Protests Against Move to Privatise Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Under the Monetisation Plan
Confusion over privatisation and monetisation
“The toy train was established by British Indian Railways in the 1880s….It is a national property, not the property of any political party. Indians will not accept the matter of privatisation of a national property,” says Biswajit Dutta, 29, Vice President of Student Union of Darjeeling institutes.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, more popularly known as the Toy Train, is one of five railways in the world to be granted Heritage Status by UNESCO. It runs from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, and has been a popular tourist attraction for decades. And more importantly perhaps, a very integral part of the lives of the people of Darjeeling.
The National Monetisation Pipeline developed by the NITI Aayog, proposes the privatisation of the DHR, on a lease of minimum 30 years, or a maximum of 60 years. This news has not been received well in its nascent stages.
Arjun Thapa*, a PhD student, and member of the Gorkha Students Union at JNU, says, “People are confused between the notions of privatisation and monetisation.
“The main problem is that the people are unable to identify that this is privatisation. The government has very cleverly relabelled this process and played with words - they say that it is not privatization, it is monetisation.” He holds Raju Bista, Bharatiya Janata Party MP in Darjeeling also partly responsible for furthering this notion in his public statements.
“People do not know what is in the monetisation plan, that is the issue,” he says.
Thapa says that the government predicted hesitation on the part of the public should the DHR be privatised. As it stands now, the Bill proposes that the ownership will be in the hands of the government, and there will be a transfer of assets for a long term lease. “Minimum lease year is 30, maximum is 60. Effectively one generation might miss out on the opportunity of government jobs in DHR.”
“The regions through which the railway tracks run, have people living there on Railways land. Once the DHR is monetised, not only the train, but also the land will be under private control, and the owners will not allow people to live on private land. Most of these people are from poor economic backgrounds,” he tells The Citizen.
Dutta provides a picture of the public sentiment in Darjeeling regarding this issue. “It is located in the foothills of the Himalayan region. The people in Siliguri and Darjeeling, they are not happy about this matter.”
“One of the bigger issues is that the common population of Darjeeling are not all that highly educated. So they are not aware of what is going on and the consequences,” he says.
He is confident that once the transfer of assets begins in earnest, and the people realise that their livelihood and their land are being taken from them, a big revolt is likely to happen. “People will come onto the roads in protest.”
“People who are working in the Darjeeling Himalayan area will be without work! These private corporations will hire agencies that will bring workers from outside. This should not happen. They stand to lose their livelihood.”
Passang Sherpa, independent video journalist based in Darjeeling refrained from sharing his personal views on the matter. He observes that the common man has not woken up to the issue and mobilised yet, “it is just established groups and parties that are discussing and protesting it. The everyday labourer is yet to react.”
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has staged protests and has been outspoken about their opinions against this move. There has been a marked popular discontent amongst certain groups.
Roshan Giri, the General Secretary of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha Central Committee strongly reiterated that the party is strongly against the privatisation of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, echoing Anit Thapa’s media statements so far. Thapa is the leader of the GJM-2 faction, who have been very vocal and active in raising a voice against the DHRs transfer to the private sector.
“So many people will lose their jobs. We cannot stand by it,” says Giri.
AK Mishra, Director of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, says that they have strict rules to not comment on this issue citing that it is a government matter.
“Employment opportunities in the region are very scarce,” says Thapa. “Even in terms of quality government employment with job security. DHR is a place where one has that possibility. It may be miniscule, but still there is opportunity here.” Post-privatisation of the DHR he says, few might still have jobs, but they will not have the security.
“It’s not like we do not have experience with this kind of policy of monetisation. We have seen the ‘magic’ or the ‘efficiency’ of these - they(workers) are heavily underpaid, and there have been reports of nearly 1000 starvation deaths in those tea plantation areas. They are unable to pay the workers of one of the most lucrative industries of the region enough to even survive. We don’t believe that with the case of the DHR it will be any different.”
“The fundamental political problem of this region is this alienation from land. That’s why you have the demand for the state of Gorkhaland. Therefore any policy move which in any way threatens people’s livelihoods or evictions from land - will always take a political turn. This is a very politically volatile move,” Thapa tells The Citizen. “There is a real threat of mass eviction in our region.”
Sandeep Goyal, Manager at North East Discovery, a tour agency based in Siliguri, says that the local displeasure is understandable, but he feels the reaction might be premature. He says that there is a possibility of privatisation coming as a boon, “but from a tourism perspective specifically, it is obviously beneficial,” he says.
He points out that getting tickets with ease is not possible when it is handled by the government. They have to tell their clients to purchase their tickets themselves from the counter or website. Whereas if it were privately owned, tour agencies may be able to better help their clients with bookings and packages. “That way we could possibly attract more tourists.”
“There isn’t a proper parking space near the station, so we cannot drop the tourists properly or help them catch the train.”
Regarding the protests from the locals he says, “It totally depends on how the private organisations work. If they are increasing the prices, then obviously it will hamper the locals’ lives. But privatisation does not have to mean a negative thing.”
“For instance if the private owners can better the facilities without increasing the fares and giving opportunities to the locals, it will not be a bad thing,” he observes that privatisation always tends to have a negative connotation to it.
Goyal supposes that much of the locals’ insecurities come from how little they have been told about the transfer of assets. He believes that if they were given a clearer picture about how the management of the toy trains would be handled privately, and consequently the livelihoods of those attached to it, they might feel more confident.
Speaking of the management of DHR by the government, “If there is ever heavy rain or something the toy train will simply stop,” says Goyal, “but if the train is under a private organisation, they will obviously find a solution for it.” The stakes of profit making are higher with private organisations. “Even if you don’t operate the toy train for 3 days, the government doesn’t care.”
“It totally depends on whether the private players are taking it seriously in a better direction.”
Birkhu Rai, Kurseong Branch President of Northeast Frontier Railway Mazdoor Union, is of the strong opinion that the government has all the tools to earn a profit from the DHR. He also believes that the DHR itself is not entirely poor in terms of infrastructure, to warrant a change of ownership. Recently retired, he is now active in the Union.
These unions have already held protests in Darjeeling. Another civil society organisation called Laliguras has been consistently corralling forces on social media and through blog posts, and have held two successful protests so far.
“The government has never made efforts to better the revenue of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, but they regularly send officials to come and reprimand the workers,” says Rai. He points out that there is a very obvious possibility of increasing tourism and revenue for the DHR if the train line were to extend to Sandakphu or Mirik, instead of limiting its trail from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, “but they will never take these measures. ‘Monetisation’ is just a fancy way of wording it.”
“Back in 1994-95, the goods trains with produce used to go along the plain side of the mountains, those have stopped too,” he tells The Citizen.
Rai explains that passenger trains hardly turn profits, in any region. “So why is it that the DHR is seeing consequences for this ordinary outcome?” He goes on to say that if privatisation spells a greater revenue, he is not against it. But the profits should benefit the public. “As soon as there are good returns, the private owners will start pocketing all of the profit.” The locals stand to lose more in a transfer of assets to private owners, because “the motive will be one of commerce, not of service to the people.”
“Even if the DHR gets privatised, the control of the profits and their distribution should be in the hands of the government and benefit the public.”