Gangtok: If you are a resident of Sikkim and want to return, don’t think that a valid Aadhaar card or even a birth certificate will let you entry into the Himalayan state. You will have to be a “resident” of Sikkim based on your Certificate of Identification or Sikkim Subject or a voter ID card.
At least that’s what Sushmita Subba, her younger brother and parents found out from the State Evacuation Cell when they decided to return to their home in Sazong, Rumtek in East Sikkim from Nepal — where they had been stuck for over two months due to the COVID-19 lockdown — through the Rangpo check post.
The State Evacuation Cell is responsible for facilitating the return of residents of Sikkim from other parts of the country amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
According to Sushmita, her family hails from Sazong, Rumtek in East Sikkim, a 30-minute drive from state capital Gangtok. Her parents are farmers who, as per their claim, have been residing in the village for the past 20 years.
Sushmita’s grandfather lives in 6th Mile, Tadong, under Gangtok Municipality. She studied at Rumtek Government Senior Secondary School completing finishing school in 2019. Her brother, Ajay Subba (12), is still a student of the same school studying in Class VII with the school session set to begin from July 1 in the state.
The family had visited Damak in Nepal in March and since then they had been stuck at the foreign country for over two months, until their self-facilitated return on June 2. However, instead of being welcomed back home, they have since been staying at the border town of Tarkhola in West Bengal owing to the State Evacuation Cell’s decision not to let them enter the state.
Right now, they are staying at the house of a good Samaritan Beray Rai, but prior to that, they spent two nights at a makeshift house used as a meat shop during the day.
On June 4, panchayat president Chokkee Doma Bhutia issued a certificate on behalf of the family, backing them of being residents of Sajong, Rumtek for over 15 years. “They are residents of Sajong, but as per government rules, they need COI and voter card for their return, which they don’t have. They studied in the schools here, her parents have been staying in someone else’s land doing farming for the past 6-7 years. Before that, they used to stay on rented premises, it seems. I have written a document solidifying their claim of being residents here, forwarded the same to the Block Divisional Officer, who then forwarded the document to the sub divisional magistrate in Rangpo who handles the issue of returnees,” Bhutia said.
When contacted, Rangpo SDM Prem Rai refused to give any information on the issue, saying it has been ‘cleared’. “As per government norms, she is not allowed to come. When the government decides, based on Aadhaar Card, they will be allowed, but not now. It’s not merely a case of Sushmita Subba, but others with only Aadhaar card as their proof of residence have been either sent back or they were wise enough to not come back to the state. She refused to understand, it’s simple. When the government allows, she will be allowed,” the SDM said.
When the SDM could not find a good enough reason to allow her passage, EastMojo spoke with East Sikkim district magistrate Raj Yadav, who rejected the claim made by panchayat president Chokkee Doma Bhutia, claiming they are not authorised to issue any such documents.
“It’s pretty clear that she is a citizen of Nepal and cannot be allowed to come to Sikkim until she proves her residence. Aadhaar card cannot be taken as a document or proof of residence; it can be illegal as well. The relation between Nepal and India is currently tight after Nepal Prime Minister had some harsh words for India. Ministry of external affairs is scrutinizing our moves and we have a responsibility to keep to the nation,” said the SDM.
Meanwhile, the State Evacuation Cell facilitated the return of 209 Nepalese citizens from Sikkim on Saturday. As per reports, the facilitation was carried out in coordination between the Union ministry of external affairs and the Embassy of Nepal in New Delhi.
Sushmita, on the other hand, has done the needful with the State Evacuation Cell, registering her family’s return to the state. “My application to the state government was accepted on three occasions, but their claim remains that I am not a permanent resident of Sikkim and I cannot come, just yet. They have maintained the facilitation will happen when the government issues permit for entry of people with Aadhaar card,” she said.
State Evacuation Cell conducts the evacuation process based on certain variables, a major part of them being that a returnee must be a permanent resident of Sikkim and prove the same with a residence certificate — voter card or Certificate of Identification and Sikkim Subject documents.
“If she and her family have to return, it is not merely a solution where she is allowed to cross the border and enter Sikkim, she and her family must be put under facility quarantine. But who pays for their quarantine, who approves of the same, when quarantine facilities in the state are currently being flooded with returnees? The state already is cornered with the need for more facility quarantine and paid quarantine in some hotels, so it seems to be beyond their reach,” informed an insider at the State Evacuation Cell.
