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10 Jun 2017

Ministers oversee evacuation - Special buses and flights to ferry tourists

NBSTC buses head for the hills along NH55, on the outskirts of Siliguri, in a convoy on Friday. 
Picture by Passang Yolmo
BIRESWAR BANERJEE, TT, Siliguri, June 9: Almost the entire state government machinery was pressed into service today with the chief minister taking lead at the ground zero and two of her cabinet colleagues camping in Siliguri to evacuate thousands of tourists stranded in the hills, the first major exercise of the kind witnessed in recent years.
Following the violence in Darjeeling yesterday and a call for the dawn-to-dusk shutdown by the youth wing of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in the hills today, the state government confabulated with the Centre and arranged for two special flights which would leave Bagdogra for Calcutta with tourists tomorrow.
The North Bengal State Transport Corporation operated ten 20-seater small buses to ferry tourists from different parts of the hills to Siliguri today, besides 20-25 SUVs. Over 30 big NBSTC buses left Siliguri for Calcutta today with tourists. The transportation was free for the tourists.
Around 10,000 visitors are believed to have been stuck in the hills following yesterday's flare-up.
Ministers Gautam Deb and Suvendu Adhikari, who are in charge of tourism and transport, respectively, monitored the exit and entry of tourists - many had cancelled the hill trips and set out for the Dooars and Sikkim - in Siliguri today.
Officials of the tourism and transport departments and police shouldered the responsibility to help the tourists, who were arriving here from Darjeeling and other destinations in the hills. Help-desks were opened by the tourism department at New Jalpaiguri station, Bagdogra airport and Tenzing Norgay Central Bus Terminus.
"From 2007 to 2011, we had confronted many challenges of handling tourists following a sudden strike call in the hills. But those days, there was hardly any response from the state's side. Whatever the state has done this time deserves appreciation. We had never seen the chief minister and other ministers and so many officials working in tandem to help the tourists. This is, we believe, the most extensive exercise taken up by the state for the tourism sector during an hour of crisis," a tour operator in Siliguri said.
He said when similar situations had cropped up in earlier years, there was no initiative from the state to solicit the Centre's help and arrange additional flights for tourists.
A special Air India plane will depart Bagdogra for Calcutta at 3.40pm, while a SpiceJet flight on the route is scheduled to take off at 6.35pm tomorrow.
Minister Deb was seen helping Sanjay Jain, a resident of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, who had arrived here this morning with his family for a trip to Gangtok. Deb was seated in the tourism office near the bus terminus when Jain approached him and said he was not getting a vehicle to Sikkim. The minister walked out and arranged a taxi for him.
Deb also visited the airport and the railway station, spoke to tourists and those manning the help-desk. "The help desks will operate round the clock. We are also keeping a close watch on the situation and anybody found overcharging tourists will have to face action," the minister said.
Alapan Bandyopadhyay, the principal secretary of state transport department, reached the terminus to check whether adequate buses were being arranged for the tourists. Later in the afternoon, minister Adhikari also visited the terminus.
Alapan was asked to speak to his Sikkim counterpart in the morning as the neighbouring state was not running its buses. After the discussion, Sikkim resumed the bus services.
"Tourists will not have to pay for tickets. This service will continue for at least a couple of days," Bandyopadhyay said.
The officials and the ministers continued their monitoring throughout the day and even in the evening, along with members of the Eastern Himalaya Travel and Tour Operators' Associations.
"We thank the government for standing by our side. We are working in consonance with the administration and hope we will tide over the situation," Samrat Sanyal, the president of EHTTOA, said.

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