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Sikkim watches with bated breath

Gangtok, Jan. 11: Transporters and traders in Sikkim are keeping their fingers crossed as no visible measures are in place to ensure traffic on NH31A during the 96-hour first-phase strike of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha starting in the Darjeeling hills from tomorrow.

Although the Morcha has declared that NH31A — the only road link between Sikkim and the rest of the country — will be kept out of the purview of the strike, nobody is taking the announcement at face value as there were many instances of vehicles being targeted on the highway during agitation in the past.

“There is no guarantee that similar attacks on vehicles will not happen on the highway’s stretch in the Darjeeling hills. Paramilitary forces haven’t been spotted yet and chances are that trouble might occur in the early morning hours before the security forces, if ever, are deployed along the highway tomorrow,” said a Sikkim businessman before leaving for Siliguri today.

Four vehicles bound for Siliguri from Gangtok were damaged between Tarkhola and Coronation Bridge on the highway during a Morcha-sponsored bandh on February 18 last year. In another incident, 11 vehicles on the way to Gangtok were ransacked at Tarkhola, few hours before a Morcha bandh began at 6am on March 15.

“Bimal Gurung (Morcha chief) had declared earlier too that NH31A would not be blocked during strikes. However, absence of paramilitary forces and the feeble strength of the Kalimpong police had emboldened criminals to attack Sikkim carriers with impunity,” said a transporter.

“CRPF personnel were deployed on the highway only after the Sikkim government had expressed its outrage over the attacks to both the Centre and Bengal government,” he added.

The Bengal stretch of the highway is 55km.

Although the Darjeeling district authorities requisitioned one company of paramilitary force to keep the highway out of bounds for bandh supporters tomorrow, there is no confirmation of the force’s deployment.

The general belief among the people here is that vehicles could be attacked in the early morning hours as the presence of policemen will be thin on the highway at that time.

A truck drivers’ association has already warned its members against plying the highway during the bandh unless security is ensured.

“We have told our members not to take risk by travelling on NH31A during the strike.If they do, it is on their own risk. We are also ready to ferry essential items and vegetables from Siliguri if we get support and security from the government,” said Mingma Sherpa, the president of the Sikkim Truck Drivers’ Association.

However, taxi and private bus syndicates are ready to watch and wait.“It all depends on the situation tomorrow. If security personnel are present and there is no trouble, taxis will be available. We are not issuing tickets from the counter right now and drivers and passengers will be told to travel on their own risk,” said Dinesh Tamang, the president of the Mainline Taxi Drivers’ Association.

The Sikkim Nationalised Transport is planning to run six extra buses between Gangtok and Siliguri tomorrow.

“Usually, we operate seven buses for public and three for army personnel from Gangtok to Siliguri everyday. We are planning to run 13 buses tomorrow, apart from the three for army personnel,” said G.T. Lachungpa, the additional chief engineer (operations) of the SNT.

All the 13 buses will together leave Gangtok at 8am and reach the border town of Rangpo between 10am and 10.30am.

“The buses will halt at Rangpo and our officials will take stock of the situation. We are exploring the possibility of operating the buses in convoy with security escort and talks are being held with Sikkim police for the purpose,” said Lachungpa.

The East district administration has said enough food items, LPG cylinders and petroleum have been stocked.

“Directions have been given to all dealers to be ready with their trucks to replenish stocks if there are no disturbances on the highway during the bandh,” said subdivisional magistrate (East) A.B. Karki today.

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