Five years have passed. The 85 km highway stretch from Bagdogra to the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal, India, which once provided the unabashed backdrop of the mighty Mt. Kanchenjunga to travelers, now offers a sad, obstructed view of the mountains. There is no breath of greenery that otherwise covered the roadway, especially from Kurseong to the main town. In place of trees stand cemented establishments in every corner that the eyes can rest on. This is not an exaggerated description of how rapidly this change has occurred.
While in the main town, the vista is no different. A 5-floored tower stands tall in place of the 5 feet market establishments that previously served as the landmark of the Hill Cart Road of the hills. The dense forest alongside the narrow roads of Gandhi Road has also been replaced by 5-storeyed hotel towers, which stand adjacent throughout the stretch. On the other hand, Tungsung and Butcher Basti are a horrific sight too with their tall architectural walls that sit oddly against the once lush forest ambiance further creating a somewhat deformed landscape.
The change in Chowrasta is no other than drastic. This is evident because Mall Road which was once a popular attraction predominantly due to its no-vehicle and greenery zone, now witnesses cars and trucks vehemently making their way through the narrow streets. The traversing pedestrians who could once experience nature in its purest breath, no more have the opportunity to enjoy the otherwise refreshing encounter with nature. This is the consequence of an array of noisy vehicles that constantly exhale smoke that effortlessly murders the freshness of the environment. Tshering Wangmu, a hotel staff who has been working in one of the hotels located on Mall Road, commented, “Tourists are the lifeline of Darjeeling’s economy. They come here to enjoy the weather and the beauty of the hills. We must make their stay in Darjeeling comfortable and joyful. This is why the government has allowed taxis to use Mall Road so travelers can be ferried to the nearby hotels. Without access to the road, the travelers will experience hassles in reaching their hotels or other nearby site-seeing areas.”
Such is the current situation in Darjeeling. As correctly stated by Tshering Wangmu, the economy of the hills owes its growth to tourism. But is the burst in tourism being handled well? For instance, in allowing vehicles access to areas that once were used only for people who wished to walk the streets in order to experience an unadulterated encounter with nature in the name of convenience, is the management making the town conducive to the tourists or just compromising this very cause? Further, in permitting the erection of tall buildings that jeopardize the safety of the hilly topography in the name of better handling the increase in tourists, especially being an earthquake-prone area, has the government been fair with its judgement? These are concerning questions that complicate the possibility of Darjeeling progressing toward its growth or simply preparing for its nadir.
Nevertheless, home-stays are significantly on the rise too. Endless buildings are being constructed across the town. Homestays seem to be a tourist’s favourite mainly because of their location in the residential complexes that add to the safety factor. But an alarming increase in their number is threatening the aesthetic character of Darjeeling from a different tangent. In this regard, Giovanni Giulia, a resident of Italy who has been visiting Darjeeling frequently in the past decade comments, “Darjeeling feels very different from what it did 10 years ago. I always make an effort to come here each time I visit India. I have loved this place because of the serene beauty of the hills and the quiet lifestyle of the mountain people nestled away from the fast hustle-bustle of city life. For this purpose, I have preferred to stay in various homestays in the region not only because these are economical but also home-like. But now everything has changed. A lot of homestays have been constructed in and around the town. Even those that were once built away from the town have grown in numbers and thus, so clustered. I see tall buildings everywhere. This does not feel like Darjeeling, which otherwise used to be a small town filled with peaceful charm. Perhaps I will plan to go to Gangtok and other nearby towns in Sikkim on my next visit to India because it is quieter and cleaner.”
This is a magnificent loss for the townspeople of Darjeeling and portends a sorry situation for the hills. Tourists like Giovanni Giulia who prefer to visit hill stations other than Darjeeling are growing in number. The hills that were once an attraction because of their warm hamlets and small cottages are now marked by huge towers built in the name of tourism. This commercialization as an effort to modernize or urbanize the town is not promising in any way. Seemingly, the only thing beautiful about Darjeeling now is the view of the mighty Mt. Kanchenjunga that adorns itself upright as a Kingly personality at the backdrop of the hills. Alas, with how the affairs in Darjeeling are materializing, it will not be surprising to see even Mt. Kanchenjunga turning its back on the town as a refusal to be part of it. If this happens, Darjeeling will die.
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