|Passengers queue up to board a Sikkim Nationalised Transport bus in Gangtok on Sunday. Picture by Prabin Khaling|
Gangtok, Aug. 4: Sikkim state buses, generally not the favoured mode of transport, are the only option available to residents in the hill strike season as private trekker owners have refused to ply their vehicles.
Yesterday, 23 Sikkim Nationalised Transport (SNT) buses left Gangtok for Siliguri. On other days, seven buses ply between the two towns. Today 17 buses left in the morning.
From Rangpo — the border of Bengal and Sikkim — the buses are being escorted to Siliguri by Bengal police. Rangpo is 38km from Gangtok.
The rush to catch the Sikkim state buses to Siliguri is such that passengers have been advised to buy tickets a day in advance, this at a time when tourist traffic to the state is low.
“On Saturday, 23 buses were sent to Siliguri along with dozens of trucks and three tankers. They were escorted by a team of Bengal police from Rangpo to Siliguri. Every day, the number of buses plying is different depending on the bookings. About 17 buses went today,” said the general manager of SNT, N.D. Rai.
“There is no increase in the bus fare. Every morning, the SNT buses leave at 7am. All the buses move together from Rangpo at 10am and the same is done while coming from Siliguri. The buses, which come from south Sikkim join them at the national highway (31A) in Melli (Bengal),” he said.
Ashim Gurung, a software engineer from Pakyong in east Sikkim, said: “I have to go back and join work in Delhi. I have been waiting here since morning to book the ticket but the queue is too long, I hope I get a ticket.”
A source in SNT said there was tremendous pressure on the authorities to ply the buses as taxi and private car owners are unwilling to provide service.
Trekkers are the favoured mode of transport in Sikkim as they don’t stop anywhere, unlike buses. The trekkers are quicker down the winding hill roads, compared to buses, which are larger vehicles and take time to negotiate the numerous bends.
But trekker owners are not ready to risk travelling through the hills.
“There have been isolated incidents of burning of vehicles (in the Darjeeling hills) and no one would want to take the risk. No taxis and private buses want to go to Siliguri. Our association has not given any directives but if any driver wants to ply the vehicle the risk will be his own,” said the president of Mainline Taxi Drivers’ Association, Dinesh Tamang.
He said 2,000 private vehicles ferry passengers daily and the figure goes up to 4,000 during the tourism season that begins in September.
The Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation has also increased the number of helicopter sorties from Gangtok to Bagdogra.
“We normally have two sorties a day but now the helicopter is carrying passengers eight times (to and fro). Sometimes the weather is bad and we are forced to decrease the number of sorties,” said an official at Burtuk Helipad in Gangtok.
The fare per passenger in the helicopter is Rs 2,700.