirman in 1977. Nirman Prakashan has published more than 200 books till date authored by both novice and veteran writers. In this interview to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, Chamling speaks about his vision of Sikkim and the tasks ahead. Excerpts:

Sikkim recently won the award for the Best Performing State among the smaller States in the country in the field of education. Now where do you go from here?

Well, there is no looking back now. The recognition given to Sikkim in such a prestigious national forum not only was heartening and encouraging but also has inspired us to work with greater vigour in other sectors too where also we are bracketed in the top five. We have already started making vigorous effort on formulating and implementing long-term programmes to make Sikkim the best State in the country and the work which the government will accomplish in the next five years shall continue to bear fruits even after 100 years.

You are now in the third term of your government. What have been your contributions for the development of Sikkim in the last 11 years of your tenure?

It is there for everyone to see, the transformation that has taken place in Sikkim in all the different sectors of developmental activities and the improved living standard of the people. Though we joined the Indian Union 28 years after Independence burdened with excessive loans secured by the previous [Nar Bahadur] Bhandari government, we manage to overcome these handicaps with our sincerity and hard work and consequently today Sikkim is among the best performing States in the country. We have during the last 11 years restored all essential democratic freedoms and people no longer go through life under the shadow of state-inspired terrorism and various discrepancies but live with honour and dignity.

What are your priorities in the field of economic development?

Tourism, education, health and industries are our priorities though other sectors too receive our earnest attention. We have allocated 17 per cent of our entire budget for the education sector, which is the highest in the country. When we took over the government the literacy rate of the State was 56 per cent, which has now increased to over 70 per cent. We are now determined to make Sikkim a 100 per cent literate State by the year 2015. A range of education-related institutions will be established in Sikkim where stress will be laid on providing quality education.

Why is Sikkim a better investment destination than other Indian States?

Sikkim, an investment-friendly State, has the most liberal investment policy and its door is open to all investors, both from within and outside the country. Though Sikkim may not be in a position to give the kind of money and profits to the private investors like other Indian States, we can offer some distinct advantages like cheap and friendly labour, flexible labour laws, pollution-free environment, hassle-free atmosphere and above all peace and tranquillity, the precursor for any development venture. With priority on low volume and high value our State also offers a number of financial and other incentives to prospective investors, which are better than other States in terms of concession to industrialists. All these factors have created a very congenial climate for prospective investors and made Sikkim a better investment destination than other Indian States.

A cultural programme at a school in Gangtok.-

What are these financial and other incentives offered to investors in Sikkim?

A new Industrial Policy has been extended to Sikkim along with other northeastern States. The new policy provides for a number of incentives to prospective industrialists willing to set up industry in Sikkim. There is a 100 per cent income tax and excise duty exemption to investors for a period of 10 years from the date of commencement of commercial production. Working capital loan will also be provided to all new industrial units in notified locations for 10 years with an interest subsidy of 3 per cent on the loan. Certain key areas in the State have been earmarked as industrial zones.

Do you have a single-window policy for expediting industrial ventures?

Of course, we have. In fact, the State government has now set up the Board of Investment under the chairmanship of the Chief Minister to implement the single-window policy. This is an apex body that examines investment proposals and gives clearance at the highest level. The objective is to provide efficient services to prospective investors in terms of speedy project approvals, grant of facilities and coordination among government agencies. This will considerably facilitate the investment proposals through a friendly and straightforward system.

We understand that education is free in Sikkim.

Yes, you are right. Not only education is free in the State up to the degree level, but students up to the primary level receive uniforms and textbooks free of cost. From this year, students of monastic schools and Sanskrit pathshalas will also be provided with free uniforms and textbooks up to the primary level. Financial assistance will be provided to BPL [below poverty line] students up to the college level apart from the regular stipends and scholarships.

Please tell us something about the health sector in your State.

Medical treatment is provided to the people free of cost in the State. Sikkim was the first State in the country to carry out the Hepatitis B vaccination for children free of cost. The State government is also going ahead with providing more health facilities, including linking up the STNM Hospital with the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi through telemedicine. We are also working towards covering all the BPL families under the health insurance scheme.

Sikkim has distinguished itself by constructing the tallest statue of Guru Padmasambhava in the world. How was the idea conceived and the seemingly impossible project successfully completed in a small state like Sikkim?

