Pawan Chamling, chief minister of Sikkim, has three overriding concerns: security, sustainable development, and maintaining Sikkimese identity. Nepali Times spoke with him in Gangtok last week about his vision of a peaceful and integrated Sikkim.
Nepali Times: Sikkim is more developed than other north-eastern Indian states, and has always been a point of comparison for Nepal. What makes Sikkim special?
Pawan Chamling: We are made up of three groups-Bhutias, Lepchas, and Nepalis. That is why we call Sikkim our home and India our country. Until the home isn't secure, the country won't be. As much as we are concerned about the sovereignty and integrity of India, we are more concerned about keeping our home secure, and that won't just happen by ensuring national military security. We need social and economic security, education.
Sikkim, once an independent monarchy, is now part of India. What place does it have in the larger scheme of things?
We haven't lost out by becoming part of the Indian Union, we've gained. While preserving our tradition, language, culture, religion, our identity, we are also forging another identity. We need to play a role on the national stage. People talk about emotional integration, but now we're seeing more reverse integration. India is learning much from Sikkim, India is merging with Sikkim, not the other way round.
But how much can the Sikkimese interact with India today, keeping their self-esteem intact?
They are living with pride and self-esteem even today. I am proud that I am chief minister of India's 22nd state. These are positive things and we need to move head in a positive manner. It's only been 27 years, but it is unthinkable that anyone should say we are backward. We can live, progress and compete in the national arena.
What challenges does Sikkim face?
The biggest are natural. Our terrain is 100 percent mountainous or hilly, which makes agriculture difficult-only 11 percent is cultivable land. We can't produce what we need. Ours is a consumer culture and we're affected by the outside national and international market. Still, there are possibilities: if we can't be self-sufficient in foodgrains, we must be in vegetables. There are possibilities in tourism.
Another problem is that even today, 27 years down the line, Sikkimese are only alert to their rights in democracy, not their responsibilities. The government must do everything. To some extent, we in government are to blame for this. Political challenges are always there, but right-thinking people are on our side. We have no real social problems, which is why we are peaceful. As for external problems, so far we've faced no challenges on that front.
What is your vision for Sikkim?
I want to make Sikkim paradise on earth. We can become prosperous through its natural resources. People can be millionaires, provided we keep our natural heritage intact. I want to make all Sikkimese self-reliant. Tourism can help-we have 300,000 domestic arrivals annually, and 30-50,000 internationals, and these figures have in recent years been increasing by about 20 percent every year.
We can prosper by promoting hydropower. Sikkim has the potential to generate 8,000 MW a year, we are working on only 600 MW, by 2006.
How do you plan to translate hydropower into prosperity for the people?
By integrating it with agriculture, floriculture, horticulture, tourism. But development must be tailored to protect the environment. We need education to empower people to take development into their own hands and benefit from it.
How are Sikkimese entrepreneurs doing, compared with those from outside? What is investment like?
Investment is going up, but not as fast as in the past. Our children are studying, they are specialising. They used to want government jobs, but they are now slowly starting small industries, manufacturing units. From outside we have investment in a proposed five-star resort and other big industries-five or six every year. The technical know-how comes from outside, but 90 percent of employees are Sikkimese. We make it a condition when signing any MoU that jobs must go to Sikkimese.
What about Sikkim's trade links, such as opening up Nathu La?
We don't see any scope for increased international trade. If we could manage to increase our share of domestic trade, that would be good. Nathu La-I've been trying for the past seven-and-a-half years to have it opened to trade, but being an international issue, it falls under the purview of the Ministry of External Affairs. It is possible, practically speaking, and also probable.
How are your negotiations proceeding with the central government on restoring the earlier representation of ethnic Nepalis in the Upper House, and keeping Sikkim an income tax-free state?
This is a constitutional matter, and we speak in favour of upholding the constitution. After Sikkim became an inalienable part of India, a section of the constitution made special provisions for Sikkim, stating that our old laws are to be upheld. That section also applies to the old income tax legislation, sometimes called the Sikkim Income Tax Manual 1948. Although this still holds, the centre extended the Central Direct Income Tax Law to Sikkim. We believe implementing this violates the Indian constitution.
When did this happen?
