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Cashing in on tea tourism

Written by The Optimist

Situated against the backdrop of magnificent Kanchenjunga peak, the Temi Tea garden in Sikkim surely has a lot to offer to the tourists apart from its fresh tea leaves and the breathtaking view of the snowcapped peaks of the mighty Himalayas. On its 50th year, its Managing Director and IPS officer Mrinalini Srivastava opens up about the conversion of this tea estate into a popular tourism hub. 

Managing Director and IPS officer Mrinalini Srivastava talks about the Temi Tea Estate

Q: A 7,096 sq km state nestled in the Himalayas has developed a backpacker-friendly homestay around the Temi Tea garden. What went into the making of this unique concept of tea garden tourism?

A: Temi Tea Estate came into existence in the year 1969. So, this is the 50th year of the tea garden. Over the last 50 years, a lot has changed in Sikkim. Tourism became an industry here with all the lead resources because of the local cuisine, terrain and tradition that could bring in revenue as well as a livelihood for the people. The government in 2000 gave a further fillip to local tourism with the revival of the concept of organic gardens. In 2008, the garden was made into an organic one. I would rather say it was a merger of a lot of concepts: a tea garden, organic agriculture, rural tourism, tea tourism etc. So, the Temi Tea Estate that we see today is an amalgamation of it all.

Q: Among India’s smallest states, the beautiful land-locked Sikkim has Tibet in its north and north-east, Bhutan in East, Nepal in the west and West Bengal in its south. Is the location an added advantage?

A: One can’t choose the geography of a place but can definitely make the best use of whatever is available. Sikkim is blessed that it is nestled in the lap of the mighty Kanchenjunga, which is the third highest peak and we certainly take advantage of the locale. Being close to Nepal, we not only have good relations but also share ties which are matrimonial in nature. The Nepali language is also spoken in the region. Similarly, owing to the proximity with Bhutan, we share the Bhutanese culture in terms of food, Buddhist religion and the attire of the community called Bhutias. I feel that the ethos of these three places is a potpourri which is really advantageous for us.

Q: The state has attracted $5.43 billion FDI between April 2000 and March 2019, says a government data. Do you think projects like Temi would attract more foreign tourists in the days to come?

A: Yes, indeed, though I believe it is not directly related to the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The travel component and tourism in Sikkim are becoming more encompassing and people are nowadays travelling and investing more, including domestic travellers. India has been focusing on a certain triangle, where people have been visiting places like Delhi, Agra and Jaipur etc. But the younger generation across the globe is definitely more adventurous and looking at newer sites. Sikkim brings a lot of intrigue, and we do hope that in coming times, it will become a place acknowledged by visitors of all kinds.

Q: Promotion of village tourism, cultural tourism, ecotourism, trekking, homestays, flori-tourism, adventure tourism etc have given a big boost to the trade in the state and jobs to lot many hands. How do you see the changing tourism climate in Sikkim?

A: I would say that when we talk about tourism, there can be different sets of visitors and their expectations. There are some who come for the experience and there are people who just want to enjoy the moment and live it. People can get the feel of being in a village, rejuvenate themselves or revive out of their hectic lives. So, being an organic state having non-polluted air, Sikkim provides you with an ambience that gives you a perfect opportunity to relax and re-energize yourself. What I have heard from people, by and large, is that touring Sikkim is an overall soothing and pleasant experience.

Therefore, Sikkim has been able to take advantage of everything that we talked about because we have Gangtok which is more like a metropolitan hill station. We also have satellite towns coming up, which can be used for various events. We also have our own village economy where the homestays are coming up — the wellness spa, which also features stone spas offered by the Bhutia community. So I think Sikkim has a lot of potential. It has a long way to go and people are more aware than what they were in the 1980s. Sikkim has got a lot of acknowledgement in its post-organic era. We hope that we will have an edge over what is already known to the people and what will be known in the coming years. It will bring about the required economic development, alongside the upkeep of quality and overall pristine nature of the state.

Q: What according to you are the biggest hurdles affecting the tourism prospects in Sikkim and how can they be overcome?

A: As you know, any hill station has limitations of infrastructure due to the topography of the land. Sikkim has had certain ambitious projects like widening the roads, which is not an easy task. As a result, the project span gets stretched. In fact, some of our roads are not in very good condition and this can be a limitation because a lot of people would expect quicker and smoother accessibility. 

Secondly, the airport which has been inaugurated recently is going through some changes because of the weather conditions. So, accessibility, transportation and the condition of roads are a big challenge. But, at the same time, the beauty of this place is so charming that people continue to visit Sikkim. I am sure, the government will be able to overcome this over a period of time and provide better infrastructure soon.

Q: Union Tourism minister Prahlad Singh Patel has said the negative perception of the North-East needs to be changed in order to attract more tourists. Do you agree and how do you think this is possible?

