Think of Sikkim and an image of a green, happy land comes to mind. Indeed, the state has notched up several achievements to make this imagery true. One of the most environmentally-conscious states, Sikkim was the first state to ban the use of plastic bags and the first to ban the burning of leaves.
It has also been declared the first organic state in the country and has become the first open defecation free (ODF) state. While these achievements are a collective effort, the driving force behind them is the state Chief Minister Pawan Chamling. He is the longest-serving chief minister of any Indian state.
The 68-year-old assumed office in December 1994 and in May 2014 he was elected for the fifth consecutive term, completing almost 23 years in office. For Chamling, there is much more to be done in the state, including becoming a contender for India’s first BPL-free state by 2019-20. His hard work has grabbed him many awards, including Bharat Shiromani Award in 1996, and being voted as the Greenest Chief Minister of India.
Not only in India, his work has been appreciated and awarded abroad. On 8 September, 2017, he was conferred the One World Award in Germany for making Sikkim a 100 per cent organic state. In an e-mail interview with Rakesh Kumar, the chief minister shared how it has been working as the longest serving chief minister, the steps he has taken to make the state organic and how he is trying to generate employment. Excerpts:
Sikkim over the past few years has positioned itself as India’s only organic-driven agricultural state. How has it benefited the state?
Sikkim has recently been awarded the UN-backed Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Future Policy Gold Award for the policies that led to it becoming the world’s first fully organic state. The real winners of this award are the farmers and people of Sikkim. It’s indeed their hard work, commitment and cooperation towards organic mission, which helped Sikkim beat policies from countries like Denmark, Brazil and Ecuador, while competing against 51 other policies from 25 countries. We decided to discard chemical pesticides and fertilizers a decade and a half back with the objective of returning to the natural method of farming, and our efforts have yielded dividends as a result of which Sikkim today has the distinction of having become the first organic state in the world. Organic farming has not only boosted the rural economy but it has also hugely contributed to the increase in life expectancy of the people of Sikkim by 10 years, due to various health benefits of organic products. It is also pertinent to mention that while agriculture contributes 50 per cent to CO 2 emissions, organic farming helps in reducing CO2 emissions. What is even more encouraging is the fact that plenty of young entrepreneurs have started leveraging this opportunity created by organic agriculture in the state. Besides, organic farming has also helped in addressing the problem of soil contamination, improvement in the soil biological diversity, reduction in ground water contamination and so on.
What other key sectors have you invested in? What has been their contribution in generating state revenue and employment?
Favourable socio-political environment and Northeast Industrial Development Policy have brought huge private investment in Sikkim over the past decade, propelled primarily by a tax incentive under the North-East Industrial Development Policy, coupled with Sikkim Industrial Promotion and Incentive Act, 2000. Pharmaceutical is an emerging industry in Sikkim, with the state being home to 14 major pharma companies with 50 manufacturing units, which have significant investments in the state. Also, innumerable streams and rivers flowing down the Himalayas have provided Sikkim with an immense potential for development of Hydro Electric Power, which has again attracted investments. Peace and stability ensured by the SDF government in Sikkim for the past two decades are the biggest attractions for investors. The pharmaceutical companies alone have generated a total of 26,827 jobs in the state. The contribution of industries in Sikkim to the GSDP of the state stood at 40.13 per cent for the year 2016-17, which was mere 5.47 per cent in the year 1993-94.
You continue to be India’s longest serving CM. How has been your journey so far? How are you now planning to handle aspirations of the younger generation?
I have been serving the people of Sikkim as Chief Minister for more than 23 years now and shall continue to serve them as long as they want me to. When the people of Sikkim made be the Chief Minister in 1994, I coined a slogan, “Desh hamara Hindustan, Sikkim hamara Sukhistan (Our country is Hindustan, Sikkim is our land of peace)”. Despite being a state with three international borders, Sikkim today is considered as the land of peace and tranquility. We have worked with utmost dedication for the progress of our people and are proud of the fact that Sikkim has outperformed the national average and leads most of the states of the country on a broad range of social parameters. Development and empowerment of youth is our key focus and we have introduced various policies and programmes for this. We are also working on an act which will make it compulsory for private companies to reserve for locals 90 per cent of jobs they create. There have been numerous success stories of young entrepreneurs from the state in various fields. However, a majority of youth population still looks towards government jobs as the only ideal career. I urge the students and youth to come out of the traditional mindset of seeking government jobs and embrace the unlimited prospects of entrepreneurship in sectors such as tourism and hospitality, agri-business and several other avenues. I urge our youth to be job providers rather than job seekers.
Sikkim has done very well on social indicators like health, education, gender parity. What did you do differently to achieve this while being in office for so long?
