Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania
India in Transition

The Country and the City in the Himalayas

Sarah Besky
September 11, 2023

“Farming isn’t what it used to be.” That’s what people across Kalimpong told me when I was there in summer 2022 after a COVID-induced fieldwork hiatus. Something had shifted. In the before-times, people were quick to valorize farming as the thing that distinguished Kalimpong, a district of West Bengal in the Himalayan foothills. Farming, and tenurial rights to land, gave the Nepalis and Indigenous Lepchas and Bhutias who call Kalimpong home a different political consciousness. They also told me that Kalimpong had higher literacy rates and that people there were healthier than in Darjeeling, the tea plantation district on the other side of the Teesta River. This is not to say that farming, and belonging more generally, have not always been tenuous in Kalimpong. But something seemed different. Over a short span of years, the livability of the region—particularly in the villages—started to become doubtful.

Many Kalimpong farmers have stopped farming their land. The cost of production, particularly for rice, has risen above market value. They explained that not only was there no market, there was no water for agriculture. More and more villagers, especially the youth, were migrating to India’s cities or abroad in search of work in the service industry. Had something changed during the pandemic? Not necessarily. This crisis was a long time coming.

Plantations blanketed the neighboring areas of Darjeeling and the Dooars, but colonial authorities did not develop Kalimpong for plantations. This did not mean that Kalimpong was outside colonial or capitalist control. Just the opposite. Kalimpong was instead settled by British colonial administrators as a “government estate.” Government estates in colonial Bengal would not exist, of course, if not for the prior existence of landed estates in Britain. The landed estate was where techniques of enclosure, land revenue extraction, and social stratification were honed. These techniques were then applied in colonial India in a wide swath of colonial occupations, including Kalimpong. 

The expansion of government estates was inflected by the famines that swept across India, including in Bengal and Bihar, in the 1870s. In response, the colonial government set up the first of multiple famine commissions. The commission called for many things, including the establishment of a new Bengal Agricultural Department in 1886. That year, the newly appointed director explained there was a technocratic solution to famine. His department would focus on better methods for cultivation, the diffusion of those methods and the implements associated with them, and the collection of agricultural statistics and “economic facts.”

On government estates like Kalimpong, the post-famine bureaucratic project of keeping people alive was linked to the economic project of ensuring that they worked. Kalimpong was designed to be a food producer for the region, including the growing hill station of Darjeeling, as well as Calcutta. Beginning in the 1880s, Nepalis, Lepchas, and Bhutias were settled on individual plots and enrolled as tenant-farmers on the estate. The purpose was ostensibly to prevent famine, but it was also more explicitly aimed at making non-plantation land profitable through rent collection. A close measurement of the food supply intertwined with an active investment in farmer productivity reflects a biopolitical logic emergent across the British empire. 

Flash-forward to the present. Making a living on one of these small farms is no longer viable. People are leaving the land. Why? The reasons are multiple and compounding. Himalayan slopes are not easy to farm. Mechanical methods are costly and ill-suited to the terrain. Other considerations include Kalimpong’s hillsides being prone to landslides. Food is increasingly shipped up from the plains to the hills. Then there are the uncertainties caused by hydropower installations on the Teesta River. Farmers in Kalimpong were insistent that the dams were implicated in the growing lack of water and the unpredictability of the seasons.  

Additionally, consider histories of marginalization, racialization, and labor. In a colonial British taxonomy of labor, Nepalis were cast as a “martial race,” which made them well-suited for military service. Ascribed qualities of “loyalty” and “bravery” translated into a penchant for service work. Even today, racialized and gendered narratives circulating in India’s urban centers cast people who hail from the hills as naturally disposed to being good servants—soldiers, but also nannies, housemaids, cooks. 

When I talk to Kalimpong residents about what it means to try to make their homes in the hills amidst environmental degradation, they bring all these factors into the picture. Their confluence, however, is perhaps most evident in the revival of one of the oldest industries in the hills: tourism.

