Vegetables: the hot potato of Sikkim politics

Report by: 
Nirmalya Banerjee
Kolkata
10 Jun 2018

Last week, as I was reading reports of the speech made by ace footballer Bhaichung Bhutia on the occasion of the launching of his new political outfit Hamro Sikkim Party at remote Daramdin in west Sikkim, I was recalling the memories of the visit to Gangtok I made in the first week of April last.
Bhutia had taken Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling to task for his "arbitrary decision to declare Sikkim an organic state" without a proper homework. The supply of non-organic vegetables from outside the state was stopped without adequate steps to meet the shortfall, he pointed out.
I recalled the driver of the vehicle we had hired in Siliguri having stopped by the side of a local market on the outskirts of Siliguri town to pick up loads of vegetables. Just a few days ago, on April 1, Sikkim government had banned in the state the sale of 27 non-organic foods products. There was an acute shortage of vegetables in markets in Sikkim, I was told.
The much criticized ban continues to be in place, I am told by sources in Sikkim, though soon after its enforcement it had to be relaxed in the cases of carrot, red chilli and tomato as these items practically vanished from the market. Subsequently, steps have been taken to increase the production of organic vegetables within Sikkim; more transport has been arranged for their better distribution within the state. Also hotels have been allowed to bring in some vegetables from outside to meet the need of their guests at the peak of the tourist season. To arrest the sky-rocketing prices of vegetables the Sikkim government asked farmers not to raise prices above the minimum support levels. Farmers going for organic cultivation had asked for a minimum support price at one stage as the prices fetched could not cover the high cost of organic cultivation.
It goes without saying that Chamling's move would keep the people of Sikkim healthy. "We are all in favour of organic mission," even Bhutia had to admit. But an elementary market logic would also indicate that the move benefitted farmers of Sikkim - the core constituency of Pawan Chamling - as it helped to keep out competition from farmers from other states, primarily neighbouring West Bengal.
Chamling's move to keep farmers of Sikkim happy is a pointer to the importance of the assembly election that he would have the face in 2019 and the challenge from the opposition that the longest-serving chief minister of the country now faces. 
The launching of Hamro Sikkim Party is an indication of growing challenges to Pawan Chamling. In the last assembly election in 2014 the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front faced the first challenge as the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha managed to wrest 10 seats from the SDF.
Whether the addition of one more party in the opposition camp would be a blessing in disguise for the ruling SDF in the election due in 2019 would depend on if a proliferation of opposition parties would mean a split in opposition votes. Sikkim Sangram Parishad chairperson Dil Kumari Bhandari welcomed, however, the launching of Bhaichung Bhutia's party. "We welcome the formation of a new political party in the opposition camp. No, we are not worried about a possible split in opposition votes. We have an open mind about electoral understanding between the opposition parties to take on SDF in a direct contest in 2019," she said.
SDF spokesman Bhim Dahal was not worried about the formation of Hamro Sikkim Party. "It is a new political party which has just been formed. Let us see how it shapes up," he said. "Bhaichung Bhutia had contested unsuccessfully for Trinamool Congress in Darjeeling and Siliguri as well. The charges he has levelled against Pawan Chamling are unfounded. He is a champion footballer, but sentiments of farmers are a different thing."