The movement for better health services by Sikkim Progressive Youth Forum (SPYF), an organisation of students from the universities and colleges of the tiny Himalayan state is taking its toll on the ‘development’ agenda, which has hitherto been a successful political slogan, of Sikkim’s ruling political outfit Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF).
In December 2017, the SPYF carried out a signature campaign in West Sikkim demanding better medical facilities in the District Hospital at Gyalshing. Later, in February 2018, they submitted the memorandum, signed by over 1000 people, to the Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling. A copy of the memorandum was also submitted to the Health Minister A.K. Ghatani and other concerned authorities of the state’s Health Department. As no concrete initiative was taken by the authorities on the assurances given to the forum, more than 1500 residents of West Sikkim held a protest march to the Gyalshing Bazar on the 28th of July 2018.
Yet another memorandum, placing the same demand, was submitted to the State Health Minister on the 2nd of August 2018. The students demanded an assurance in writing. The Health minister refused and instead called in the police to disperse the protestors. But the students stood firm against the police onslaught that followed.
The day after, Ghatani gave a written assurance in which it was mentioned that 90% of the IPHS norms for a 100 bedded district hospital would be implemented in Gyalshing District Hospital within one month from the date of signing the written assurance given to the forum.
While the state government has appointed some specialists and nurses in the hospital, according to the SPYF, the government did not even achieve 50% of the IPHS norms.
As a consequence, on the 20th of January 2019, the SPYF began the ‘Chalo Gangtok’ foot march from Gyalshing (Geyzing) in West Sikkim to capital Gangtok, demanding upgradation of the Gyalshing and other district hospitals across Sikkim in accordance with the Indian Public Health Standards (IPHS) guidelines . After walking for 123 kms they reached Gangtok on the 24th of January. After the authorities denied them permission for a dharna at the Titanic Park (adjacent to MG Marg, the main marketplace in the state capital), they shifted to the District Court premises in Sichey. The dharna ended on the 28th of January due to failing health issues of the protestors; a meeting they had earlier that day with the Health Minister did not lead anywhere and the protest was suspended temporarily.
Though the dharna ended without any significant changes the movement has made a dent on the ‘development’ narrative that has been created and sustained by the SDF government for its political campaign in the state.
Political Narrative in Sikkim
Like in other parts of the country, ‘development’ is one of the most cliched elements in political discourse in Sikkim. Fortunately, ‘sectarian politics’ still remains on the margins leaving ‘development’ as the only major rallying point for political mobilisation and support. One of the main reasons why the SDF has been in power, since 1994, is that being in power it has been able to hegemonise the political narrative in Sikkim through its development agendas. The party is once again successfully banking on it.
In the run up to the 2019 State Assembly election (which will be held along with the Lok Sabha elections), apart from the construction of the Skywalk in Pelling and the distribution of laptops to the students, the state government has distributed 12,000 temporary jobs under its one family one job scheme. Also by completing the 1000 plus bedded multi-speciality hospital in Sichey in Gangtok, months before the general election, the SDF has once again been able to establish itself as a force for development.
In the last few years, pan Indian newspapers and TV channels have been producing positive news from Sikkim. This is because the state and the party in power has been successful in building its ‘development’ narrative not just to the people in Sikkim but also to the national media. News like Sikkim becoming the first organic state in India and the opening of the airport at Pakyong are few examples of how the state government has been able to create its (favourable) image at the national level.
The positive image that the state has garnered in the national media also helps the SDF government back home. At one level, it gives a sense of pride to the common folk in Sikkim. It is a well-known fact that the events and issues from Sikkim hardly make it to national news. The sense of lack of representation at the national level has existed in the Sikkimese consciousness since the advent of satellite television channels. Therefore, when uplifiting news about Sikkim is published or broadcast, it helps in the building of a collective self-pride among the people. As this collective self-pride grows, the government is able to build the consensus for its policies and governance.
