Residents and traders of Maneybhanjyang, a mountain hamlet located on the Indo-Nepal border in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, have clamped an indefinite bandh protesting alleged highhandedness of the Shashashtra Seema Bal (SSB) troopers.
The border settlement, 27 km from Darjeeling town has been closed down indefinitely from Monday. The problem revolves around transportation of goods through Maneybhanjyang after dark.
Boasting an agrarian economy, settlements in and around Maneybhanjyang depend on the Siliguri market in the plains for selling their produce. According to local residents, traders taking their produce down to Siliguri at night have to face immense harassment from the SSB.
"Trading takes place at the market in Siliguri from 6 am and is over by 7:30am. It takes us more than three hours to reach the market from here. We usually depart at around 2am from Maneybhanjang . The SSB detain the vehicles and allow movement only after 6am. By the time we reach Siliguri the trading is over and we have to sell our goods at throw away prices, incurring huge losses" alleged Raju Pradhan, a local trader.
Backing this up, a trader furnished a Bill showing that one KB Pradhan of Selimbong had sold a pickup full of vegetables for a mere Rs 4442 "The marked price was around Rs 30,000. As vegetables are perishable we are compelled to sell at whatever price we get rather than bringing them back to Maneybhanjang . We are compelled to reach Siliguri before 6am," said a trader.
"They ask us for bribes to the tune of Rs 1 lakh per month and threaten us that if this amount is not paid then trade would be stopped. The troopers are usually in inebriated state at night. They abuse us and physically threaten us. They detain the pick up vans and ask the drivers to call the owners in the morning. Then they demand for bribes. They even threaten to frame us if we don't pay up." alleged Vicky Agarwal, a local businessman.
The residents claimed that 5 loaded pickups have been detained since August 7 night with the vegetables rotting. "Around Rs. 2 lakh worth of vegetables is rotting in the 5 pick-ups. The strike will continue till the SSB stop harassing us" declared Pradhan.
Around 20,000 residents of the areas under the Sukhia-simana and Majua Gram Panchayat areas, mostly farmers, have been affected. The settlements include Rangit, Majua, Arubotey, Simuldanra, Ranadanra, Batasey and Hindudanra.
"We are dependent of the Maneybhanjang market. We sell our produce here and the traders take it down to Siliguri. If the Maneybhanjang traders stop buying then all the farmers will be affected. The SSB has to immediately stop harassing people" retorted Ambar Tamang of Dus Mile. Cauliflower, cabbage, carrot, beet, radish, potato and ginger find way to the Siliguri market from this region.
"The poor farmers coming to trade have to give the SSB vegetables and livestock as bribe," alleged Rangrung Bhutia who sells livestock and poultry.
The Maneybhanjang residents and traders handed over memorandums to the Additional District Magistrate (ADM) Darjeeling, Additional Superintendent (ASP) of Police, Darjeeling, Member of Legislative Assembly, Darjeeling and have decided to fax a copy to Jaswant Singh, Member of Parliament, Darjeeling.
"The ADM and ASP have assured to look into the matter. The ASP has asked us to lodge specific complaints in case of harassment and demand of bribe. If the SSB terror tactics continue then we will be compelled to launch a major agitation, " stated Chandan Pradhan, a trader.
Waving off the allegations LK Gohain, DIG, SSB, talking to HT said, "We have inputs from various sources that smuggling of goods takes place in the cover of darkness. We have not sealed this route but have asked the traders to transport their goods during the day. This would enable us to check the goods properly. Goods from Nepal are allowed owing to the friendship treaty India has with Nepal but the route through Maneybhanjang is not an approved route for this."
SSB, formed in 1963, was declared as the border guarding force and lead intelligence gathering agency for the Indo-Nepal border in January 2001. The Darjeeling district shares 105km of border with Nepal. There are 90 SSB Border Out Posts (BOPs) in this stretch.
The indefinite bandh which includes the close down of all business establishments, schools along with road blocks has also affected the flow of heavy vehicle to the Ramman Hydel Project area also.