A: I would not comment on the statement but I personally do not feel that there is any negative perception about the North-East. In fact, it is more about a lack of awareness about the region. It may not sound pragmatic to say that everyone should come here. However, we will be very happy if “Incredible India” is known in its totality and every part of the country benefits from the concept. Sikkim is making small steps and so is the entire North-East. Owing to the location, there could be a slight disadvantage, but due to the improving regional connectivity and “Udaan” project, the accessibility is getting smoother. It may take some time, but I am sure that in the coming times, accessibility would not remain a concern anymore. 

Q: Tell us about your childhood, your years of growing and the journey as an IPS officer.

A: I would say it was not about IPS but for the civil service. During my time, in the 1990s, a lot of people had other aims like becoming doctors, engineers or even a civil servant. So, coming from a middle-class family, our main focus was on education and being independent. My preparations for civil services began right after my schooling. By God’s grace and my parent’s blessings, I was fortunate enough to clear it in my first attempt and I became an IPS. I have always enjoyed my stint as a police officer and I was fortunate that the government allowed me to foray into other departments, like rural development, capacity building and now the tea garden. So yes, so far so good!

Q: Woman in policing is still a taboo in this country. What kind of challenges did you face when you wore the khaki? 

A: I would not agree completely that it’s still a taboo. However, probably we were lucky that we have come a long way. Ever since I had joined the civil services, my experience has been very positive and I did not personally face any resistance or taboo coming either from my family or from my relatives, neither in my school nor in the environment where I grew up. So I was lucky. However, I do understand the gender issues and the societal perceptions in the constabulary in certain states where they may face certain difficulties. There can be occasions where the authority figure of a woman could be challenged, not necessarily only as a police officer but even maybe as a presidential candidate. So, the situation across the globe will take some time to change but I feel, we as women, have come a long way and societal perceptions are changing, the gender perspectives are changing and people are realising that access to resources and opportunities belong to all.

Q: How do you keep the right balance between your personal and professional life?

A: I have been very fortunate that my husband is a member of the Australian Federal Police and he lives in Canberra and I am in the Indian Police Service. So, both of us are serving our respective countries as bureaucrats. We are really proud of our respective nations and we respect each other’s nationalities, our cultures and the individual pride that we hold. We meet only once in a year and we both have made a lot of sacrifices. Australia Day falls on January 26, which is our Republic Day. So, that is one common feature that we celebrate together!

Q: Is there any particular teaching at the National Police Academy that has left an indelible mark on your mind?

A: Well, the academy experience can be very overwhelming, especially because there is a lot of physical endurance and struggle that is involved. But, most importantly, when you put on the uniform, there is a certain strength and emotion that comes from within. So, whenever we used to fall weak while running, they used to say, “Madam, dekhiye kandhe pe kya hai.” And the Asoka Chakra would remind you of the responsibility that is on your shoulders and that helps you to move on. It reminds you to not just stay courageous but continue to do your duty to your best.

Q: Do you think women’s participation in governance should increase? If yes, why?

A: Well governance has always been a much-talked-about topic. Post-2000, good governance became a coinage and that’s where we spoke about accountability, efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, inclusiveness and much more. So, overall, when we talk of governance and government, it should be for all and not just for a selected stratum of society. The moment we think of “all”, transparency and inclusiveness comes in as an inherent feature.

Talking about women’s participation, the biggest strength that a woman brings is empathy. It allows you inclusiveness and when you are inclusive, you are transparent, because that inclusiveness encompasses one and all. After working in various countries including Africa and after interacting with many European and American people, I believe that one common character of women across the globe would be that despite being professional, women cannot leave their families behind. So, taking the family along makes you a participator and one that believes in the participatory decision. It definitely gives an edge to women in the field of governance.

Tourism as an industry

“Over the last 50 years, a lot has changed in Sikkim. Tourism became an industry here with all the lead resources because of the local cuisine, terrain and the tradition that could bring in revenue as well as a livelihood for the people. In 2008, the garden was made into an organic one. I would rather say it was a merger of a lot of concepts: a tea garden, organic agriculture, rural tourism, tea tourism etc”

Mix of cultures

“Being close to Nepal, Sikkim not only has good-neighbourly relations but also share ties which are matrimonial in nature. The Nepali language is also spoken in the region. Similarly, owing to the proximity with Bhutan, we share the Bhutanese culture in terms of food, Buddhist religion… I feel that ethos of these three places is a potpourri which is really advantageous for us”

Something for All

“When we talk about tourism, there can be different sets of visitors and their expectations. There are some who come for the experience, and there are people who just want to enjoy the moment and live it. People can get the feel of being in a village, rejuvenate themselves or revive out of their hectic lives. So, being an organic state having non-polluted air, Sikkim provides you with an ambience that gives you the relaxation”

Towards easier access

“We will be very happy if ‘Incredible India’ is known in its totality and every part of the country benefits from the concept. Sikkim is making small steps and so is the entire North East. Owing to the location, there could be a slight disadvantage, but due to the improving regional connectivity and “Udaan” project, the accessibility is getting smoother”

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The Optimist

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