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Look North-East: The Sikkim model of Communal Harmony

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By P.D Rai

The recent riots in parts of Gujarat have taken most of the elite in the state and the country by surprise. These events need a thorough examination. Could we have foreseen them? Hardik Patel’s fiery persona has triggered a mass movement of Patidars (or Patels) coming forward to claim something they believe to be their right. They want to be included into the other backward class (OBC) fold like the Yadavs of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

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Regrettably, the police did not know how to act or react to the riots. We lost public property and precious lives, including a youth who died in police custody. This communal upsurge has left Gujarat limping and has opened up another wound which will take many years to heal.

While Gujarat slowly returns to normal, social and political scientists will seek many explanations. In this backdrop, let me present what Sikkim has done over the years.

 

Sikkim is known as the most peaceful state in northeastern India and perhaps within India as well. However, communal fault lines are embedded in Sikkim’s society as well. So how has this communal harmony been sustained even though we have a rather curious history of a Himalayan kingdom becoming the 22nd state of India?

Two decades ago, after the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, Sikkim was facing a social challenge similar to what Gujarat is now facing. Of course, there was no such massive mobilisation, but the context is comparable. The newly-elected Pawan Chamling-led Sikkim Democratic Front had pre-empted reactions from traditional upper castes and manoeuvred the delicate social balance through what may be called universal affirmative action – something worth examining today.

The first SDF government, immediately after coming to power in 1994, had recommended to the union government to include seven communities – the Sikkimese of Nepali ethnicity – as socially and educationally backward classes (OBCs). This was a historic step that commissioned affirmative action for the weaker sections of the population.

Consequently, the Bhujel, Gurung, Limbu, Magar, Rai, Sunuwar and Tamang communities were declared OBCs on June 2, 1994. This empowered these communities, except for the ‘creamy layer’, by making them eligible for reservation within Sikkim and India in higher education and government services.

However, similar to the Patidars led by Hardik Patel in Gujarat, a feeling of reverse discrimination began to beset within the Newar, Bahun and Chettri communities in Sikkim, generally considered forward and economically advanced.

In December 2002, Limbus and Tamangs were accorded the status of the scheduled tribes in Sikkim and West Bengal. Following this, the Sikkim government declared the Bhujel, Dewan, Gurung, Jogi, Kirat Rai, Magar, Sunuwar, and Thami communities as most backward classes (MBCs). Similar steps to categorise original OBCs as MBCs were taken by the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar around the same time.

This created space for recognising that even within the Newar, Bahun and Chettri communities, there were disadvantaged and poorer sections. The Sikkim government, under Chamling, proactively recognised these communities as OBCs within the state, though they continue to be in the general category as far as the centre is concerned. This move fulfilled Chamling’s promise made in 1996 that all Sikkimese of Nepali origin will be accorded OBC benefits.

This is just one example of how Sikkim’s inclusive framework and social engineering have helped maintain communal harmony within the Sikkimese social fabric, an all-important aspect of governance especially in a geo-strategic state that shares borders with three countries.

Politicians and leaders must remain sensitive to issues related to inclusion and exclusion of sections of society into reserved categories, which is also affirmative action. With increasing education and awareness, reactions can build up and this can and may take a violent form if not addressed with care and concern in time. But, in the rough and tumble of politics,we might just be brushing under the carpet time bombs that need to be defused.

Avoid taking steps in time, and we might end up with outbursts of anger by the not included masses who feel a sense of injustice as has happened in Gujarat. Re-examination of these possibilities is both wise and politically sensible.

The steps taken by Chamling, who has been in office for well over 21 years in Sikkim, are fine examples of being politically astute and sensitive. He has articulated the next steps in the form of making Sikkim a fully tribal state but this is something which Parliament has to decide. Hence, what could be done in the state has been done proactively.

The ball is now, for the future of communal harmony, in the court of the central government.

(IANS)

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Sikkim Holds Exceptionally Steady And Silent Progress In Improving The Lives Of Ordinary People

Given the track record, it may be safe to predict that Sikkim might be the first Indian state to offer solutions to the rest of India - and the world.

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Sikkim, along with Meghalaya, occupies the top two positions in the best performing region of Northeast on women's empowerment index comprising of participation of women in household decisions, ownership of land, cell phones and bank account, and instances of spousal violence. Pixabay

Everyone knows that Sikkim is a small extraordinarily picturesque mountainous state tucked away in the Himalayas in the northeast of India. That indeed it is. Even today, there are only around 650,000 people living in the state. However, much less known about Sikkim to the rest of India – and also the world – is the exceptionally steady and silent progress in improving the lives of ordinary people that the state has recorded over the past two decades.

