Councillor Kala Rai stages protest against the re-inauguration of Banjharki Falls tourist spot
Leader of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha, Kala Rai

Gangtok: Municipal councillor Kala Rai from Lower Sichey staged a sit-in protest on the inaugural day of the renovated Banjhakri Falls on Monday.

According to the sitting councillor, the tourist spot was allotted to a ‘rich retired bureaucrat’ without any invitation for tender, denying the locals of Lower Sichey the chance to earn a livelihood from the tourist spot.

The popular tourist spot, located 8 kilometres from Gangtok town, was sealed in July 2021 while remaining mostly closed for the past 3 years. The tourist spot spread over 8,093 square metres of land was popular for the promotion of Shaman culture depicting the folklore of Banjhakri.

Kala Rai, a popular leader of the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) party along with the locals of Lower Sichey protested at the entrance of Banjhakri Falls, denying the inauguration from taking place. They demanded justice for the youth of Lower Sichey, against a policy framed by the State Government. The property initially belonged to Sikkim tourism department but was transitioned to Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation (STDC) during the COVID pandemic.

Speaking to the media, Kala Rai alleged, “The contract for the management and running of businesses at Banjhakri Falls has been given to a retired officer who has already earned enough from the state. We are placing a demand for open tender inviting interested parties, instead of arbitrarily allotting the contract to the rich.”

The protest from the councillor brought Tourism Minister Bedu Singh Panth along with STDC Chairman Lukendra Rasaily to the protest site later in the day. Speaking to the officials, Kala Rai said, “We came to know the concerned department has handed over the tender without proper invitation favouring one person. The Banjhakri Falls tourist site should remain closed till a new open tender is floated. We will not allow the operation of business as well as tourist visit until the open tender. We want the poor people of Lower Sichey to make a living from the tourist spot.”

Meanwhile, Minister Bedu Singh Panth denied any involvement of the Tourism department, since the process of handling the functioning of the tourist spot was already awarded to STDC.

“The property was earlier with the tourism department but presently it is with STDC. As per proper system, the tender was invited and even the cabinet had approved of the same. The issue raised by the locals of Lower Sichey is genuine, but those protesting should have come forth with a tender application of their own. We feel the locals were unaware about the work being carried out for the tourist spot.”

Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation (STDC) Chairman Lukendra Rasaily said, “After taking charge of the property, we did call for interested parties to repair the site and run the property. We received three applications and one party agreed to repair and run the property. So we handed over the property which was even approved by the cabinet. Councillor Kala Rai has demanded curtailment of tourists visiting the site until a new invitation for tender is floated. We have accepted their applications, which we will place with the State Government. The final call on the allotment now will be considered by the State Government.”

Rasaily lamented how STDC was facing financial uncertainty during the COVID pandemic. “During the pandemic, the tourism department handed over a few State government properties to STDC, Banjhakri Falls was one of them. The condition of the property was very poor over the past 3 years of shut down.”

The tourism spot was sealed in 2021 as the previous contractor was unable to pay the defaulting lease amount of Rs. 2.5 crore to the State tourism department for over 3 years. The property had been under investigation as per the ‘Rent Recovery Act’. The issue was even admitted to Sikkim High Court, which upheld the order of East District Administration to take back the property as part of the recovery act.

The Banjhakri Falls include many traditional statues depicting the Shaman culture and local folklore, with a 30 metre high waterfall making it a popular tourism site. The waterfall was converted as a tourist spot in September 2004 by former Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling as a homage to Shaman culture in Sikkimese folklore. The tourism spot also boasted an Energy Park with eco-friendly renewable energy sources such as solar lamps meeting the spot’s energy requirements for functioning.

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