This is the first of 7 posts about our visit to India. It is our objective to visit every two years. Our last was in 2017, so we are glad to be able to say that in October 2019, Duncan and Magi Finlayson were indeed able to travel to India to meet up with young people supported either by The Children of Sikkim or our colleagues in the Dutch trust, Stichting Kinderen van Sikkim. All of these young people had at one time been pupils at Sikkim Himalayan Academy, the primary school set up by Dutch and English volunteers in 2003. The maps show where we visited and explain the geopolitics.
Our itinerary took us to Bangalore (Bengaluru), Kalimpong, Gangtok and Delhi. But before going into the details of the trip, it is worth revisiting where Sikkim is, what makes it special, and why we support education there.
Sikkim is one of the 29 states of India, located in the north east. Before 1975 it was an independent kingdom. Sikkim is the least populous among the Indian states. On the map it forms a northwards projection of India into the Himalaya, bounded to the west by Nepal, to the north by China and to the east by Bhutan. Sikkim is a creature of its geography. It sits entirely within the Himalayan foothills and the high Himalaya. Northwest Sikkim is dominated by Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain after Everest and K2 at 8586 metres.
The topography is very steep. Gangtok the capital is at 1650m elevation. Deeply incised valleys mean that short distances as the crow flies become long and tortuous journeys on poor roads. Each monsoon season even the main roads are blocked by landslides, which are cleared by bulldozer as they occur. Because Sikkim is the second smallest and least populous state in India, the GSDP (gross state domestic product) is very small. So the highway authority lacks the resources to carry out full reinstatement, and transport links are poor.
Also geopolitics is important, as shown by the maps. Sikkim sits north of the Siliguri corridor (also known as the chicken’s neck), a narrow 22km strip of land which is the only connection between the north eastern states and the rest of India. Wedged between Bangladesh to the south and west and China to the north, the region has no access to the sea closer than Kolkata, on the other side of the corridor. Between Sikkim and Bhutan lies the Chumbi Valley, a dagger-like slice of Tibetan territory. A Chinese military advance of less than 130 kilometres (81 mi) would cut off Bhutan, part of West Bengal and all of North-East India, an area containing almost 50 million people. This situation arose during the war between India and China in 1962.
Such strategic importance means that foreigners need a security permit to enter Sikkim, and additional permissions to travel to the north, inhibiting tourism.
How does that affect the people of Sikkim? Wealth is concentrated in the few towns (Gangtok, Mangan, Geyzing, Namchi). Outside of these many exist on subsistence agriculture or labouring. Although state education is free, bad transport links make travelling to school impracticable, and poor families cannot afford to pay for their children to live away from home.
Sikkim Himalayan Academy was set up in 2003 as a residential and day school for the children of these rural families. This was followed by the setting up of the trust, the object of which is to support individual young people through to secondary and higher education. These young people mostly come from four of the tribal ethnicities of Sikkim: Sherpa, Lepcha, Gurung and Bhutia. They are also mostly Buddhist, although various Christian denominations are present in Sikkim.
CHANGE A LIFE TODAY
The Children of Sikkim exists to support the education of disadvantaged children from Sikkim, in the Himalaya, NE India.
We are a UK registered charity which helps such children to be educated in Sikkim and elsewhere in India, from primary school through to college or university.
We give a young person continuity of support so as to allow them to achieve their potential.