Page last updated at 05:36 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 06:36 UK

Strike hits India tea and tourism

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

A Gorkha state supporter in Darjeeling (File photo)
Protesters say talks have failed to help so far

An indefinite strike called by a regional political party has affected tea production and tourism in the Darjeeling hills in West Bengal state.

The strike, called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) began on Monday.

The GJM is demanding a separate state and fairer treatment for Darjeeling's Nepali-speaking Gorkha community. Its leaders have rejected calls for talks.

The party has rejected calls by the federal and state government to withdraw the strike.

'Death knell'

The strike has hit tea production and tourism in Darjeeling very hard.

"We have requested the GJM to exempt the tea industry from the purview of the strike. Otherwise the industry is losing 20 million rupees ($400,000) a day," said Darjeeling Tea Association chairman Sanjay Bansal.

Darjeeling produces 9 million kilograms of tea every year. Some 60% to 70% of the tea is exported, sometimes at astronomical prices.

Mr Bansal told the BBC that Darjeeling suffered a drought this year and the region was hit by a cyclone.

"Production is already down 30%. If this strike continues, it will sound the death knell of our industry," he said.

Due to the sudden strike, tens of thousands of tourists from India and abroad left the region in a hurry.

"Our tourism industry has been very badly hit," said West Bengal tourism minister Manab Mukherjee.

The strike has also hit the neighbouring Himalayan state of Sikkim.

The GJM supporters have set up pickets on the Sevoke Road that goes into Darjeeling and Sikkim from the north Bengal plains - so vehicular traffic to Sikkim has been stopped.

Sikkim is losing out on tourism and the state will go low on essential supplies if the strike continues, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling said.

"I have requested Delhi to intervene and save us from disaster," he said.

Meanwhile, GJM has refused to hold talks unless their core demand is on the agenda.

"We will join the talks offered by the government only if they discuss Gorkhaland, the separate state we are demanding. And until such time our demand is conceded, the strike will continue," GJM chief Bimal Gurung told the BBC.

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