June 18, 2008 / 12:29 PM / 11 years ago

India's Darjeeling strike hits Sikkim tourism

By Sujoy Dhar

KOLKATA, India, June 18 (Reuters) - The effects of a strike in India's Darjeeling hills over demands for autonomy have spread to the mountain state of Sikkim, scaring away tourists and causing huge losses to hoteliers, officials said on Wednesday.

Thousands of tourists flock to Sikkim every year, also known as the "Land of Mystic Splendour", nestled below Mount Khangchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world.

The state is popular for the grandeur of the mountain peaks, its lush green valleys, cascading waterfalls and fast-flowing rivers.

The strike has been called by ethnic Nepalis or Gorkhas living in the Darjeeling hills to demand a separate "Gorkhaland" state be carved out of the eastern state of West Bengal.

Strike supporters have forced tourists out of Darjeeling, a Himalayan resort town, shut down hotels and also blocked a key national highway that connects the state of Sikkim to the north with the rest of the country.

The northeastern state, nestled high in the Himalayas, between Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, depends on one connecting road from the plains below for supplies. Government officials said tourists were not able to reach the state.

"Sikkim is losing at least 100 million rupees ($2.3 million) every day from the agitation in Darjeeling," Jasbir Singh, a senior government official, said.

"The strike has crushed us," said Raj Kumar Chettri, manager of Denzong Inn, a hotel in Gangtok, Sikkim's capital.

The strike has badly hit the tea industry in the Darjeeling hills, the mainstay of the local economy, and a tea industry official warned exports of premium Darjeeling tea could fall 20-25 percent this year.

On Wednesday, India's defence officials said their soldiers deployed in Sikkim were not getting supplies from the plains. Hundreds of Indian soldiers guard Nathu La, a Himalayan border pass with China, at 14,200 feet (4,328 metres).

"The strike has cut off supplies of fuel, rations and other items to the forward locations guarded by our soldiers," Ramesh Kumar Das, a defence spokesman said from Kolkata, eastern India's biggest city.

"No strike should affect the defence forces of the country."

In Darjeeling, the Gorkhas continued to protest, shutting shops and businesses for the second successive day on Wednesday.

The ruling communist government has agreed to talk, but the Gorkhas have refused, saying they were willing to talk to the central government in New Delhi.

"If the talks are held in New Delhi unconditionally, we will join," said Bimal Gurung, protest leader and head of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Gorkha People's Liberation Front). (Writing by Bappa Majumdar; Editing by Simon Denyer) (For the latest Reuters news on India see in.reuters.com for blogs see blogs.reuters.com/in/)



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