Sikkim, from a larger perspective, is a place that is accessibility challenged because of our terrain and fragile geology. As a result, we are starved for opportunities to grow and evolve in tandem with the rest of the world. However, this drawback can be considered a blessing in disguise if we were to learn from the mistakes of others. The current global development pattern has played havoc with the environment with its fundamental need for constant growth over everything else. Traditional social fabrics that provided a sense of security are also being disrupted, creating alienation, cut throat competitiveness, growing income disparity, crime, substance abuse etc. We should be asking ourselves: how can Sikkim, which is still precariously poised between these two worlds, navigate its forward journey?

What is PPP [Public-Private partnership] model?

It is a manner of implementing projects where the Government partners with a player from the private sector to execute a public infrastructure project. This is done because the Government does not have the technological / financial / managerial wherewithal to execute these projects efficiently.

There is another issue, the elephant in the room that hardly gets discussed openly, but pervades all private conversations and has now become a glaring impediment in our development process: corruption, graft and nepotism. This seems to be the one consistent thread of successive Governments. Personal greed apart, lack of stringent rules that overlook the role of money in the electoral process compounds our woes of having to live and grow in this murky environment where we cannot see beyond the next elections.

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Why can’t we talk about this openly? Two things: the Government is the sole provider of livelihoods [directly or indirectly] and almost the entire population is dependent on it; plus, a guilty Government is defensive, and therefore, sensitive to criticism, resulting in vindictive actions against those who dare to speak up. So we keep shut, look the other way and perpetuate this Conspiracy of Silence.

In this environment, the PPP model is fraught with danger. Private businesses being driven by profit neither have a longterm vision for Sikkim’s future [they are mostly from outside Sikkim in any case] nor do they care for the land and its people. Infact, it suits them to collude in any form of graft if it means weaning a sweet deal for themselves.

What is relevant for Sikkim and Northeast?

It should not be hard to understand that our problems themselves are the opportunities by which we can catapult ourselves forward.  Sweden, in the early 1900s was an impoverished country with glaring income disparity, desperately in need of housing. They turned the country around by making this an opportunity to build their capacity in engineering, architecture, construction, management as well as nurtured their local building-material industry, logistic infrastructure, energy capacity etc. Not only were their housing demands met in a relatively short time, it kickstarted Sweden’s evolution into one of the most progressive countries in the world. All it took was imagination, will and a sense of responsibility for their future.

The PPP model works well for governments with a high level of integrity who have a clear development roadmap to achieve a longterm vision for its people and place. It is relevant where people have good levels of expertise and skill, like metropolitan areas elsewhere. In places like Sikkim and the rest of Northeast, the PPP model robs us of the learning opportunities that are precious for our onward journey. Someone else reaps the benefit of building their capability and competence to move on further. We remain in the same place.

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How do we do things so that we move away from being passive recipients of the development process towards taking ownership not only of our assets but also our problems? Unless we do so, we will remain under-confident of solving them and will forever be dependent on outside agencies. Can we look at projects from the prism of providing livelihoods which implies capacity building and therefore evolving as a people and community? How do we create a thriving private sector that is inclusive and driven by fairness towards socio-economic equity.

Approaching development as a process rather than a race, allows space to ensure that local people are at the forefront of the development agenda. Technology, planning, funding and training should support locals to evolve into a scenario where they have the capacity to solve their own problems and manage themselves with minimal outside interference. This would not only make sure that our indigenous way of life finds continuity but embraces change whilst ensuring our natural and manmade assets remain in our custody. We need a more nuanced approach of incremental growth that considers human development as, if not more important than physical infrastructure development.

Our experience with the Hydropower projects should be lesson enough, where we got taken for a ride by private players [Teesta Urja, Lanco etc.] and caused untold damage to the environment. We squandered precious learning opportunities to up our capacity, create meaningful livelihoods and not just move towards economic self reliance but also build our technological strength and gain confidence to solve our own problems in the future. But here we are, as dependent on central largesse as ever before. This cannot be our development model. But do we have a development model? Do we even feel we need one?

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Bhutan, a country ranked very low on the socio-economic index till recently, leapfrogged from the 19th century to the 21st century. Many would think Sikkim was much better off than Bhutan just a few decades earlier. How did this happen? They chose to invest heavily on human development. They also selected their development partners wisely and their partners were committed because of high levels of mutual trust. Trust is a direct consequence of integrity. How come Bhutan is ranked 24/180 in the international transparency index while India is 86/180? Its because the top leadership there is incorruptible and committed to rooting out corruption. When the top is clean, authority has respect and the entire system gets cleansed. While we may not agree with Bhutan’s handling of their ethnic issues, we have a lot to learn from them as far as governance goes.

What is the way forward?

The PPP tag has presently become a smokescreen behind which an opaque process of identifying projects and selecting dubious partners is being perpetrated. If profit driven private players are given free rein in a governance culture where public consultation is non existent, it is we, the public who get shortchanged and suffer the longterm consequences of questionable decision making. In the new system of DBOT [design, build, operate, transfer] that the Government has enthusiastically embraced, the responsibility of deciding the brief [programme] and design of the projects has been handed over to the contractor/private party! Even the most advanced countries with highly educated societies are wary to practice such adventurism. This sinking feeling of knowing that we are lightyears away from having a development model was a sobering wake-up call and pushed me to write this piece. Meanwhile we are expected to swallow shallow platitudes like this will create employment etc. Please, save us these low end jobs that leave us feeling like second second class citizens in our own land.

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True, we may not have enough technical expertise and resources, but what is stopping us from reaching out to value aligned partners who believe in building local capacity and ownership? Partners who care about the environment and the health of the planet. Who want to help local communities stand on their own feet and become self reliant. There are many out there who would be willing to join hands in partnerships based on alignment of shared values. Of course they would want to work with partners who have integrity and can be trusted. The question is, can we be?

In the end, Ownership is everything. It is the essence and spirit of Article 371[f]: protecting Sikkim and the Sikkimese from outside vested interests. Surrendering ownership of our assets and our land, even temporarily, is to yield and accept defeat, to acknowledge that we are either incapable or not worthy to be our own masters. So what if we are slower in our development journey? It is more important to find our path so that every step is a sure step that takes us in the direction that’s good for us. After all, speed has no meaning if we’re heading in the wrong direction.

The author is an architect based out of Sikkim.

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