Kalimpong, Aug. 24: National Highway 31A, considered to be the lifeline for Sikkim and Kalimpong, could well spell death for the economy of these areas in the autumn tourist season if the landslide-ravaged road is not repaired on time.
The rain-triggered landslides and cave-ins have reduced the highway to a potholed and slushy track at numerous places, leading to frequent traffic jams and increase in travel time from two hours to more than double for Siliguri-bound vehicles from here.
Transporters, travel agents and hoteliers are hoping the road will be repaired on time for the tourist season. That possibility, however, looks unlikely, though the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which maintains the highway, has promised to carry out the repair on a war footing once the rain stops.
The monsoon normally ends in early September, but given its delayed arrival this year, it can go up to the middle of next month. That has worried the travel sector because the tourist season is expected to have an early start in the last week of September coinciding with Durga Puja. This means the BRO, at best, will hardly have 10 days’ time to repair the badly damaged road.
The commander of 764 Border Road Task Force, M.A.N.V. Prasad, however, said he was confident that the major portions of the road, barring the 14-km stretch from Teesta to Rambi, would be repaired (not black-topped) by the start of the season. The major trouble spots, he said, were Likhubhir near Teesta and a stretch located 3km from Melli towards Sikkim.
“There are other four or five new spots beyond Melli and Rangpo which are of concern, but we will manage them,” Prasad said and added that work on black-topping the Teesta-Rambi stretch would start in early October.
Prasad’s assurance should sound music to the ears of the hoteliers, who have been receiving encouraging response for the season. “Bad roads will definitely affect the inflow of tourists, but I am hopeful that the highway will be repaired by then,” said Sanjogita Subba, the president of the Hotel and Restaurant Owners’ Association of Kalimpong. Bookings for the season have been good, she added.
For the transporters, the time is not so good though. T.D. Bhutia, the president of the Janmukti Chalak Mahasangh, affiliated to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, said the business had gone down by at least 30 per cent in the past one week because of the road condition. “Only those who are compelled to travel are hitting the roads. Our vehicles are breaking down more frequently because of the road, raising the maintenance cost,” he added.
Bhutia said he was especially worried about the worst-affected stretch at 27 Mile, which is maintained by the NHPC. “The NHPC should sit with the administration and restore the road to motorable condition. On our part, we are willing to keep our vehicles off the road for a couple of days to facilitate the work.”
The transporters’ body is willing to sit with the BRO and show them new accident-prone sites that have emerged on the highway. “Many stretches of the road have become very dangerous for driving. The BRO must do something for the sake of safe driving,” Bhutia said.