By Vicky Sharma
Chuikhim, a small village in Kalimpong district, falls in the highway route. Until recently, Chuikhim would have been considered a remote village due to lack of proper roads and accessibility. Just like Chuikhim, there are many such villages that fall directly in the route of the highway such as Dara Gaon, Sanyasi Dara and many more. Most of the people in the village belonged to the farming community along with tourism also emerging as a source of income. The project construction under NH717A started around 2018 extending from Bagrakote (West Bengal) and connecting with Gangtok (Sikkim); the main purpose being the creation of an alternate route to Sikkim. The project falls under the centrally sponsored scheme of Bharatmala Pariyojana under which the government aims to provide connectivity to the far-flung border and rural areas including the tribal and backward areas.
Villages that used to be once calm and slow are now hustling and bustling with the activities and movements of huge excavators, lorries, and workers. Slowly the traditional lifestyle and livelihood patterns of the villagers have witnessed massive changes, moving from traditional, agrarian based livelihood to this new, modern form of development; the Highway in the heart of it. Forced to accept this change, this work documents the lives of these communities, navigating through these new realities as it unfolds, through new challenges and difficulties. Hoping for the best, navigating through these changes, people are making their lives go by in this new, fast changing landscape.
“I am not exactly against giving the land for the highway since I think it is an investment for the future.”- Punu Lepcha, Daragaon.
“I have a dream of setting up an organic vegetable stall on the side of the highway once it is completed.” - Puran Gurung, Chuikhim
“Around five acres of my land has been taken by the highway and I haven’t got the compensation in the valuation of today’s price. But the platform is getting ready for my children. They will have a better life, unlike ours.” - resident of Daragaon
“During the lockdown, back in Delhi I’ve lost everything that I had earned in 11 years. Now I want to live here with my family and run a restaurant, it seems possible now.” - Harun Subba, Daragaon
I document the change as I witnessed it, positioned as an Outsider, seeing these changes as it materialized. Paralleled with the stories I heard, I try to make sense of how these people see and negotiate their everyday realities with these changes, making their lives go by; opening me to these everyday realities of the people of the Hills, often ignored, often silenced. Odlabari is the closet and only marketplace with this road being the only source of connectivity for the people of the whole region with the plains for the market, business, hospital, and many other essential purposes. As construction of the highway picked pace, new challenges were thrown up - heightened during the monsoon, with cars getting stuck in the road, roads being blocked, ironically making connectivity more difficult. I sympathised with the people of the region, and I could not help feeling saddened by what I was witnessing. As an observer, the struggle of the people pushed me to constantly ask myself, ‘why are the people not protesting for the inconvenience they were experiencing? I always had thought that people should come on the road and speak up, or at least raise a question about the massive destruction of the forests which were there for a long time. But there was no protest. No one asked questions; life just went by; people making the best with what they were forced to negotiate with.
As an outsider, and in the process of documenting these realities, I was struggling with the process, troubled by the questions in my mind. The work was not going in the direction I had thought; forcing me to change the course of my ‘field work’. I began by ‘listening’ to people’s stories. I met with the villagers and gradually began to understand how they viewed the highway. I was surprised to find that most of them were positive about the new developments, in complete contrast to what I was seeing. I felt saddened but they were very happy and positive that the struggles were real but this Development they hoped would be positive for them in the future. The villages that had been mostly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood were now seeing new opportunities for their livelihood as most of their agricultural land has been taken away by the highway. Located in the remote region of Kalimpong and with limited employment opportunities they believed that the highway brought employment not only in these villages but also opening spaces for workers from nearby villages. Almost every villager they believed were benefiting directly or indirectly from the highway.
As Puran Da says (a small shop owner of Chuikhim) he sells around 40 kgs of chicken and 20 liters of local drink every day. Likewise, I observed that many people who were engaged in farming, teaching, and other professions were moving towards work on the highway for an easier option of livelihood. During the Covid-19 phase, many young kids who were studying in schools and colleges also began working on the highway. The villages which once had very few means of transport are now seen to own personal cars and bikes, a sign of upward mobility. Many new restaurants and dhaba have opened alongside these highways, traditional ways of working taking new forms.
A wild boar had been found dead on the highway and it is said that the boar had lost its corridor and had accidentally fallen from the height and died. Erratic climatic changes coupled with this major change in landscape has contributed to environmental degradation, excavation of hills impacting the water sources of the villages, leading to serious water problems in the villages. Over half of the population are facing water problems emerging as a new site of tension only to become worse in the coming years in the Hills. People find it difficult to collect fodder for their livestock and the grazing areas are covered with dust. Transportation seems terrible with dust and mud everywhere. The thick layer of dust blanketing the houses has introduced serious health issues in the region. Women from the village once blocked the road and protested the Highway companies to address this problem of dust as the new environmental concern.
I could not help but see the area that was once rich in biodiversity, flora, and fauna slowly turning into a dusty desert with a huge scar around the hills. As I listen to these stories, I hear, and I try to make sense of what I see- all I see is Dust, decay and despair- underlying it all are efforts to adjust to these new realities and a desperate sense of hope.
Vicky Sharma is a photographer and a co-founder of a community-based organization called The Healing Village. He also works with organizations focused on conscious tourism as a travel photographer. He actively engages with communities in Darjeeling-Kalimpong Hills to identify and create awareness on various social concerns including sustainable forms of development. He is interested in an affective and emotional exploration of life, landscape and transitions in the more remote pockets of the Hills through his photography.
This blog story is an outcome of the India Foundation for the Arts' Art Research Grant funded project titled Stories from Within (2021).