Nepali Times
"We have a radical democracy"

Nepali Times spoke to Sikkim chief Minister Pawan Chamling recently about his vision for development and the Maoist problem. Excerpts:

Nepali Times: Can democracy bring development, or is it an impediment?
Pawan Chamling: I can speak for Sikkim, I think we are developing because of democracy. Development doesn't just happen, it has to be nurtured. Sikkim will never develop if we depend on money from the central government. We have to invest in our own human resources, develop their capacity and knowledge. We've just had local (panchayat) elections, and I am glad to say that our party won. Now, it will be much easier for us to implement our development programs from the grassroots up. We will work on making people at the village level aware of their rights and responsibilities in a democracy. We want to turn the Sikkimese people away from being a part of the consumer culture, to become productive citizens. Once we become more productive, there will be more jobs for our unemployed youth.

Your programs have been criticised for being populist. Isn't that just a short cut to win popular support?
You may call it populist, but just because some measures are populist doesn't mean they are not needed. Look, my priority is to meet the basic needs of the Sikkimese people. Call me people-oriented, not populist. And we may be a small state in India, but we are the only state that is carrying out such an effective pro-poor program.

We are the only state that has free education up to college level, free uniforms for school children, 17 percent of our budget goes to education. We are working on improving our doctor per population ratio. By 2015, we want to have a poverty-free state, 100 percent literacy and zero unemployment. We want to develop in a sustainable way, we will never sacrifice our natural resources for short-term economic growth.

Isn't it easier for a small state like Sikkim to achieve these results?
True, we have only 500,000 people, but our overheads are high: we need a governor, high court, accountant general, like all big states. Also, the grants from the central government are pegged on per capita basis, so if you are smaller state you get less. But in the end it boils down to leadership. The reason some larger states like UP haven't been able to develop is not because they are large, but because they have a leadership problem. They say you have to drive livestock from behind, but people you have to lead from the front. We joined the Indian union late, but we are ahead in terms of development, environmental protection, and in peace and security.

Speaking of security, how is the insurgency in Nepal affecting Sikkim? Are Nepali Maoists taking refuge here?
There is talk of that, but so far we haven't come across any. We are vigilant about this, and what happens in Nepal has an indirect effect on us. We look at what is happening in Nepal and feel sorry. But we have to ask ourselves, why did the Maoist problem come up? Why aren't there any Maoists in Sikkim? That is because this is not very fertile territory for them. There is little economic disparity, people have opportunities, they don't have to lead a hand-to-mouth existence, there is democracy and enough political space for every citizen. So I am learning from the Maoist problems in Nepal and India. We want to create conditions so they'll never come here. To do that I practice what I preach and we implement our brand of radical democracy.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)