Monday, January 12, 2015

The Sikkim of 2014

Of course, there were more events which made headlines in 2014, but when it came to selecting Five which will be remembered much after the year has passed, we narrowed things down to these…

Elections 2014; College Students Protest; Service Regularisation; Rhenock Fire; Sexual Assault of Minors
Elections 2014The year 2014 was an election year, and the contest was expected to be keen and intense, and the campaigning, voting and results lived up to this billing. The politicking was also unprecedentedly violent, with West and South districts especially volatile and given to frequent breakdowns of law and order.
While the Opposition SKM could not make any inroads in those two districts, offering SDF a clean sweep of all 16 seats there, it managed to win in a clutch of constituencies clustered around Gangtok and registering a handsome debut of 10 seats. The election however belonged to the SDF which registered a record fifth term in office and Chief Minister Pawan Chamling is well set on his way to become the longest serving CM ever of India. As things stand, he is already the longest serving CM currently in office in the country.
While on elections, the year also delivered a surprise in the victory of an Independent candidate from Rangang-Yangang constituency in RN Chamling when the CM vacated the seat [retaining Namchi-Singhithang] and bye-elections were held.
While a clear majority and a record fifth consecutive victory is a major feat, the ruling party was fighting against its own track-record of two previous terms in which it had 31/32 and 32/32 command of the Legislative Assembly. Eleven members sitting in the Opposition is expectedly an unsettling experience for the ruling party which is taking some time to come to terms with it. There is however ample time – four and half years – for the ruling front to get used to an Opposition in the House and for the Opposition to earn more durable relevance in the public domain as also in public attention. The coming years will be interesting to watch for how the two negotiate this space.

College Students ProtestSikkim Government College, Tadong, became the nerve-centre of a vicious confrontation between students and authorities, a drama which played out for three days which featured lathicharges, tear gas shelling and extended arson [on the last day]. It all started on 14 July with a group of college students marching up to HRDD to protest an unprecedented and unexpected hike in college fees. They returned without the issue resolved but with assurances. As they sat in protest outside the college gate, Sikkim Police lathicharged the students. The students struck back with projectiles and routed the cops from the spot and blocked the highway. The day ended with anther lathicharge and tear-gas shelling. The students returned to the protest the next day, and again the day closed with tear-gas to disperse the crowd. By Day-3, too many rumours and too many agent provocateurs had joined the confrontation. Interestingly, on the final day, the students stayed in campus even as a group went up to the secretariat to negotiate their terms. The crowd outside the college however kept swelling and the heckling eventually snapped into violence. The police lathicharged, and the mob rampaged from Tadong to the main town area in a free for all, torching vehicles and attacking officials.
Interestingly, the fee rollback had been announced on the first day of protest itself. Eventually, the CM freed Sikkimese students from all fees in government colleges. Four senior government officers, one from Sikkim Police and three from HRDD were placed under suspension for their roles in the fiasco. As things stand, education is free for Sikkimese students, but non Sikkim Subject students are required to pay the initially hiked college fee!

Service RegularisationRegularisation of service of all temporary employees [those on MR and Work-Charged regimes] of the State Government was a monumental announcement. Staggered into three phases – over 15 years, between 10 to 15 years and 5 to ten years – this regularization process would have regularized services of some 9,000 government employees. This was never going to be an easy process to deliver and sure enough, complications and miscommunications abounded. The process was quick in some departments, slow in some others and tardy elsewhere. And then the code of conduct interrupted things, and then a government was elected to power apparently unsure that government employees, regular or temp, deserved any largesse. There was all-round confusion for a long while with some employees listed for regularization but going without salaries for months; there were protests and complaints and now the matter appears resolved with the first phase finally completed and the next round having begun.
The new term government is also in no mood to pamper the babus and in other bureaucratic developments, the Second Saturday holiday was scrapped and the rule disallowing government servants from becoming members of any association or organization, reinforced. While this might be pinching the bureaucracy, the lay people are not complaining. The long weekend culture has ended and several social and sports organisations can now try and grow beyond individuals and VIPs.

February 2014 delivered what was unarguably the largest manmade devastation of an urban setting when, on 02 February, a blazing midnight fire at Rhenock bazaar changed the landscape of the main bazaar area. The fire totally gutted 17 houses/ shops and partially damaged around five more buildings which had extensions into the bazaar area. While no serious injuries were reported, three people suffered minor injuries as a result of a cylinder blast. The fire broke out at around 1:45 a.m. in one of the shops at the bazaar area and soon spread to other adjoining buildings. Some of the houses were made of ekra, wood and partly pucca and caught fire easily.
Rhenock has no fire station so fire brigades rushed in from Pakyong, Rangpo, Singtam and Kalimpong as well. A firefighting team also arrived from Gangtok. The fire was fought by around 30 to 40 fire personnel and it took nearly 4 hours to completely douse the flames. The town was then covered in dense smoke for the most part of the morning. Army personnel from Chalisey along with SSB personnel also helped in fighting the flames. The town has since rebuilt.
The year otherwise was comparatively more forgiving when it came to natural or manmade disasters. There was the occasional hailstorm, bushfire and gale-winds damage, but Sikkim was thankfully spared any major damage.

SEXUAL ASSAULT OF MINORSThe year was disturbingly bookended by incidents of sexual assault of minors. In January 2014 came news of the rape of four year old baby, and the year ended with the shocking rape of a 12 year old. Both these incidents were reported from Gangtok, and the rest of the year remained a constant reminder of how vulnerable the young are to predators in the State. And the predators came in every form, from neighbours to family friends to even teachers! There was even a weekend in March-end when three cases of sexual assault of minors were reported from different parts of the State. For those who still live in a make-believe world where sexual assault of minors is a crime limited to the ‘big, bad metros’, 2014 delivered a wake-up call. Victims always evoke sympathy. When the victims are minors, children as young as four and 12 years old, it demands introspection. The society needs to look within and confront itself with a query – what is it doing to keep the children safe? Given the depravation of the present times, it would be near impossible to work out a fool-proof mechanism to protect minors, but does that mean that no efforts are made? Those who commit sexual offences against minors are not just morally depraved but are also psychologically handicapped [in the medical sense of the term]. Their assaults are not just driven by a momentary surge of lust, but are also complicated by an obvious psychiatric condition. It is unlikely that the crime they get arrested for, or have been exposed for, is the only offence they have committed. Given how lax Sikkim is on the need to protect its children, it is more than likely that most such perpetrators are serial offenders who have been allowed to prey because “compromises” have been worked out too often. The only protection for children against the assaults of such pedophiles is for Sikkim to make the parents and the children more aware. Sikkim, unfortunately, has always preferred to look at such incidents as aberrations and people who read the news bury their head in the sand believing that this could not happen to them. For the sake of the children, it is required to acknowledge that the danger threatens many more children than Sikkim is willing to admit. Even if it does not, working on a stronger protection mechanism will definitely not be a wasted.

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