8th of August, 2011 was being celebrated as Baishe Sraban (the day of Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore’s Mahaparinirvana) in the whole of the world with special mention of the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Miss.Mamata Banerjee, who had declared this day as a state holiday with celebrations throughout the state. North of West Bengal, popularly and officially known as North Bengal was also prepared to celebrate the day in Darjeeling Hills, Dooars and Terai. Several poets, singers, novelists and visitors from across the country were invited to the celebrations of North Bengal.
A sudden Bandh which was called made most of these people flee the region on 8th itself or 9th before dawn, highly stressed and promising never to come back. From Bagdogra Airport to Rajabhatkhawa railway station, saw stranded tourists/visitors everywhere in Terai and Dooars. This is not the first time that this had pattern of Bandhs have started in North Bengal. Infact this has become a culture for all small and big political parties of North Bengal. The memories of the past three and a half years from the hills is fresh in the minds of the travel industry and now they are afraid that the same trend may start in Dooars and Terai.
The 02 major industries of the past century, timber has already died and tea has seized to grow. Tourism, a self developed industry of this region, the growth of which started 02 decades ago, is not only a green industry, but also an industry without boundaries. Unlike other industries of North Bengal, this has grown mainly with more private initiative than Government involvement. Small, isolated and under-developed areas have started becoming tourism destinations. For generations where land had just to be occupied for residence and later a politically initiated ‘patta’ to be issued, today sees land value not less than Rs.5 lakhs (five hundred thousand) per acre. Many hill and forest areas, where there is scarcity of agricultural land and where settlers were mainly dependent on forest produce and live below the poverty line, today private tourism initiatives have shown them light. 20 years ago the tourism destinations in the whole of North Bengal and Sikkim was mainly restricted to Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Gangtok and Jaldapara, today you cannot count them on your fingers. The local initiatives have brought investors in tourism from all over the country, without the formal and hyped invitation of the Government. The development of the tourism industry in the North Bengal and Sikkim region has been silent, without the sight of big industry walls and smoking chimneys. It has not only brought economy, ownership and employment to the local people, but several responsible tourism initiatives have developed educational, medical and other social infrastructure developments. This complimentary livelihood and income source has brought good amount of foreign exchange, tax revenue and other economic benefits for the Government. Even several Government Departments, other than tourism has resorted to tourism activities for their income generation, with the Forest Department taking the lead.
All these above development, which is still in the increase, boosting grass-root level economy, confirming social stability and peace, is being crushed at the bud with continuous ‘BANDHS’. The visitors mainly come to this region for the natural and cultural heritage, which is there in many parts of this country. We must understand that tourists/visitors contribute immensely to this region economically, socially and ecologically by sharing the existing infrastructure that we have. Any development which is done for them is beneficial to the local residential population, be it roads, drinking water, medical and other facilities. In the present situation, all the small and micro investment that has taken place has not colonised and isolated locally, but have integrated with the local population, thereby enhancing the local capacity. In case of tourism, products do not walk to the user, but the user walks to the tourist destination/tourism product. The tourism industry services do not have any shelf-life and cannot be stored or used later, and hence a day lost is the total loss of the services produced for the day. For other industries, the production is used immediately after the completion of Bandh, but for tourism the losses continue for quite some time before and after the Bandhs.
Recently, with the initiative of EHTTOA (Eastern Himalaya Travel and Tour Operators’ Association), a Federation of 14 travel associations from Sikkim and North Bengal, FAST (Forum of Associates and Stakeholders in Tourism) has been formed, specially to plea all political parties to consider keeping tourism out of the purview of Bandhs and lobby with the Government to declare tourism as an emergency service like that of Milk and Medical.