How did Sikkim achieve this? The obvious answer is that Sikkim, like many countries in the world, has ensured that policies that promote economic opportunities go hand-in-hand with policies that ensure an equitable expansion of health, education, nutrition and essential basic social services.

Less obvious is the critical role of political leadership in ensuring improvements in the lives of people. Ensuring that the additional tax revenues from economic growth are invested in expanding human capabilities does not happen automatically. Chief Minister Pawan Chamling – the longest serving Chief Minister of any Indian state – has prioritized investments in health, education and infrastructure like no other political leader has. After all, ensuring adequate funds for the social sectors is as much a function of the funds available as it is of making it a political priority. Very few political leaders in India and elsewhere recognize the importance of investing in people as Chamling does.

What goes even more unnoticed is the role that women have played in Sikkim’s development success. Traditionally women have enjoyed greater freedom in Sikkim than in many other parts of the country. The Sikkim Human Development Report revealed that the state had the best gender parity performance among the northeastern states, with female labour force participation at 40 per cent, much higher than the national average of around 26 per cent. In recent times, with the support of the state, they have played an active role in various spheres of life.

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Traditionally women have enjoyed greater freedom in Sikkim than in many other parts of the country.Pixabay

Sikkim’s women have exercised leadership by taking advantage of the available educational and development opportunities. This is revealed by the progress on multiple indicators from NFHS 3 to NFHS 4 recorded by Sikkim. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 4), 41 per cent women in the state have 10 or more years of schooling – much better than the country’s average of 36 per cent. Only 15 per cent women, age 20-24 years, were married before age of 18 years as against the national average of 27 per cent. There are only 3 per cent teenage pregnancies in the state placing Sikkim as the best among the northeastern states. The infant mortality rate in the state is 30 against national average of 34. Sikkim has improved its performance with regard to safe delivery remarkably by 43 per cent points from NFHS 3 to 97 per cent in NFHS 4, the best in northeastern states.

Sikkim, along with Meghalaya, occupies the top two positions in the best performing region of Northeast on women’s empowerment index comprising of participation of women in household decisions, ownership of land, cell phones and bank account, and instances of spousal violence.

Women in Sikkim are more empowered to take decisions than women in other parts of the country. According to NFHS-4, in 2015-16, 85 per cent women have the freedom of movement, including to market, health facility and places outside the village or community compared to national average. Almost all (95 per cent) of currently married women in Sikkim participate in household decisions as against national average of 84 per cent. Nearly 80 per cent women in the state have mobile phones for personal use against 46 per cent at the national level. Close to two-thirds (64 per cent) of women in Sikkim – as against just over half 953 per cent) of women across India – have a bank or savings account that they themselves operate. Only 3 per cent ever married women have ever experience spousal violence as against 29 percent nationally – the lowest across Indian states.

Sikkim has, however, many things to worry about. This includes creating jobs for its young people within the state, improving the quality of education, protecting residents from natural disasters, expanding infrastructure and so on. Equally worrisome is the sharp decline in total fertility rate (TFR) – 1.2 in 2015-16 – which is well below the replacement level of 2.1. This sharp decline in TFR might have also contributed to the worsening of the female-to-male ratio at birth from 984 in 205-06 to 809 in 2015-16.

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Sikkim has, however, many things to worry about. This includes creating jobs for its young people within the state, improving the quality of education, protecting residents from natural disasters, expanding infrastructure and so on. Pixabay

The reduced TFR is not good news as it may result in an age-structural transformation wherein Sikkim, like Kerala, will have to address the challenges of an aging population. This could get manifested in the short supply of workers as well as a further decline in the sex ratio. With shrinking active labour force, Sikkim’s economy could experience loss in economic output and possibly a decline in income levels. There could also be an increase in the elderly dependency ratio and morbidity levels on account of a rise in non-communicable diseases. Sikkim will have to mobilize the resources needed to extend financial support of the elderly and make provisions to address, in particular, their health care needs. It will also have to deal with the challenge of declining fertility rates.

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These challenges may not come as a surprise to the political leadership in Sikkim. They should not given how well Chief Minister Chamling and the executive are connected the people. Given the track record, it may be safe to predict that Sikkim might be the first Indian state to offer solutions to the rest of India – and the world. (IANS)