Tourist vehicles lined up at a motor stand in Darjeeling. Picture by Suman Tamang
Darjeeling, March 25: Transporters in Darjeeling have threatened to stop operating tourist vehicles to Sikkim from March 28, if an alleged discriminatory agreement between the Bengal and Sikkim governments is not amended to accommodate their interests.
The Queen of Hills Tourist Co-ordination Committee has also “requested” the transporters in Sikkim to refrain from plying their vehicles to the Darjeeling hills from the same day.
The committee issued the threat after three vehicles carrying 12 German tourists were allegedly seized by Sikkim police near Pelling on March 20.
“While the Germans were being ferried from Darjeeling to Pelling in West district, they wanted to visit Rabdentse palace. But the three SUVs were taken to the Tikjuk police station. One of the vehicles didn’t have documents, as they were under the possession of the Darjeeling district administration. The papers had been taken by the authorities as the vehicle could be used for election purposes,” said Pasang Sherpa, the president of the committee.
“Instead, the vehicle was issued with another document to show that its original papers were with the authorities. The police refused to recognise this certificate and seized the vehicle,” he added.
The committee has alleged that the other two SUVs were also seized, though they had the documents.
Harsh Vardan, who was accompanying the group, said the foreigners had been harassed by the police. “All of them were aged above 65. We were harassed and insulted and our drivers were mistreated. Our representative had to visit the police station four times.”
The incident has brought to light the hill transporters’ long standing grouse about an alleged anomaly in an agreement inked between the Bengal and the Sikkim government.
“The treaty stipulates that Bengal-registered vehicles have to drop tourists in Gangtok, Pelling and Namchi (in South Sikkim) and are restricted from taking the visitors further for sight-seeing. However, the agreement is not reciprocal in nature as the Sikkim-registered vehicles can take tourists anywhere in Bengal,” said Sabu Rai, the secretary of the committee.
The transporters want the agreement to be reviewed. “We are not happy with the agreement and want it to be reviewed. We have, therefore, decided that unless some positive steps are taken, all tourist vehicles will stop plying to Sikkim from March 28 onwards. We will also request transporters in Sikkim to stop from operating their vehicles in Bengal. This is not a threat, but merely a request to our counterparts in Sikkim,” said Rai.
However, Sikkim police said they had not harassed the drivers of the three Bengal-registered SUVs. “Those vehicles had permits to travel only up to Pelling. One vehicle did not have documents and the driver was issued a challan. The tourists were not disturbed,” said a police officer.
T.T. Sherpa, additional secretary in the motor vehicle division in Gangtok, said the Bengal vehicles were barred from taking tourists for sightseeing trips to ensure that local people benefited from tourism. The agreement says visitors have to be taken to tourist destinations in Sikkim-registered taxis.