BY NIRMALYA BANERJEE
( FORMER POLITICAL EDITOR, THE TIMES OF INDIA)
KALIMPONG , 1 OCTOBER 2022
A new four-lane highway coming up in the hills of north Bengal from Bagrakot and Gorubathan on the national highway connecting Siliguri with Assam via Dooars and passing through tourist destinations like Loleygaon and Pedong to reach Sikkim are set to change the face of tourism in the newly formed district of Kalimpong.
The road under construction, hugging the Tibet border, is coming up to bolster the defence along the India – China frontier in the Sikkim sector. Border infrastructure can be used, however, in other ways, too, as pointed out by President of Jelep La Pass Trade Demand Committee Sebastian Pradhan. The road under construction would open up new horizons in trade, commerce and tourism. It would be easier for tourists to reach spots near the China border like Nathu La, Jelep La and Gnathang.
(Buddha statue at Loleygaon)
Sebastian Pradhan, who is also the chairman of Kalimpong District Home Stay Cooperative Welfare Society and runs his own homestay unit in Reshikhola, is upbeat that the new road would also come as a boon to the homestay business. A number of homestays have already come up in these parts of the Himalayas, scattered over the Kalimpong district and eastern parts of Sikkim; offering accommodation with an ethnic touch, homely food with local touch and an ambience free from the noise and dust of a popular tourist destination. In a recent visit to one such homestay, though in another part of the Darjeeling hills, at Simana on the way from Darjeeling to Mirik, an evening walk with the homestay owner caused me a few mild surprises as the homestay owner pointed to, growing on the hill face, unknown herbs which, he said, I had eaten in lunch or would eat in the coming dinner.
The eco-tourism resorts provide facilities for stay amid nature and traditional food, including organic vegetables grown locally; facilities which international tourists often prefer, says Sebastian Pradhan. The growing number of eco-tourism resorts and homestays is providing engagement to people living in the hills and helped in stabilizing the political situation in Kalimpong and Darjeeling; another socially beneficial aspect of the business of eco-tourism. “Trade and tourism should go together. They would restore the economic condition of the hills 70 to 80 percent.”
The four-lane highway that is coming up is poised to serve these twin objectives, as it would pass through the terrain along which once used to lie the mule track from Kalimpong to Tibet plateau across the Jelep La pass. Those were the heydays of Kalimpong which was the centre of wool trade with Tibet. All those came to an end with the border war between India and China in 1962 and the Jelep La route was closed to traffic. With the resumption of border trade between Sikkim and Tibet across the Nathu La pass, however, new possibilities have opened up. If relations improve with China, the Jelep La could also be opened to trade and tourism.
The new highway would then come in handy as it would be able to handle much larger volumes of trade, as well as tourist traffic. The Nathu La route has already been opened for pilgrims to Kailash and Manasarovar, though pilgrimage has been temporarily suspended following the military showdown between India and China in eastern Ladakh. Sebastian Pradhan points out, however, that the Jelep La route would be more convenient for tourists as there are facilities for accommodation at Padamchen, Zuluk, Gnathang and Kuppup, offering the pilgrims scope for acclimatization for higher altitudes of Tibet.
(The four lane highway at the stage of construction at Loleygaon bazaar)
Sebastian Pradhan is hopeful that if the Jelep La route could be opened to trade and tourism, Kalimpong and east Sikkim would attract a lot of foreign visitors and tourists. This would give a boost to the homestay business as well; as foreign tourists often prefer homestays in quaint places rather than hotels in big towns.
The construction of the highway has, however, led to the felling of a large number of trees in the forests of Kalimpong. More trees will have to be felled when the road reaches the 15th Mile area near Tsomgo Lake in Sikkim. The construction work had faced initial hurdles because of difficulties in forest and environment clearance in West Bengal. The sanction was finally granted under the consideration that it was necessary for defence of the China border, and in the absence of such a road the army was finding it difficult to move its heavy armament to the border area.