India has crossed 100 Internet Shutdowns in 2018, but very little is discussed about how they affect daily lives. MediaNama is publishing a series on the impact that Internet Shutdowns have on people’s lives. These were originally published by the Centre for Internet & Society, and written by reporters working with 101Reporters.com, in a report which was released on May 17th 2018.

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By Avijit Sarkar

Darjeeling, West Bengal:

A private enterprise office that was shut down due to protests by civilians for separate Gorkhaland in Darjeeling last year

Chitra Dutta, 80, owner of a courier service in Darjeeling called Turant, says the 108 days of bandh (strike), including the 100-day ban on internet, had almost paralyzed her business. The shutdown on ground and that of the internet led to courier packages being undistributed for three months. Despite suffering severe loss of revenue, Dutta says she had to pay her employees’ salaries during the bandh, and “it won’t be before March next year” that she will be able to make up for the losses.

When Darjeeling suffered 108 days of bandh called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the worst hit were businesses in the hills. What made it even more difficult for traders to cope up with the loss was the complete absence of internet services, as several of them depended on the medium to run their operations.

GJM’s movement for Gorkhaland picked up momentum when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) government tried to impose Bengali as a compulsory subject for all schools in West Bengal in early 2017. GJM party chief Bimal Gurung called for an indefinite bandh of all activities in the hills from June 15. It led to several incidents of arson, violence and deaths in retaliatory police action. From June 18, internet services were banned in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. The ban was lifted on September 25.

Dutta’s Turant, a third-party firm, has a tie-up with major courier service providers Bluedart and Ecospeed to distribute their consignments in Darjeeling and around. Another major player in the delivery business, Amazon, had finalized Turant as its service provider in the hills just before the internet ban, but the deal remained in a dicey state after the situation worsened and Darjeeling was cut off from rest of the state, she says. Her business largely depends on a software to track the goods and communicate with business providers and customers, but the prolonged breakdown of internet has brought it to a halt. Dutta says they used to deliver around 40 parcels per day before the shutdown, but no business materialized during the bandh.

Bitter days for tea trade

Girish Sarda, a third generation owner of Nathmulls Tea and Sunset Lounge, an online-cum-retail business outlet that exports Darjeeling tea, says he is disappointed with the state of affairs in the hills.

“Ninety per cent of my business is internet-based. In international trading if you stop supplies to your client for three months, they will source tea from elsewhere to run their business. Clients from Japan started asking me how I was surviving,” says Sarda.

Explaining the losses he faced due to the internet shutdown, he says, “Only 5% of my business is operational at present. I have six months of tea produce and I don’t know how I am going to sell that. It will take months for me to get back on my feet. I’m gone. Things are still hazy here and god only knows when the situation will return to normal.”

The harvest season’s second plucking (of tea leaves), called the second flush, is considered to provide high quality premium tea, and draws the best price. The shutdown in Darjeeling overlapped with the second and the third flush, which occur between the months of June and August, and October and November, respectively. Sarda says, “The bandh ensured there was no second flush and a poor third flush. The entire tea industry has seen the worst phase ever. It may take three years to get back to normalcy.”

Darjeeling produces around 8.9 million kg of tea per annum. Of this, around 20 lakh kg is premium tea and sold at high price, according to S K Saria, owner of Rohini and Gopaldhara Tea Estates. While 80% of the tea produce is sold through auction in Siliguri and Kolkata, the rest is sold directly by traders in Kolkata and Darjeeling, including the 45-60kg tea per day sold online.

Hotel business too saw a downfall in the Darjeeling hills. Vijay Khanna, secretary of Gorkha Hotel Owners Association, says, “Most of the hotel bookings are done online, and we need the internet to check these. The sudden shutdown has left the hotel industry in a bad shape. Clients from abroad could not be informed of the sudden closure of all establishments and few even failed to understand what a bandh is.”

“It was and still is a very difficult time for the industry. Neither the state nor the central government is interested in our plight. There are just a handful of tourists here. Darjeeling hills are out of business,” Khanna says.

Restraining GJM’s ‘message’

Bimal Gurung, the GJM chief who floated the party in 2007 to capitalize on the growing public disenchantment with Subhash Ghisingh’s way of leading Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), realised the power of internet and social media early on, and utilized the medium to push the propaganda for Gorkhaland statehood through his party.

Several audio and video messages, where Gurung alleges the present TMC government and the chief minister of dividing the hill people by creating separate bodies for each tribe and taking them for a ride, had been going around on WhatsApp and other platforms before his call for an indefinite strike in Darjeeling. West Bengal government responded to the GJM’s call for strike with a heavy hand, initiating police action against protesters and raiding Gurung’s home and offices. However, the Gorkha community residing in the Dooars and Terai region kept on getting his messages throughout the shutdown period as internet was on in these regions.

The movement only kept the Gorkhas away from critical resources like internet that fortify their market, and has not led to any productive dialogue towards statehood yet. The combined effect of internet ban and indefinite strike has hurt the economy of the hills so bad that it will take months to recover.

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Avijit Sarkar is a Siliguri-based journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

Cross-posted here with permission under the CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Photographs by Syeda Ambia Zahan.