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10 Jun 2017

Scurry to flee flare-up

A man prepares khichri for tourists stranded in Darjeeling on Friday. Picture by Passang Yolmo
Kinsuk Basu, TT, Darjeeling, June 9: Gobind Lal Bhagat had heard that the queen of the hills used to be turbulent in the mid-80s - police would be attacked, jeeps set on fire and tourists would steer clear of Darjeeling in fear.
Last afternoon, the 55-year-old banker from East Delhi was witness to similar scenes being played out on Mall Road and accompanied by his wife and son, the man realised why tourists had once deserted Darjeeling. It didn't take him long to finalise his next course of action. Cutting short his maiden visit to Darjeeling, Bhagat checked out of Seven Seas Hotel around 6am today to catch a bus to return to Siliguri.
But the wait seemed endless as hundreds like him took to the streets of Darjeeling hoping to catch a bus to the plains. The government had organised only six 20-seater buses to ferry them out of the town this morning. And only those categorised as "immediate" were packed off.
Rest, like Bhagat, had to wait for over 12 hours on Hill Cart Road till small buses of North Bengal State Transport Corporation would arrive to ferry some of them back.
"A temporary camp was set up near the market where officers with police asked for identity proof of visitors waiting to return. Each person or group was then categorised depending on the scale of emergency," Bhagat said. "One family member would be then stamped on the hand with a number and an alphabet - N for normal or E for emergency."
Some 15,000 tourists have been trying to head to the plains since yesterday's violence. With uncertainty looming and usual mode of return by jeeps and private cars appearing to be a rarity, many have decided to curtail their holiday plans to take a free ride - return to Siliguri or to Calcutta is free in government-provided vehicles - back to Siliguri at the earliest.
With chief minister Mamata Banerjee laying emphasis on the evacuation of tourists, the government has so far pressed into service nearly 50 NBSTC buses to ferry passengers to and from the hills for free. Besides, special buses were roped in to carry passengers from the Tenzing Norgay Bus Terminus in Siliguri to Calcutta. Even 20 Tata Sumos were hired.
"It would cost anything between Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,000 for hiring a vehicle for travel to Siliguri from Darjeeling. The bus ride is free," said Chandan Mukherjee of Taratala, Calcutta.
But like all free things, getting a bus was not so easy.
Darjeeling, which had been buzzing with tourists cooling off this summer till last morning, suddenly struggled to cope with the huge exodus. Couples with kids, groups with senior citizens, backpackers and revellers sat on plastic sheets on pavements waiting for buses to reach Siliguri.
"We left hotel at2.30 in the morning hoping to catch the first bus to Siliguri," said Sujata Pradhan of Bajpur in Nandigram. "By the time our number would come, all the buses had left in the morning."
Sujata and her husband Buddhadeb and son Sokal are a part of a 70-member group from East Midnapore which had come to chill out. Left stranded, the members just kept praying even as Mamata Banerjee went around in a car asking tourists not to panic.
Aapnara chinta korben na. Shob rokom byabostha kora hochhey," she said.
But that seemed hardly a balm. People sat together holding on to their luggage and munched on whatever local people would keep providing in turns - from puffed rice and biscuits to khichri and chow-chow.
"This is a very auspicious day in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar," said Jigme Dorje who had turned up with his sons, armed with litres of tea to serve the stuck tourists.
"It's a pleasure to serve to the tourists," he said with a smile, probably oblivious of the fact that the tourists would think twice before planning another Darjeeling trip.

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