West Bengal’s Himalayan foothills have long served as a refuge, a cool mountainous complement to the plains. “Hill stations” like Darjeeling were sanitaria, spaces of recuperation, and of social reproduction for Europeans and elite Indians. The role of the hills as retreat is now even more pertinent as temperatures climb in India’s cities. Access to the hills as retreat has expanded in step with the growth of the urban middle class. In fact, West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, often likens the hills to Switzerland and Kolkata to London, repurposing colonial ways of seeing the hills and naturalizing these images for this growing consumer base.  

The dyad of “the country and the city,” which Raymond Williams analyzed, in part, by reading the idylls and accounts of British landed estates, is apt for understanding the hills of Bengal from its urban center. As Williams showed, views of the countryside as bucolic, stable, and unchanging obscure the violence of extraction and accumulation.  

While farms on the former Kalimpong Government Estate continue to fail, capital has not given up. Instead, accumulation has shifted to even more intimate spaces, specifically those of reproductive work. The government of West Bengal is now aggressively promoting homestay tourism as a way of stemming out-migration among small farmers (and, arguably, quelling subnational demands). The countryside, it seems, no longer requires a functioning agricultural economy. Farming families, with help from state development authorities and real estate speculators, are learning to package the government estate for a mobile, and increasingly climate-anxious, Indian middle class. While tea plantations are certainly getting in on this emerging market, Kalimpong has the most homestays in West Bengal by an order of magnitude. And that’s just the registered ones. 

As farming collapses, it seems that it is easier to sell “local” and “traditional” experiences of the hills to middle-class Indian urbanites than to implement land reforms aimed at empowering hill communities. Trickle-down development, of course, is not new here. It’s a logic of the resource frontier, of the plantation, and a source of ruination.

The cool air and mountain landscape have long drawn people to the region. But by 2023, cars routinely jammed the mountain roads, turning ten-minute drives into hour-long crawls as tourists piled into the hills. With each monsoon, these roads are more frequently becoming sites of landslides. Indian tourists, it seems, are flooding to the hills while people from Kalimpong are fleeing them.  

But the collapse of farming neither caused the rise of homestays, nor did homestays cause the collapse of farming. When people in Kalimpong talk about these shifts, they talk of the cars, roads, and landslides that have already happened and those to come. More water shortages, more dependence on urban traders for basic supplies, and, of course, more homestays are part of that future. Through homestays, social reproduction and the affective labors of making home, cooking, and caring for tourists—work that disproportionately falls on women—have become new sources of capital accumulation. 

The selling of experience in the context of climate crisis is not unique to the hills. Homestays in Kalimpong are of a piece with other shifts to affective labor in the context of twinned economic and ecological crises. Homestays are not a new resource frontier, just an intensified one.

Homestay tourism, then, is not a redemptive alternative to resource extraction. Instead, it is one thread in the long, weedy trajectory of accumulation grounded in the ill effects of colonial development. Climate change and rapid agrarian transitions mean more work, specifically for those marginalized and most affected by the deleterious effects of environmental crises, and particularly for women. 

Scholars of infrastructure remind us that mega-projects—fragile by nature—collapse in many, often quite visible ways. Kalimpong and other government estates are kinds of colonial mega-projects. They take a lot of work to bring them into being and to hold them together. This work takes place in agricultural fields, as well as in restaurant kitchens in New Delhi, and Hebrew language training courses in Siliguri for would-be Nepali nurses emigrating to Israel. It also takes place at home, in care for a growing influx of middle-class tourists who want Nepalis, Bhutias, and Lepchas to present them with an experience of the hills. As global capital accumulation shifts from production to reproduction, with every tourist, with every landslide, with every farm family that can no longer make a living in agriculture, questions of livability in the hills become more fraught for future generations.

Sarah Besky is an Associate Professor in the ILR School at Cornell University.  

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

© 2023 Center for the Advanced Study of India and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.