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Darjeeling stir: Shops reopen in West Bengal hill towns after 102 days

LiveMint logoLiveMint 24-09-2017 Arkamoy Dutta Majumdar

Kolkata: Cracks have started to appear in Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) president Bimal Gurung’s writ over Darjeeling as a section of traders on Sunday took the first step to end the indefinite strike, 102 days after the Morcha started a shutdown demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland.

Shops opened across Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mirik towns on Sunday after 19 trade bodies decided that they will have no more of the strike. By midday, the district administration had managed to get 30% of shop-owners to open, but the fear of retribution was palpable, according to officials.

Joyoshi Dasgupta, district magistrate of Darjeeling, took to the streets to try and convince traders to open stores. After a lot of persuasion, 80% of shops in the main markets of Darjeeling district had opened by the end of the day, she said on the phone.

Her claim was dismissed by GJM leaders close to Gurung. They claimed only about 10% of shop-owners in the district opened their stores under pressure from the administration.

Kalyan Dewan, GJM vice-president and coordinator of the movement, said the state should channel its resources to address the key issues instead of creating pressure on supporters of the movement.

There was a lot of fear among shop-owners that opening their stores against the diktat of Gurung may have consequences. It intensified with reports of goods vehicles being torched by GJM supporters, said another district official, who asked not to be named.

Massive security arrangements and the district magistrate’s personal intervention led to people opening their stores on Sunday. “It was a symbolic breakthrough,” said this official. The administration, however, is concerned whether shops will open again on Monday, he added.

Meanwhile, among tea gardens, only about a couple have restarted operations, according to S.S. Bagaria, former chairman of Darjeeling Tea Association, a lobby group of estate owners. “The situation is confusing,” he said. Some workers have migrated to Nepal and Assam. Those who are still around are awaiting instructions from their leaders.

There’s pressure on the GJM to let tea gardens open after estate owners struck a deal with labour unions last week over payment of festival bonus. Labour unions have agreed that bonus will be paid to 90,000 workers of Darjeeling’s 87 tea estates despite huge losses this year, but only after normalcy is restored.

It was made clear by estate owners that they will not be able to pay bonus unless they had access to their officers and were able to do the paperwork for the payment. With Durga puja approaching, pressure is mounting on the GJM to let tea gardens restart operations, said the unnamed district official cited above.

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