It hasn't been implemented from 1988 until now, it's still pending. If implemented, then more than a matter of gain or loss for Sikkim, it is a violation of the constitution. If one by one old laws that are meant to be protected are eroded, the people of Sikkim will feel insecure, maybe even afraid. This is why the central government shouldn't contravene its own provisions.
When Sikkim entered the Indian Union, its Nepali, Bhutia and Lepcha communities all enjoyed more or less equal representation in the Upper House. That was a kind of security. After it was granted statehood Nepalis lost their seats, 75 percent of Sikkimese are Nepali. The constitution provides for proportionate representation. The Sikkimese people decided, of their own will, to integrate with India because they hoped for greater security and development.
We are requesting the central government that the seats reserved for Nepalis earlier be restored to them, and that Indian Nepalis be given their rightful place among India's minority communities.
We've heard you say that given Sikkim's strategic location, the Indian government needs to keep its people happy, and provide special economic packages.
That isn't why we are making our demands. We entered the Union 28 years after Indian independence. We lost out on five five-year plans. India is like our older sibling, it must help its younger brother. We've reached the point where we can live here with all our rights and entitlements.
What about social sector investment? Subsidised rice for people below the poverty line, subsidised uniforms and books for school-children. do you pay for all this, or does the central government?
This comes from the common overall budget. It is also being paid for through the online lottery. In the Ninth Plan that recently ended 40 percent of our expenditure was in the social sector. The Tenth Plan has just begun, and our aim is to increase it to 51 percent.
We provide free medicines and medical care, but focus more on preventive measures. We are the first state in India to provide free Hepatitis B vaccines to all children. Primary school students get free uniforms, books and meals. Education is free up to the college level, and there is a 50 percent subsidy on books. There are merit-based scholarships for people who want to pursue a Bachelor's degree outside Sikkim, and stipends for Master's degree and PhD candidates.
We believe in a kind of radical humanism-the poor must be lifted up so they can become rich. The rich should also be allowed to live with dignity and in peace. But we cannot leave the poor out when talking about the country. At present 36 percent are below the poverty line, we want to reduce this to 15 percent in the Tenth Plan. Literacy in the Ninth Plan was 70 percent, we want to increase it to 85 percent.
Critics say the government does too much for the people, spoon-feeds them, and they've become lazy.
From their point of view, that is right. However, we have our own outlook, our own ideas. We give the poor cash-IRs 20,000-as well as provisions. We have 32 model villages where homeless people have been given traditional housing, combining poverty alleviation with tourism. We tell the poor, you will receive such help for at least 50 years, but you must put your mental and physical energies into useful work. What is wrong with serving the poor? Money shouldn't remain with the rich only.
How bad is corruption?
I can't say members of my government are all saints or Buddhas. But corruption is decreasing. I told the opposition parties, keep an eye on corruption and tell me what you see. If I don't take any action, you can take me to court.
In speeches and interviews you always put down your predecessor government.
Nar Bahadur Bhandari is like my older brother, I don't say anything about him, there's no witchhunt against him. I only point out a tendency. Sikkim has always had long periods of the same government-the king ruled for 332 years, Kazi Lendup Dorje for six, Bhandari for 14, and we've been in power for seven-and-a-half years. I am speaking against the patronage tendencies that still remain. When we came to power, corruption was rampant and the economy was dead. That is what we were fighting. Now both GDP as well as per capita income have increased. We are aiming for a zero deficit budget by 2007.
Have you been able to counter these tendencies?
I am satisfied. I wouldn't say corruption has disappeared, but the most important thing is that at least we live in a democratic environment now. We've moved towards real democracy, now we need to institutionalise it.
Is there any truth in all the talk of Nepali Maoists taking refuge in Sikkim?
People say so, but so far we haven't come across any evidence of that. I keep an eye on such matters, being chief minister.
How would you describe yourself?
I am an optimist. I take everything-happiness, hardship, victory, defeat, life's ups and downs-positively. I want to keep following my calling to serve the people, the poor. I'm a small man, I never went to college, and I was an average student. My interests are preserving Sikkim's biodiversity, our endangered flower species, nature, forests.
South Asian politicians don't retire until the people make it brutally clear that it's time to move on. How long do you plan to stay in politics?
I'm not thinking like that. I didn't enter politics to become chief minister. The people brought me here. How long I remain here also depends on them, they are my masters.