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10 Jun 2017

Tourists wait for hours to leave the hills

Kinsuk Basu, TT, June 9: Gobind Lal Bhagat had heard stories of how violence had convulsed Darjeeling in the mid-80s and driven out tourists.
Yesterday afternoon, the 55-year-old bank executive from Delhi witnessed to his horror a rerun of those dreaded days on Mall Road, prompting him to cut short his maiden visit to the Queen of the Hills.
Bhagat and his wife and son checked out of their hotel around 6 in the morning to catch a bus to Siliguri.
But a swift exit from Darjeeling proved elusive as hundreds had queued up for the six 20-seater North Bengal State Transport Corporation buses that left for Siliguri around 10am. All the buses ferried tourists for free.
Only those whose purpose of journey was categorised as "emergency" were allowed to board the buses, while the rest, including the Bhagats, had to wait till 7pm for the second lot of free transport - seven buses and four MUVs.
"A camp was set up near Chowk Bazar where home-bound tourists had to produce their identity proof. Each person or group was then categorised depending on the scale of emergency," Bhagat said. "A person from each group was stamped on the hand with a number and a letter - N for normal or E for emergency."
A source said only tourists categorised as "emergency" got berths in the morning buses.
The 13 NBSTC buses that left in the morning and evening were part of the 50 vehicles the agency had announced it would deploy to ferry tourists from Darjeeling to various destinations.
Two schools in Darjeeling - North Point and Gyanoday - deployed two buses each to ferry tourists for free to Siliguri. All four buses left around 7.30pm.
Around 15,000 tourists were in Darjeeling when clashes broke out between Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters and police yesterday, reviving memories of the prolonged spell of unrest in the hills in the 1980s.
With cars and MUVs being in short supply compared with the demand, tourists had no option but to line up for the government-arranged free transport to Siliguri.
Cost is another factor explaining the rush for government transport. "A Tata Sumo is charging anything between Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,000 for a trip to Siliguri. The usual fare is around Rs 2,500," said Chandan Mukherjee of Taratala.
All through the day huddles of anxious tourists eager to leave by the first available means of transport were a common sight across the popular summer destination.
"We checked out at 2.30 in the morning hoping to catch the first bus to Siliguri," said Sujata Pradhan of Nandigram. "By the time our turn came, all the buses had left in the morning."
Sujata, husband Buddhadeb and son Sokal are among a 70-member group from East Midnapore. Stranded, the members kept praying for a safe and an early departure.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today went around town urging tourists not to panic. " Apnara chinta korben na. Sab rokom byabostha kora hochchhey (Don't worry. We are making all arrangements for you)," she said.
But the words seem to have failed at assuring the tourists, a large number of whom spent the day out in the open with their luggage, munching on whatever locals offered - puffed rice, biscuits, khichuri and noodles.
"Today is an auspicious day on the Tibetan Buddhist calender," said Jigme Dorje, who had turned up with his sons with litres of tea to serve the stranded. "It's a pleasure to serve the tourists," he said with a smile.

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