On 9th September, 1992, Pawan Chamling, like Diogenes had more than two millennia ago, stunned political observers when he lit a candle in Sikkim’s Legislative Assembly in search of democracy. This incident, which has earned him the now popular sobriquet ‘The man with a candle’, not only sounded the bugle of rebellion against the then incumbent government led by late N.B. Bhandari but also heralded what Pawan Chamling calls the ‘People’s Revolution against an autocratic government’ which he spearheaded to its fruition, culminating in the formation of government in the state by the SDF party, which was barely two years into its existence, on this day in December, 1994. There is no better an occasion to reflect on the SDF-led government than the day on which the party formed government in the state 25 winters back. In order for us to be able to assess the 25 years of SDF government, however briefly, it becomes imperative for us to assess the previous governments post Sikkim’s merger (led by late L.D. Kazi and then late N.B. Bhandari), and then run a comparison on important development indicators, I’ve chosen two for the sake of brevity – poverty and education. Sikkim’s position then must also be juxtaposed with other Indian states for a fair appreciation of how the state has fared over the past two decades of SDF government vis-a-vis other Indian states. Without further ado, let’s go fact-digging!
Sikkim was regarded as one of the poorest states in the country in 1990s, and the state hardly found any place in the national discourse. With almost half the population living below poverty line (41.43%) and almost equal percentage of population unlettered (43.06%), Sikkim posed a formidable challenge to then the fledgling SDF party-led government.1 Sikkim’s present position as the fastest developing state in the country was, as these two very important development indicators show, quite unimaginable in 1994. Sikkim’s sharp decline in poverty has been possible due to the pro-poor policies and vision of Chief Minister Pawan Chamling who, right after taking the helm of the state, directed almost 70% of the budget towards rural sector. Numerous schemes were launched to augment the income of the poor as a result of which Sikkim has created a world record in poverty reduction by a whopping 33.23% in just two decades.2 Sikkim is all set to become the first poverty-free state in the country by the end of this year. Sikkim’s literacy rate has also shot up to 82.20%, an increase of 25.26% from 56.96 in 1993-94. Sikkim’s encouraging surge in literacy is underpinned by a plethora of schemes and scholarship made possible by allocation of 30% of Annual Plan in education sector, which is the highest in the country by a state.3 Sikkim is also poised to become 100% literate state by the end of this year.
It is very pertinent ask as to how did Sikkim fare on these two crucial development indicators in almost two decades of democratic government post merger (led by late L.D. Kazi and late N.B. Bhandari)? Data by the Planning Commission of India reveals that in 1973-74, Sikkim had 50.86% of its population below poverty line and only around 18% of the population could read and write. By 1993-94 (in almost 18 years), Sikkim had pulled just 9.13% of the population out of poverty while the literacy rate increased by 38.94%. This spike in literacy rate from 17.94% in 1971 to 56.94% in 1991 was mainly due to the introduction of non-formal, Adult Education and Rural Functional Literacy Programme in Sikkim which became very popular among the adults.4 Extending the comparison with our immediate neighbour, West Bengal, Sikkim has vastly outperformed West Bengal in the past two decades. West Bengal could lift only 15.68% of its population out of poverty in two decades (1993-94 to 2011-12) against Sikkim’s 33.23%. In literacy, West Bengal registered 20.38% of increase in the past two decades against Sikkim’s 25.26%. If we run a similar comparison with Gujrat which is touted as a model state by the BJP, Sikkim has fared much better in the past two decades in these two indicators (Gujrat lifted only 7.58% of population out of poverty in the past two decades and it increased literacy only by 18.02%)5. Sikkim has outperformed most of the northeastern states in almost every development indicator in the past two decades.
One very important observation that I find it very pertinent to mention here given the present political scenario in the state is that a change in government does not necessarily result in development, for, development stems from vision, hardwork and leadership than from anything else. In Gujrat, for example, there has been four different Chief Ministers since 1990 (with three different political parties). However, Sikkim, with Pawan Chamling serving right from 1994 who now has the distinction of being the longest serving CM of India, has outshone Gujrat in almost every major development parameter. Similarly, since 1990, states such as Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra have witnessed change of Chief Ministers at least thrice with different political parties but Sikkim has consistently outperformed them in most of the development indicators. Let’s take per capita income as an example. Sikkim’s per capita income today stands at Rs. 2,97,765 and Rs. 67,303, Rs. 74,590 and Rs. 1,80,596 of Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra respectively.6 Sikkim has beaten these states in other indicators too, such as in poverty reduction and education (barring Maharashtra which is slightly ahead of Sikkim in literacy by 0.71%. However, in 1993-94, Sikkim’s literacy rate at 56.94% was lower than Maharashtra’s 64.87%). Thus, these figures conclusively prove two things – one, that Sikkim under Pawan Chamling’s leadership has recorded unprecedented all-round development in the past two decades and two, that change in government doesn’t necessarily bring about development. If we compare Sikkim with any other Indian state, Sikkim’s growth trajectory in almost every development indicator in the past two decades outshines that of other Indian states’.
The facts presented above establish the point that a single government can guide a state or a country towards great heights of success provided the leader at the helm of the government is sincere, hardworking and visionary. It didn’t require Singapore a change of government to transform what was once disparagingly termed a ‘mosquito backyard’ into a first world country under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership. Similarly, Sikkim didn’t require a change of government in transforming itself from one of the most poorest states of India into one of the fastest developing states in the country, under Pawan Chamling’s leadership. On the 25th government formation day by the SDF party, I find it very important to remind ourselves of what Sikkim was two decades back, what Sikkim is today and what made today’s Sikkim possible. Sikkim has become a world leader in organic farming and Pawan Chamling the de facto global crusader of sustainable development through organic agriculture. Peace, which is Sikkim’s most important USP has been sustained through inclusive politics pursued by Pawan Chamling and which has ensured equitable distribution of the development pie amongst every Sikkimese community thereby preempting any emergence of resentment or undercurrents. It must be this peace and satisfaction coupled with organic food and better healthcare services that have contributed to an increase of 10 years in the life expectancy of the Sikkimese people against national average of 5 years.7 The 25 years of SDF government has not only made the Sikkimese people prosperous, but happy, too. Thus, Sikkim may top the country if something like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index is calculated in the country. Sikkim’s engine of development is oiled by inclusive politics and vibrant democracy, as a result of which the 25 years of SDF government under Pawan Chamling’s stellar leadership has knocked down the seemingly insurmountable challenges that stared menacingly at the fledgling SDF party-led government in 1994, and has ensured continued peace and rapid development in this Himalayan state blessed by the Padmasambhava, so much that the entire country looks upon Sikkim as a model state today. In retrospect, I have every reason to feel that the Sikkimese people in 1994 came together and helped Sikkim put its best foot forward by deciding to repose their faith on the Man with a Candle, and their continued, unwavering support to him to this day is a telling proof that they too feel likewise!
2 Planning Commission of India
3 White Paper by HRD Department
4 Education in Sikkim, Dick B. Dewan, 2012, P-426
5 Planning Commission of India
6 Central Statistics Office, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India
7 Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)