In 1994 when my government assumed power an idea was born in my mind to pay a fitting tribute to the great saint who blessed Sikkim 1,200 years back, by installing a mammoth statue of the saint which the people would behold with the awe and respect Guru Padmasambhava deserves. There were a few initial reservations from various quarters about undertaking such a gigantic project. However, with the blessings and unforgettable cooperation from His Eminence the Dodrupchen Rimpoche and dedication and hard work of a number of State government departments and devoted individuals, we could complete the prestigious project successfully.

What are the prospects in hydropower?

Sikkim is blessed with tremendous hydroelectric potential, to the tune of 8,000 MW, and plans to generate 4,000 MW of electricity by the year 2015. With proper planning and implementation of power projects in quick succession and with the help of other agencies, the power sector in Sikkim will be self-sufficient by the year 2006. After the completion of Teesta hydroelectric power project Sikkim will have surplus power and will be in a position to sell electricity to other neighbouring States. After the completion of this project Sikkim will be self-sufficient in power and economically self-reliant. My government has also decided to provide power to prospective industrialists and investors at the production and generation cost as incentives.

How is the opening up of trade with China through the Nathu La going to help business in Sikkim?

Resumption of the historic trade route through Nathu La is going to help business in Sikkim in no small measure. As you are aware, the trade route through Nathu La is the shortest route between India and China and Sikkim, through which this trade route passes, will derive multiple benefits as it will give a huge boost to the tourism industry and become a hub of commercial activities and the focal point of business transactions. Infrastructure will be created in Sikkim to facilitate trade activities, which in turn will generate more employment and economic prosperity for the people of Sikkim. Both India and China can reap benefits from the World Trade Organisation Centre which is being set up in Sikkim. It may be mentioned here that Sikkim is the first State in the country where a WTO Centre is being established.

Sikkim is gradually becoming an important tourist destination. Any major initiative to deal with the growing influx of tourists?

Sikkim is well-endowed with natural resources like mountains, forests, rivers, glaciers, etc. There is no scope for setting up heavy industries in the State which could be detrimental to the ecological balance of this pollution-free State known for its rich flora and fauna and bio-diversity. We are therefore planning to concentrate on eco-tourism by using our natural resources in a sustainable manner so as not to disturb the rich socio-cultural fabric of the State.

We are also promoting village tourism for which thirty model villages having all the basic and modern facilities are being constructed in different parts of the State. All these will enable tourists to enjoy a first-hand experience of the rich heritage and lifestyle of Sikkim. My government is ensuring that these model villages are in every tourist's itinerary. Pilgrim tourism is also being promoted to enable tourists to visit comfortably the old temples, monasteries, churches, gurdwaras, mosques and other shrines in Sikkim. The State government has also decided to support at least one tourist centre in each gram panchayat unit in the State. With the re-opening of the Nathu La we are also exploring the possibility of introducing pilgrim tourism to Mount Kailas and Manasarowar Lake in Tibet.

How are Sikkim's relations with the Centre?

Our relation with the Union Government are always cordial irrespective of the government at the Centre. Our party is a regional party with a national outlook. We receive adequate aid and assistance from the Centre as we always sincerely work for the interest of the people, the State and the nation, cutting across party lines. Whichever government is formed in the Centre, we expect them to give us due justice and respect the mandate given by the public in favour of the ruling State government. In return, the Union government can rest assured that Sikkim will completely maintain the peace and tranquillity in this sensitive border State and utilise the fund provided by the Centre in a most fruitful manner for the welfare of the State and its people.

What is the situation with Karmapa now? Will the Centre allow him to go to Rumtek?

This is purely a religious issue, so it is very sensitive. Our job is to maintain law and order and preserve peace and tranquillity. The people of Sikkim, of course, want that the Karmapa, Ugyen Thinley Dorji, should be enthroned in Rumtek as soon as possible. However, the matter is under the purview of the Union government.

Is some controversy brewing in Khechopalri Lake in West Sikkim?

The controversy is created by a handful of vested interests who are bent on disturbing the age-old communal harmony of this peaceful State. These anti-national forces are making an issue out of a non-issue. My government has declared the Khechopalri Lake as one of the sacred places in the State, along with a number of religious sites. Sikkim, like our great country, is a secular State where people from different faiths and beliefs have complete freedom of religion. The vast majority of our people live in complete harmony and are tolerant to each other's faith. It is a handful of these disruptive forces, who are inciting the simple and peaceful people and misleading the Central government with white lies. Any impartial individual or group can visit this sacred lake and find for themselves the truth.

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