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Flight from hell to rebuild lives

Siliguri, Sept. 16: The missing index finger on Anup Jhawar's (name changed) left hand will never let him forget the day when he was shot at five times at his home in Lakhisarai in Bihar on August 26, 2003.

He survived and eight months later he was here with his parents, wife and children and all moveable possessions, leaving behind the house where his family, with roots in Rajasthan, had been living for more than 100 years.

For Sanjay Bihani, it is a scar on his left cheek, the point where grazed by a bullet when he was shot at on March 16 last year. The very next day, his family left Patna, their home for the past 175 years.

The trauma is still fresh in the minds of Jhawar and Bihani. Both declined to reveal their identities lest they be traced to Siliguri by their attackers.

Jhawar and Bihani are just two of the estimated 2,000 Bihar-based businessmen migrating to Siliguri every year to escape the blatant goonda-raj that has gripped Laloo-Rabri's state.

'We sold off everything, except some plots of land that lie abandoned now,' said Jhawar, who runs an agency of consumer and stationery goods at Khalpara here. 'It was difficult leaving the land where we were born and grew up,' he added, remembering the high school his grandfather had built during the pre-Independence era and where Jhawar himself had studied.

'It all started when Laloo Yadav became the chief minister in 1990,' said Bihani, who runs an iron-and-steel business at Sevoke Road. 'We tried to adjust. We paid regular haftas to the various criminal gangs to buy peace. Any time of the day there would be a phone call asking for any amount of sum and we had to comply. We had got used to living in fear. But when I was attacked in my own shop, we decided we had had enough.'

However, Jhawar is happy that he lived to tell the tale. Here, he works with renewed zeal to bury the past and rebuild the life that was so traumatically disrupted.

The family of Sharad Agarwal, the franchisee of Delhi Public School, Siliguri, who had moved here three years ago to open the school, was not so lucky. Sharad's father, Surinder, had all but wound up his iron-and-steel business to come and join him here. But before he could leave, armed criminals shot him dead near his Patna home.

'Normal life is unimaginable in Bihar,' Sharad says. 'My father had been operating from Patna for the past 25 years. Given the situation there, we shifted our business just in time. My father had to stay back because we needed time to wind up the iron-and-steel business.'

Siliguri has emerged as the most sought-after destination because of its peaceful atmosphere and its potential for growth. As Sharad succinctly puts it: 'Siliguri is like heaven.' He says he was depressed at first to come to a town without multiplexes or shopping malls, but now such things are also coming up. 'And what matters more than peace' Sharad asks.

'Education and health facilities and pleasant climate are the other contributing factors why people to prefer Siliguri to other cities,' said Dilip Agarwal, a Siliguri-based promoter, who has sold a number of ownership flats to migrating businessmen.

Immigration is not new to Siliguri, which has India's highest population growth rate at 49 per cent. But the recent increase in the number of businessmen shifting base from Bihar to Siliguri is being described as unprecedented.

'With the approaching elections in Bihar, the rate has increased even more,' Om Prakash Agarwal, general secretary of Siliguri Merchants' Association, said. 'Some of them may return after the elections, but most look determined to stay on,' he added.

'What do we go back for' asks Kishore Agarwal of Khalpara. 'Insecure future for children, unsafe streets for women and kidnap threats or ransom calls for us businessmen' he trails off. Kishore's family had been in Munger for over 100 years.

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