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On cratered NH34, 23-hour snarl
Night agony as trucks break down at 6 points

Raiganj, Dec. 17: Hundreds of vehicles were stuck for 23 hours on the cratered and dusty NH34 since last evening as trucks broke down in at least six places because of the appalling state of the road.

The lack of repairs of one of north Bengal’s key highways for over two years is linked to land acquisition. While the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) wants to make the highway four-lane, given its heavy traffic load, the state government has been reluctant to acquire plots to expand the road.

The pile-up between Raiganj and Dalkhola in North Dinajpur eased around 5pm today, but by then a student said his chances of filling up the Part-I exam form were nil. The exasperated youth said all politicians in the state must be made to take a bus ride down NH34, a journey he described as “bone-breaking”.

Stuck in the serpentine snarl was an ambulance carrying a heart patient to North Bengal Medical College and Hospital in Siliguri, a distance of 190km from Raiganj.

The trucks broke down at Panishala, Bhangabari, Nagor, Tunivita, Tunidighi and Domohona. (See graphic)

The road starts from Barasat in North 24-Parganas and meanders northwards to Dalkhola. It connects north Bengal to the rest of the state.

Almost the entire stretch of NH34 in the north needs urgent repairs. The highway also has to be converted from two lanes to four. When a two-lane road bears more than 15,000 vehicles daily, it has to be converted into a four-lane highway, according to the NHAI.

The NHAI had started a project to four-lane NH34 two years ago but state governments under the Left as well as Trinamul could not arrange land. NH34 requires 826.67 hectares to be converted to a four-lane highway. About 10 per cent of that land has been made available to the NHAI.

The distance between Dalkhola and Raiganj is 48km and it took about one-and-a-half hours to cover the distance before 2011, when the road condition was okay. It takes three hours now. The majority of private bus owners have refused to run their vehicles on the highway, fearing damage to vehicles.

In six places since 6.30pm yesterday, several heavily-loaded trucks broke down. According to police sources, the axles of the vehicles came apart.

This afternoon, district officials called a meeting of the NHAI, transporters and police in a knee-jerk action to ease the pile-up. The police hired cranes from Raiganj and Dalkhola which towed away the trucks. In several places, trucks that had left their lane and tried to overtake snagged vehicles in front had also broken down.

In the snarl outside Raiganj was an ambulance trying to find a gap. Prasanta Das, a resident of Birnagar in Raiganj, was in the vehicle. “My brother was admitted to the Raiganj district hospital with a heart ailment and he has to be taken to the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital (in Siliguri),” Prasanta said.

He hoped to take a bypass road to NH34. But the mouth of the bypass is 12km from Raiganj town and the ambulance was still 10km away in the morning.

Many travellers disembarked from long-distance buses and started walking, hoping to somehow get to a railway station. Tridib Ghosh, a resident of Calcutta, said he was on his way for a holiday in Sikkim but was forced to get off the bus.

Tridib had planned to go to Siliguri by road. At Dalkhola, his bus would have taken NH31 towards Siliguri.

That was not to be. At 5am, Tridib and his friends got off to have a cup of tea. The shop owner told them the pile-up went as far as Dalkhola. He advised Tridib to take a train to Siliguri from Raiganj.

“Around 6am, we started walking. We have to walk 2km to reach the station to catch a train at 7am,” he said.

Kimkar Ghosh, a resident of Raiganj and a first-year student of North Bengal University, said his trip to Siliguri to fill up the form for his Part I exams had to be dropped today. “I got on an NBSTC bus at the terminus in Raiganj at 5am. Since then, I have been waiting for the traffic to move,” he said.

“All parties play politics with NH34. The stretch from Malda to Raiganj was repaired just ahead of the chief minister’s visit. I want all politicians to drive down the highway on a bus. It is a bone-breaking experience,” he said.

Prakash Chauhan, a truck driver, said he had been waiting in his vehicle since last night. “I am coming from Gajole in Malda and my truck is laden with vegetables that I have to take to Siliguri,” Chauhan said.

In the afternoon meeting called by the district administration in Raiganj, the NHAI refused to fill the craters on the highway when officials made such a request.

Additional district magistrate (general), P.D. Pradhan, said: “The bad road condition has caused quite a few breakdowns on the highway, affecting traffic movement. We asked the NHAI to start the work as soon as they can.”

But Mohammad Saifullah, the NHAI project director in Malda, said over phone that the administration’s proposal could not be taken up for technical reasons.

“Our representative at the meeting has reported back to me. It will be of no use if we fill the potholes as they will again get exposed. We are now repairing a single lane from the Malda side towards Dalkhola and we will be repairing the other lane. This repair will be long-lasting,” he said.

The NHAI sanctioned Rs 36 crore for repairing NH34 from Malda towards Dalkhola last month. Work on that has just started. The Raiganj-Dalkhola stretch is untouched.