The SDF’s control over the political narrative in the state can also be seen in the marginalisation of formerly dominant movements. Take for example, the anti-dam movement that was launched under the banner of Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) supported by other organisations like the Concerned Lepchas of Sikkim (CLS) and the Sangha of Dzongu since 2007. The movement brought the issue of the adverse impact of such projects on the environment and livelihood into the political discourse. In fact, one of the prominent leaders of the movement, Dawa Lepcha, contested the state assembly election from Dzongu from the opposition platform Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM). Though there has been attempts in recent months to reactivate the movement, it has been waning since 2014.
Even though, campaigning for the ensuing elections have begun, there is hardly any discussion about the major hydropower dams in Sikkim and their impact. It is, as if, the opposition parties, including the SKM have realised that such issues cannot garner votes; Dawa Lepcha, a Legislative Assembly aspirant lost an election in 2014 campaigining on that issue.
To make better sense of why the anti-dam slogan has been unsuccessful in state electoral politics, one needs to understand the nature of political discourse in Sikkim.
Since the beginning of the ACT’s movement in 2007 against the construction of major dams, the state has been able to propagate the idea that those who are against such a project are against the development of the state itself. This was one of the main reasons why many viewed the movement merely as ‘Lepcha’ or ‘Dzongu’ movement, even if not an anti-development movement. Recently, the government made sure that the issue does raise its head in the days before the state elections through its promise of Universal Basic Income.
While discussing about the affordability of the scheme, the lone Member of the Parliament from Sikkim, Prem Das Rai, told The Indian Express that “the state produces 2200 MWs of power and it will go up to 3000 MW in the next few years,” the state’s requirement, he stressed, is only 200-300 MW and the rest goes to power trading firms. “When this money comes in, we as SDF feels, it is people’s money and it should be utilized for them.” It is not difficult to discern that, from now on, those who are against the dam would be regarded as anti-poor too.
The failure of other political parties in Sikkim, in creating an alternative counter opposition is also the reason why the narrative set by the SDF remains unchallenged. The SKM might have given space to Dawa Lepcha to contest from its platform but it never took up the anti-dam movement beyond certain limits.
The newly formed Hamro Sikkim Party (HSP), with former footballer Bhaichung Bhutia as its vice-president, staged a dharna at Jantar Mantar against the corruption by the authorities in Sikkim on the 7th January 2019. As reported by APN news, the reason behind organising the dharna in Delhi was to attract the centre’s attention on corruption in Sikkim. However, whether such dharna outside Sikkim on the issues from within Sikkim can garner political support from the masses is doubtful. Like in any other state in India, regional identity plays an important role during elections in the state. No national party has ever won an election in Sikkim since it became part of India in May 1975.
Getting the tag of party of the outsiders is the last thing that any party would want. This is the reason why even after winning the 2014 General Election and the 2016 Assembly Election in nearby Assam, the BJP is still in the margins of the political sphere in Sikkim and is desperately looking for an alliance. In this context, one can understand why C.M. Chamling gave the statement that “New Delhi has hired Bhaichung Bhutia to play against the Sikkim government”.
It then makes sense to see the SPYF, through its movement for better health services as doing what the opposition parties in Sikkim failed to do. The state government has all but completely erased the issue of government health services in the state from the political discourse leading to 2019 assembly election by inaugurating the multi-speciality hospital at Sichey. However, through their determination the members of SPYF were able to bring in the issue of governmental health services in areas outise of the capital.
The protestors of SPYF have also shown their ability to popularise their movement. Almost every day, during their 5-day dharna outside the District Court premises, they talked to the media. Through the speed of social media they have been able to garner sympathies from the general public.
The ongoing movement by the SPYF may or may not significantly damage the political narrative established by the SDF but it has already made a dent into the SDF’s narrative of positioning itself as the sole guardian of the people of Sikkim.
Author: Ugen Bhutia
Ugen Bhutia is an Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism, at SRM University AP- Amaravati. He completed his Ph. D from Sikkim University on the topic ‘Role of Media in the Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in Indian Politics’.