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17 Jun 2017

Tourists to migrants, exodus in hills

Contractual workers get onto a truck in Darjeeling on Friday to leave for the plains. Picture by Passang Yolmo
Kinsuk Basu, TT, Darjeeling, June 16: Siddhartha Dorji paces up and down the main road in Chowk Bazar with a loudhailer in his right hand.
It's 10.30 in the morning and the deputy superintendent of police is struggling to manage the crowd.
"Foreigners wishing to leave, please gather on my left. Other tourists, please wait. All local people (migrant workers) who want to go, stand on my right," Dorji says, addressing the 1,000-odd hoping to catch the first bus to the plains.
Darjeeling today witnessed an exodus by tourists, migrant labourers and Siliguri-based traders after the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha yesterday upgraded its agitation into an indefinite shutdown.
The state government couldn't arrange for enough buses while the car rentals had stopped operations, fearing trouble. By afternoon, the police had had to fall back on nylon ropes to keep an impatient crowd at bay and clear the carriageway for vehicles.
The 1,000-odd had gathered at Chowk Bazaar, from where the state buses leave, this morning. Some among the young sat on the pavements; many tourists nervously paced the streets, towing their luggage.
Packaged drinking water sold at a premium and feeding mothers struggled to pacify their babies as the numbers kept growing by the hour.
The district administration got a clutch of private schools to offer their buses to clear the home-bound crowd. But even that didn't seem enough.
"Our contractor told us he didn't want to risk his life by continuing with the project," said Mohammed Alam, a labourer in his mid-50s from Islampur in North Dinajpur.
"Around 70 of us have suddenly been left without a job. We have no option but to return home," added Alam, one among a group that had been helping build a gurdwara in Darjeeling.
While schools, colleges, offices and businesses remained closed, most of the big hotels today told their guests that room services wouldn't be available since most of the staff had left.
Jeeps and trucks carrying security personnel made the rounds of the otherwise traffic-less streets flanked by closed shops. Personnel from the state police and the Rapid Action Force lined the main road along with state and central paramilitary.
With few buses available, many foreigners stepped out looking for motorbikes for hire to return to Siliguri. But even these weren't available.
"In my hometown, there are protests and strikes. But they aren't complete shutdowns," said Brian Sep, a tea trader from Taipei City in Taiwan. "I have visited Darjeeling before, but it has never been so bad."
A police officer took down Brian's name outside the Sadar Traffic Office in Chowk Bazaar as he drew up a list of people who would be packed into a 20-seater state bus for Siliguri.
The foreigners had first priority; then came the domestic tourists and finally, the local traders and migrant workers.
By late afternoon, women and children were pleading with the police to let them board the already overcrowded buses.
Late in the evening, police sources said that some 11 buses, including those requisitioned from the schools, had left for Siliguri today.
A large number of would-be travellers had to leave Chowk Bazaar disappointed but they would be back with renewed hope tomorrow.

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