Our simple philosophy is that people become independent through intellectual, mental, economic and social independence. And, I believe that we have been able to do justice in these areas. For example, we are probably the only state in India that allocates 20 per cent of its annual budget on education. Our per capita expenditure on education in 2016-17 was Rs 12,400 which is the highest in the country. We not only encourage our people to attain highest qualification possible but also support them by giving free education up to college level in all state government institutions. We have also made education free for Sikkimese students in our two polytechnics, CCCT and ATTC. We offer free textbooks, exercise copies, uniforms and raincoats, so that no child is forced to drop-out for want of uniform or shoes. We also have unique scholarship schemes. One of them is the free scholarship to students who secure admission in any of the top 20 universities of the world. Chief Minister Meritorious Scholarship Scheme provides opportunity to bright students from economically disadvantaged families to study in reputed public schools of the state and the country. Our literacy rate is currently more than 90 per cent. In healthcare too, we have some pathbreaking initiatives. Chief Minister’s Comprehensive Annual Total Checkup for Healthy Sikkim (CATCH) provides comprehensive health care, preventive and curative treatment on an annual and periodical basis to the poorest of the poor at their doorstep. We have started vaccination against cervical cancer, as our aim is to make Sikkim a cervical cancer-free state. Owing to better healthcare conditions, the life expectancy has increased by 10 years since 1994. We have many projects in the pipeline like 1000-bedded Multi-Speciality Hospital at Sichey, Gangtok. We are also starting the state’s own medical college, where education for the Sikkimese students will be free.
What was the idea behind the launch of CM Start-Up scheme?
We launched the Chief Minster’s Start-up Scheme last year with the aim of instilling the spirit of entrepreneurship among Sikkimese youth, especially the ones who are unemployed or school dropouts. Through the CM’s Start-up scheme, we provide financial assistance of 25 per cent of the project cost, which goes up to 35 per cent in case of conditional non-manufacturing sector projects. Our vision is to encourage youth not to look only for government jobs or even private jobs, but to be the owners of their own ventures. We have also waived off 75 per cent of fees and taxes for all the entrepreneurial ventures by the Sikkimese youth.
Most of the states in India are promoting tourism to boost service sector like hotels. Sikkim has largely remained quiet in this area. Do you see, with a new airport now being operational you will have an opportunity to position Sikkim as preferred tourist destination?
Sikkim, in fact, is already one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the country. You may remember that Sikkim topped Lonely Planet’s list of top 10 regions to visit in 2014. The state government has taken a slew of measures to boost tourism in Sikkim and, as a result, there has been a sharp increase in tourist arrivals since 1994, when domestic arrivals stood at 92,435 and the number of foreign tourists was 6,887. Whereas in the year 2017, the domestic tourist arrival was recorded at 13,75,854 visitors along with 49,111 foreign tourists. Last year, we broke all records and tourist footfall increased by a humungous 77 per cent, accounting for 14.25 lakh people visiting the state. This number is interesting as it is more than double the population of Sikkim. This was in spite of strike and disturbances in our neighbouring state. Moreover, we have been laying emphasis on ecotourism and homestays. The number of homestays has increased considerably in the recent years. There are more than 1000 homestays out of which 736 have been assisted by the State Government. The number of hotels has also increased simultaneously to around 400. The recently-launched Pakyong Airport has been receiving a great response from tourists and will definitely give a fillip to the already booming tourism in the state.
In your public life, you have seen many challenges. What challenges do you foresee for your state and for your party in the next five years?
Through our inclusive politics, we have ensured social justice to all sections of the society which tremendously contributes to the peace and harmony in the state. We strongly advocate women’s empowerment. Around 50 and 30 per cent reservation has been provided to women in Panchayat and urban local bodies and government jobs, respectively. We have a strong legal framework, which safeguards their rights. Through Sikkim Succession Act, 2008, we have given equal property rights to women in the state. We are soon bringing Basic Minimum Rights Act in the state that will make it mandatory for the state to fulfill the basic minimum needs of the people in the state. The inclusive politics that we pursue has created a conducive environment for our people to grow with peace, prosperity and security. Sikkim today stands as a symbol of peace and tranquility, despite being a border state, and our GDP growth has been consistently above national average. Moreover, Sikkim is a sensitive border state, and we take pride in being India’s sentinels, and there is no discrimination on basis of religion and caste. The only challenge I see is that there are some parties, who are trying to create a divide basis caste and religion, and are spreading misinformation to misguide the youth just for political gains, which can vitiate the peaceful fabric of Sikkim. I advise people to be on constant guard against such parties.
How do you plan to tackle the issue of drug abuse in Sikkim?
Our government has recently announced that we will be making changes in the existing laws to decriminalise the use of contraband substances and instead treat it as a disease. The laws to punish drug peddlers will be made more severe and stringent, but drug consumption will not be treated as an offence but rather as an illness, which needs treatment or therapy. We are also in touch with Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt to come to Sikkim and inspire the Sikkimese youth to overcome addiction. We urge the people of Sikkim to be aware of the drug menace and encourage those, especially the youth who fall into substance abuse, to come forward to seek treatment