Siliguri is changing, reads the catchphrase of Uttarayan—the new township coming up on the outskirts. At Uttarayan’s shopping mall, people can now dig into Kentucky Fried Chicken, a welcome departure from the traditional singara-jilipi combo sold from the ramshackle stall of Shyam Madhu or the toast and eggs at Netaji Cabin in Bidhan Market.
“Kolkatans will not be able to sneer at us anymore as malls are setting up shop here,” said Urmimala Dutta, a student of rural development studies in North Bengal University. Trinankur Halder, a third-year student of history in Siliguri College, enthusiastically supports her. “Siliguri is no longer a district town. It has started its journey towards a full-fledged city. I love hanging out at Cosmos (mall) or catch the latest movie at the multiplex in Orbit (another mall).”
The Café Coffee Day and lounge bar Rave-Up are also favourite with the happening crowd. Siliguri also offers such high-end entertainment as bamboo dance at Golden Delights, another lounge bar.
Once famous for its perennial traffic jams, the flyover on the southern side of the city has made transportation easy. “Siliguri should have seen more development as it has a fantastic potential for business,” said Biswajit Das, general secretary of Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry, North Bengal FOCIN). “After Kolkata, Siliguri has the biggest wholesale market in the state. Business worth R8 crore is carried out daily. While six districts in North Bengal collected VAT at the rate of R250 crore a year, Siliguri alone totted up R194 crore in 2009-10. The amount of VAT collected in Siliguri during 08-09 was R152 crore.”
Asok Bhattacharya, Siliguri MLA and urban development minister, said, “The expansion of business has not kept touch with development. Siliguri remains an unplanned city. We are trying to rectify the situation to offset the negative side-affects of urbanisation.”
Siliguri boasts a strategic location and enjoys proximity to three international borders—Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. It is the gateway to the Northeast and is adjacent to two other states such as Sikkim and Bihar. However, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri in North Bengal were given the shape of a city much before.
Siliguri came under the spotlight after the Chinese aggression in 1962 as military camps were set up. Before that Siliguri was only a small village, whose population swelled after influx of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan during Partition. Bengalis also migrated from Assam in early 1980s during the anti-foreigner stir.
At present, Siliguri has a population of about 6 lakh within 47 wards in the municipal corporation area. Though the size of the town is about 42 sqkm, the number of motor vehicles registered in the Siliguri sub-division is a staggering 1,40,000. Around 10,000 motor vehicles enter Siliguri daily leading to chaos as it has only four major roads.
“There are no parking lots in Siliguri. During busy hours, vehicles are stuck in traffic jam,” said Rajib Das, a hotelier. “A flyover has been built but more are required. Two large vehicles can not move on the flyover at the same time.”
Pollution of rivers is another problem. Effluents flow into the Mahananda river. Two others, Phuleswari and Jorapanim, which flow within the city, have turned into sewerage drains. Several cattle sheds have come up illegally adjacent to the river. “Squatters have made homes on the Mahananda riverbed and it is difficult to evacuate them,” Bhattacharya admits.
Darjeeling district Trinamool Congress president and four-time councillor of Siliguri Municipal Corporation, Gautam Deb, feels all the changes have been cosmetic. “Is the infrastructure of Siliguri capable of accommodating the pressure of growth?” he said.
Samrat Sanyal, director of East Wind Holiday Tours Private Limited, said, “The landmarks of Siliguri look shabby. There is not a single five-star hotel in Siliguri, which has 250 hotels and lodges. The scope of employment has increased mainly in the service sector.”
One sector, which is booming, is real estate, attracting talent such as Tamalika Sarkar, who did a two-year course in interior designing at National Techno Institution in Kolkata. “There is a lot of scope in our profession. Things are looking up after townships like Uttarayan were conceptualised,” said Sarkar.
However, glitches remain with not a single industry setting up base here. “The same location that made Siliguri a trading centre is the main hindrance. Siliguri is sandwiched between Sikkim and the Northeast. While industrialists get subsidies and exemptions in these states, they get nothing in Siliguri,” said industrialist Kamal Mittal. “It is unfortunate that the IT Park could not be developed in Siliguri so far.”
The absence of industries means no campus recruitment at Siliguri Institute of Technology (SIT), which was set up about 10 years ago. “Earlier, there was no campus interview. After a sustained students’ agitation, the authorities held the campus interviews in Kolkata. What else could they do in the absence of industries?” said Biswajit Das.
The one sector that has improved is schools and the number of reputable institutions has increased three times as compared to 2000. Private English- medium schools such as DPS, GD Goenka and Don Bosco have been set up. Management colleges and institutes for technical education have also surfaced. But Siliguri is yet to get the scope for higher and multi-faceted education. The town also draws a blank when one considers coaching institutes for joint entrance or IIT and administrative examinations.
However, there are optimists. Ranadhir Chakraborty, head of biochemistry department in North Bengal University, said, “If you are a small entrepreneur, you have scope in Siliguri. Money is flying here. You have to grab it. But there is little scope for jobs. Agro-based and bio-technology-based industries should be immediately developed in Siliguri.”
Siliguri also lacks specialised and sophisticated healthcare services. It does not have any private hospital except some nursing homes with limited facilities. North Bengal Medical College Hospital and Siliguri Hospital are the only full-fledged institutions. Things are looking up. AMRI has taken land in Kauakhali to set up a hospital. Uttarayan is also supposed to get its own hospital. Shekhar Chakraborty, a medical practitioner, had moved to Siliguri in 2000 from Kolkata. He had thought of returning in the next three years but could not as his practice flourished. But he admits specialty medical units are a must for progress.