|(Above) The two trees (circled) that the contractors were marking for felling; the foundation stone for the hawkers’ market laid by chief minister Mamata Banerjee on January 23. Pictures by Suman Tamang
Darjeeling, May 22: Darjeeling residents today stopped contractors from marking trees on the town’s promenade, Chowrasta, so that they could be cut to make way for a state government-backed hawkers’ market.
Around 11am today, two men were seen marking two trees at Chowrasta on the land the district administration had allocated to construct the hawkers’ market.
Members of the Morning Health Club, most of whom are senior citizens and were in the Chowrasta Mall area, and members of the Federation of Societies for Environment Protection (Fosep), a Darjeeling-based NGO, stopped them from marking the trees.
As more local people gathered, the crowd swelled to around 50. The two men left the spot.
Tshering Dorjee Bhutia, the president of the Morning Health Club, said: “We are ready to die but we will not allow a single tree to be felled in the Chowrasta area. In the name of development, no one should allow Chowrasta to be destroyed.”
The Chowrasta, which includes the Mall, is a place where tourists and local people come for walks in Darjeeling.
Like other hill towns such as Shimla, the Darjeeling Mall is its heart. It has leafy trees and benches for people to sit and chat. As it is picturesque, the spot is also a favourite for film shoots.
Uttam Pradhan, a member of the club, said: “The Chowrasta is not a place for a market complex. The Chowrasta is the pride of Darjeeling and instead of felling trees, the authorities should look at planting more trees in the area.”
Bharat Prakash Rai, the general secretary of Fosep, said: “We are of the opinion that no structure should be allowed to come up in the Mall area, forget a market complex.”
A resident, who did not want to be named, said: “It is also time for the administration to put an end to the ever-increasing number of hawkers. This is becoming a unending problem for the town.”
Puneet Yadav, district magistrate of Darjeeling, could not be contacted as he did not take calls on his cellphone despite repeated attempts.
The hawkers’ market is one of Mamata Banerjee’s pet projects for Darjeeling. The Darjeeling municipality had removed hawkers from Nehru Road — the stretch running from the eatery Keventers’ to Chowrasta — in 2012.
The municipality had constructed a hawkers’ shed on another stretch of road that leads towards Hotel Alice Villa from Chowrasta but since the shed could not accommodate all the 347 hawkers who had been removed in 2012, they had refused to take the shops in the shed and put up stalls on the road instead.
The Darjeeling municipality’s inability to accommodate all the hawkers at the shed led to strain in relations between them and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which runs the civic body. In this backdrop, the state government took up the initiative to set up the hawkers’ market at Chowrasta.
Bharat Subba, the president of Astha Hawkers’ Association, said today: “The fund has come to set up a complex for us. This is our only source of income and we hope that because of the opposition, the fund is not returned.”
Mamata laid the foundation stone for the market complex when she visited Darjeeling on January 23 this year.
The district administration identified the land at Chowrasta, which is under its possession, and Rs 42 lakh was also sanctioned by the government for the market.
The three-storied market complex is supposed to come up on a slope between C.R. Das Road and Mall Road.
The PWD had invited e-tenders and the contract for constructing the complex was awarded to Rohini Engineering Co-operative Society, municipality sources said.
It has emerged that Rohini Engineering had not obtained permission from the district land and land reforms department to cut the trees.
Sushan Rai, secretary of the Rohini Engineering Co-operative Society, admitted that permission had not been received. “Workers had gone there only to mark the trees for felling. The trees would have been felled only after obtaining permission.”
Amar Singh Rai, chairman of the municipality, said: “We have received objections from residents and various other groups…. I do not think we can allow the complex to come up at Chowrasta. Residents also said there is a Buddhist religious structure along the stretch.”