Officials of the state forest department posted at Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR) in Alipurduar district have decided to stop the SUVs that are over 15 years old and don’t have fitness certificates issued by the state transport department from carrying tourists to the forest area in safaris.
“It has been found that out of the 40 Maruti Gypsy cars which are used for jungle safari in the BTR area, 32 do not have fitness certificates. That is why we will no longer allow these 32 vehicles to carry tourists to the forest area. The remaining eight vehicles can run with tourists,” said Apurba Sen, the field director of the BTR.
The decision was made on Monday, within 24 hours after an elderly woman died in an accident and three others got injured when a similar vehicle rammed into another SUV on Chalsa-Lataguri Road in neighbouring Jalpaiguri.
Pratima Dey, the 61-year-old tourist from Calcutta who died, had reached Lataguri with some others on a trip. The accident occurred while they were on their way to a jungle safari in Gorumara National Park.
“These (safari) vehicles are old. If there is any accident, the state forest department will be held responsible. We have no other alternative but to stop these vehicles,” Sen added.
In Jalpaiguri, sources said, the district administration has convened a meeting on October 6 to discuss traffic on the Chalsa-Lataguri Road, a stretch of NH31, to avert accidents.
“There are elephant crossing zones along the stretch and boards have been put up to alert vehicle drivers so that they do not speed. Even then, a section of drivers do speed on the stretch. This practice has to stop both for the safety of tourists and animals,” said a senior forest official.
Sources said at the meeting that some decisions could be made to check speeding. Also, like Alipurduar, foresters in the Jalpaiguri district are likely to check out the fitness of the SUVs which take tourists on safari to Gorumara and Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary.
“It is necessary to monitor the status of these vehicles. The fitness of these vehicles has to be checked so that the safety of tourists is not compromised,” said a source in the administration.
In Alipurduar, the BTR’s decision means that owners of the old Maruti Gypsy SUVs have to replace their vehicles.
A similar situation occurred in Jaldapara National Park and Chilapata forest of the district around five years back. The forest department had stopped around 40 such cars from entering the forest area, prompting the owners to buy new vehicles.
“The problem is that we can’t buy a new Maruti Gypsy as it is not available. We can get another SUV of the same company but that has a hard top and tourists can’t enjoy fully a safari unless it is done in an open-hood vehicle,” said Subhajyoti Bose, a vehicle owner who also runs a homestay accommodation in Jayanti.
Manab Bakshi, the secretary of Alipurduar District Tourism Association, also sounded concerned about the latest development.
“Tourists will start pouring into the region from the middle of this month and the forest department has made the decision on vehicles now. We would appeal to them to allow normal vehicles in locations like Jayanti, the Pukhri Lake and the Chunia watchtower. Or else, it would be tough to accommodate all tourists who seek the safari experience in only eight Maruti Gypsy cars that are still allowed to run,” he said.