|(From top) The Ayodhya hills power project where people used to come for picnics; a section of the hills; and boys make Chhou masks in Bagmundi, which is close to the Ayodhya hills. Pictures by Gour Sharma
Naren Murmu, 45, who runs a makeshift eatery made of bamboo on top of the lush green Ayodhya hills, serving spicy hot country chicken and pork curry, is hopeful about getting his business back.
No tourist has visited his restaurant for the past two years.
One and a half years after the change of guard at Writers’ Buildings, residents of the Maoist-hit Ayodhya hills in Purulia hope that tourism, their sole livelihood, will revive as the rebels soften their grip on the area.
“Top Maoist leaders had openly said they wanted to see Mamata Banerjee the chief minister,” said Murmu, who opened his eatery 10 years ago. Then he would have to start work at four in the morning to cater to customers through the day. On a good day in the good season, during winter, he would earn up to Rs 2,000 a day.
Business suffered a setback with the Maoists coming over. “But after the change in government, the Maoist squads operating in the hills either surrendered or fled to neighbouring Jharkhand and Bihar. There hasn’t been a single Maoist strike here since May 13 last year. We hope now the government will take the initiative to showcase the hills as a top tourist destination. That’s what Mamatadi promised,” says Murmu.
Putul Baske and her husband Babu, who used to rent out small thatched-roof cottages, are also hopeful about getting tourists back.
Tourists’ footfall began to decline sharply four years ago when paramilitary forces were deployed. Business came to a standstill after the kidnap and murder of police inspector Partha Sarathi Biswas and teacher Soumyajit Basu, who had gone to the hills to study wildlife conservation in October 2010.
Khagen Mahato, a local resident, said four years ago around 15,000 tourists used to visit the hills during the peak season. The hills boast of several tourist spots: Mayur Pahar, Purulia Pump Storage Project, the lower and upper dams on small hill rivers used to preserve rain water in the Ayodhya hills, Dowrykhal, Sita Pahar and Ram Jharna.
Ayodhya is around 50km from Purulia town, a one-and-a-half-hour drive. The distance from Durgapur and Bankura towns are around 170 and 160km, respectively, and it takes about three hours. From Calcutta, people may come either by train from Howrah or by bus from Esplanade.
The hills offer hospitality with several small and medium hotels and cottages, and eateries that sell rice, country chicken, lamb or pork curry and vegetables. Almost every hotel and grocery shop sells liquor illegally.
Purulia’s famous Chhou masks are sold in many shops.
Tourism has been the livelihood for more than three decades for the villagers. It was the backbone of the economy of the area.
Khagen said no incident of Maoist violence was reported in the hills after the new government took over.
“The Ayodhya hills were neglected for a long time by the Left Front government,” he said. The new government now needs to announce a comprehensive package to bring back tourists to the hills as they had announced before the Assembly elections, he feels.
Local Congress MLA Nepal Mahato said he has sought Rs 100 crore from the Centre for the development of tourism in the hills after the Trinamul Congress and the Congress alliance came to power. “The Centre has assured adequate financial assistance to develop the Ayodhya hills as a major tourist spot,” Nepal says.
He said a ropeway, more tourist lodges, hotels and parking space would be built to attract tourists, once the funds are received.
State tourism minister Rachpal Singh said he has also plans to rebuild Ayodhya hills as an attractive destination for tourists.