Furthermore, the other variable through which Sushmita and her family could return and go through the compulsory quarantine depends on the private company she could be working. It appears Sushmita had been working as a salesgirl in a reputed mall in Tadong, under Gangtok Municipality. “I was working with Brand Factory but my tenure there expired in February with the brand I was working closing its business there. There is always room for us to switch to another brand, but before I could ascertain of the same, I had left for Damak in March,” she said.
When contacted, the official at the retail outlet in Tadong confirmed that Sushmita was an employee of the outlet. “She worked here till February but with brands closing in on their supplies, we had had to let go of some of the sales personnel. They have the room to come back and work with a different brand later and it stands open for Sushmita as well. She has been the talk of concern among our employees as well. But with her not being a current working employee, we cannot go out of our way to facilitate her return nor pay for her and her family’s quarantine facility. We extend support to her in the best way possible, but we cannot bring her back,” the official said.
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If Sushmita and her employer are unable to help her, perhaps the State government school where her brother Ajay is currently studying could be a solution.
When EastMojo spoke with school principal YG Bhutia, he too confirmed that Ajay is a student of the school. “Ajay studies in the standard seventh, even his sister Sushmita studied in the school till she graduated in 2019. Since Ajay is studying here, he should be allowed to study and come back home. Teachers are being brought back to the state, so some help could come through. We cannot do much until the district collector approves of the same. All we could work out in coordination with the panchayat as Ajay is a student in the school,” Bhuta said.
Ironically, the school itself has also been declared as one of the free quarantine facilities in the state.
Scores of support for Sushmita and her family have come through from Limboo Tamang Voluntary Committee, which submitted an application to chief minister PS Tamang and chef secretary SC Gupta on Saturday. Similarly, Sikkim Republican Party President KB Rai also raised the concern along with social activist Passang Sherpa, all of whom have demanded a solution for Sushmita and her family’s return.
While taking the matter with Rumtek-Martam MLA Sonam T Venchungpa from the constituency, he said, “The district administration and Rangpo Police have arranged her stay and her food requirements are being fulfilled. She is staying across the border on the West Bengal side, I called her and she claimed to be doing well. Help from the government and personally as well, I will do so. Task force has criteria for who can return, they are scheduling, those working in Sikkim can return, it’s a phase-wise system. She will be allowed to return but just not yet, maybe later.”
“It’s a question between being rule-based and humanity, we have to maintain both, being compassionate towards the issue as well. There is no document to prove she is a resident of Sikkim, voter identification is needed at least. We are not being insensitive, there were many such cases that didn’t come to light, and the task force is aware and is merely a concern of schedule,” the MLA said.
Rangpo Police Station in their press statement on Saturday claimed that Sushmita and her family reached the state borders on June 2 night, around 2040 hours, further claiming that she along with her family initially informed of them coming from Sukna in West Bengal, from a relative’s residence.
“Upon verifying further, it was revealed by them that they had not registered themselves online in the State portal for evacuation. Neither did they possess the documents to get the entry pass. They were then boarded onto a fully sanitized vehicle proceeding towards Siliguri, with the driver being instructed to drop them to their relative’s place in Sukna, West Bengal. But, they got down as soon as they reached towards the West Bengal side of Rangpo bridge,” informed the press release.
The Rangpo Police have claimed that Sushmita and her family lied about their travel from Nepal, claiming themselves to have come from Sukna, West Bengal. The press release from the Rangpo Police Station claimed that police personnel seeing their ‘sorry plight’ helped them with some cash and accommodation with a social worker Beray Rai of Tarkhola, West Bengal.
However, Sushmita begged to differ on the claims made by the Rangpo Police Station. “We arrived late but we never mentioned we were from Sukna, West Bengal. We do not even know where the place is. We had from the start mentioned we had come from Nepal and wanted to go back home to Sajong, Rumtek. We were not taken on a bus, instead, we took shelter in makeshift meat shop adjacent to the Rangpo Bridge on the West Bengal side. There was no cash given nor did the Rangpo Police help in our accommodation at Beray Rai’s residence. It was carried out by Beray Rai himself, being a good Samaritan. They denied entry first, they made a fuss about the scenario despite our claims of being from Sajong, Rumtek and now they are blatantly lying and blaming us,” she said.
Sushmita and her family are still in Tarkhola, West Bengal waiting to be evacuated. “This evening, I received a phone call from SKM spokesperson Jacob Khaling, who has promised that the state government is convening a meeting on Monday or Tuesday, from there on a decision on our facilitation will be taken,” she said.
She also said that their screening was done at Kalimpong in West Bengal on Sunday morning, whereas it should have been done at Rangpo check post by now.