Darjeeling, April 24, 2012:
The indefinite bandh in Terai-Dooars area of north Bengal entered its second day on Tuesday with the administration stepping up security by imposing prohibitory orders in seven police station areas and deploying three columns of SSB personnel.
Taxis today refused to ply in the Dooars and those travelling to and from the hills either demanded double the fare or stopped before they arrived at their destinations, forcing tourists to trudge with their luggage for at least a kilometre on a day bandh supporters and their rivals clashed in the region.
Nearly 5,000 tourists in the Dooars-Terai-Darjeeling hills circuit suffered inconvenience of some sort or the other. Of them, nearly 600 were forced to cancel their trips.
While those coming down from the Darjeeling hills were left stranded at the taxi stand for hours because of shortage of vehicles, some early morning travellers were stuck ahead of Panchanoi before entering Siliguri because of a blockade put up by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.
The blockade was lifted around 11.30am. Till then, tourists from the hills had to get out of the cars, walk on foot for at least a kilometre to cross the blockade and then take an autorickshaw or rickshaw to Darjeeling More. “From Darjeeling More, transport for Bagdogra or New Jalpaiguri station was available. Some tourists who were not lucky had to walk even 2-5km to reach Darjeeling More,” said a tour operator.
“Around 600-700 tourists scheduled to visit the Dooars stayed put in Siliguri. They had no plans to travel to the hills. It was a wastage of time and money,” said a tour operator based in the region.
In Darjeeling, many tourists were unaware of the call for an indefinite strike in the Terai and Dooars by the Joint Action Co-ordination Committee led by the Morcha and the John Barla faction of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad. The visitors were seen waiting for hours in front of the Darjeeling motor stand and the railway station.
“We came to know about the strike only this morning. We are unable to find a vehicle to ferry us down. A few taxis, which are plying, are charging anything between Rs 2,500 and 3,000,” said Santanu Das, a tourist from Barasat, who was waiting with his family at the Darjeeling taxi stand.
The normal fare between Darjeeling and Siliguri is between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,500.
The taxi counter at the motor stand was shut. The Morcha affiliated All Transport Joint Action Committee, which is supporting the indefinite strike, did not open its office for bookings. The committee even plastered a poster at Chowk Bazar, stating that members would have to take their vehicles to Siliguri at their own risk.
“Only 100 cars from the hills came to Siliguri today. Usually, the figure is 300,” a tour operator said. He said though the number of people who went uphill was more, it was half the normal figure expected at this time of the year. “On an average, around 3,000 tourists leave Siliguri for the hills daily,” he said.
At taxi stands across Siliguri, tourists bound for the hills were found bargaining with drivers. Some changed their trips and headed for the hills, instead of the Dooars, as no vehicle was ready to take them to Gorumara National Park or Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary.
In New Jalpaiguri, Sudhir Oak, a resident of Mumbai, was found scouting for vehicles with three of his family members. “We came to know about the strike in the Dooars while on the train. Our plan was to visit the Dooars first and then go to the hills. Now we have to change our plan,” Oak said.
“Today, we will head for Kalimpong as vehicles are going to the hills. Later, we might visit the Dooars if normality is restored.”
One reason for the dearth of taxis in Darjeeling was that most of them did not come uphill. Taxi drivers said the ride from the outskirts of Siliguri to the entry point of the hills — a distance of 8-10km — was troublesome. “We didn’t want our cars to be damaged. We were worried about the 15km stretch from the outskirts of the town till Sevoke. We have nothing to fear in the hills or in Siliguri,” said a representative of the Taxi Owners’ Association.
Some tour operators also risked night drives — a strict no-no in the hills with their hairpin bends — to reach tourists.
“I sent two buses with tourists to Siliguri at 2am today. Drivers face risk when they ply vehicles during strike and I sent my office staff as escorts till Siliguri. We are anxiously waiting for the government to intervene as there are many tourists visiting the Darjeeling-Dooars-Sikkim area at this time,” said Pradip Tamang, the general secretary of the Darjeeling Association of Travel Agents (DATA) today.
Vehicles heading for the hills had an uninterrupted trip but those coming downhill to reach NJP or Bagdogra had to drop passengers near Salbari and Sukna till noon because of the road blockade at Panchanoi. But the road was cleared after police arrested 20 bandh supporters.
Raj Basu, adviser to the Eastern Himalaya Travel and Tour Operators’ Association, said any form of disruptive activity was a cause of concern in the peak tourist season. “This is the time for tourism. Forests will shut for four months from mid-May and there would be a slack in tourist arrival in the Dooars. Nobody visits the hills during the rain,” said Basu.
Yesterday, Basu had said at least six persons were dependent on one tourist directly or indirectly for their livelihood. During the peak summer season starting mid March and extending for two months, nearly 20,000 tourists are present in the region, including the hills, on an average a day.
“We were trying our best to revive the tourist-friendly image of this region. We had seen the tourist footfall drop by at least 60 per cent during the turmoil earlier. We don’t want that to happen again,” Basu said.
Courtesy: The Telegraph