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Tourists suffer as drivers protest

Darjeeling, May 24: Many tourists remained stranded throughout the day in Darjeeling while others were forced to miss their flights and trains, as hundreds of taxi drivers took to the streets to protest against alleged police 'harassment'.

While a driver and a police constable were allegedly manhandled in the melee that followed, there were reports of a police motorcycle being burnt. Another motorcycle, two jeeps and a police van were damaged on NH 55.

A police drive against errant drivers around the Bhanu Bhavan area early this morning sparked a demonstration, following which, the drivers simply left their vehicles stranded in the middle of the road bringing the town to a standstill.

The drivers of more than 15 syndicates in town spontaneously took part in the protest and the issue was no longer confined to today's police drive, but a 'prolonged and unnecessary harassment by the police'.

L.B. Kumai, the Darjeeling deputy superintendent of police who had led the early morning drive, said: 'It was a routine drive as morning walkers had complained that vehicles were crowding the restricted area. Moreover we found out that water trucks, which are not allowed in town between 7.30 am and 10 am and between 3 pm and 5 pm, were distributing water around 8.30 this morning.'

The drivers, on their part, targeted Kumai and rumours of the police demanding Rs 10,000 from defaulting drivers made matters worse.

With tourists, who were either leaving town or had gone sight seeing, left stranded, police officials finally managed to take the drivers to the office of the deputy superintendent of police, where they demonstrated after submitting a list of demands.

The drivers demanded that the police allow the taxis to offload and take in passengers at the Bhanu Bhavan area, extend the one way rule to all government and semi-government vehicles, withdraw the recently-introduced parking fees by the Darjeeling municipality and bring back Robin Thapa, the previous traffic chief, to Darjeeling.

C.S. Lepcha, the additional superintendent of police, Darjeeling, said: 'Since the suggestions were good, we have decided to look into the grievances. We will also forward their demand for withdrawal of parking fees to the Darjeeling municipality.'

With the drivers satisfied with the assurances of the police, the vehicles started moving by 1 in the afternoon. However for people like Subrata Mallick who had to catch the afternoon flight to Calcutta, it was too late. 'I simply didn't know what to do then,' he said with a bewildered look on his face.

However, the demonstration, which was leaderless, took another turn when drivers in some parts of the town stopped the vehicles from moving even after the issue had been settled. This led to the police resorting to lathicharge at 3 in the afternoon. Eight drivers have been detained.

Though things returned to normal around 4 pm, but because of the heavy traffic congestion that had extended up to Batasia ' about 7 km from town ' many tourists who were supposed to catch the evening train to Calcutta are expected to miss it.

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