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Chowrasta's charm and tranquility under threat in Darjeeling
Ever since, Justin, an Australian tourist visited Darjeeling in 2013, he has fallen in love with the small town hill station located in the foothills of Himalayas, its people, culture, tradition etc. On his first visit, he was overwhelmed with the lush green area surrounding the mall road and Chowrasta with its open spaces. He spent quality hours in Chowrasta with a glass (not cup, it is glass) of tea in his hand, enjoying mother nature at its best with the wonderful scenery in full sight.

Recollecting about the famous hangout place in Darjeeling, Chowrasta, which is considered to be the heart and soul of Darjeeling by locals and tourists alike, he said, ''Out of all the places I have visited in India, Chowrasta stands out as completely unique. Where else do you see such an open and green public space where so many diverse members of the community can be seen together? It gave me a feel for the soul of the local culture and the rich history of the town.'' He last visited the place in 2014.

But, the greenery might be a thing of the past, if the proposed hawkers market comprising of a three storied building comes up, which is expected to house 42 shops. The locals are miffed with the idea, and have hence protested the move, though the foundation stone has already been laid.

As an act of protest, a huge number of people gathered yesterday in the area shouting slogans and holding posters, most of which had the same theme, ''Save Chowrasta''. School students, youths, senior citizens, everyone participated in the protest rally.

There are a number of organisations, such as Darjeeling Environment Conservative Association Porgram (DECAP), Federation of Society for Environment Protection (FOSEP), Jagriti Sewa Samity amongst others, which are ready to fight tooth and nail to make sure that such kind of building does not come up in the area. But who should be blamed for such prevailing situation?

''Since I was born and brought up in Darjeeling, there is great amount of love and affection for Darjeeling and primarily Chowrasta, where everyone of us have enjoyed our formative years atleast. There is great anger amongst the residents of Darjeeling due to the present plan of the hawkers market in the Chowrasta area. It is the Bengal government, which is destroying the environment of Darjeeling in the name of development. The government is doing a lot of nonsense,'' said Tshering Dorjey, DECAP member.

The Bengal government might have chalked out this plan as an act of development, but wherefore development, when the residents are not ready for it, in fact as mentioned earlier, they are resenting the move. If they are concerned for the residents, it might be better to withdraw the plan, which is most probably not going to happen. But, with the relentless protest by Chowrasta lovers, the government might have to back down, as the residents are eager to give up everything to save the heart and soul of Darjeeling.

What makes matters worse and difficult is that the District Magistrate Pundit Yadav seems to be supporting the government's move. May be, his hands are tied, hence acting like an agent of the West Bengal government.

Right from the time, when the labourers in the area were ready to fell the tress, cutting the soil under the watchful eyes of the contractor, everything has been done illegally. During the time, when some Morning Health Club members questioned about 'what's happening,' it was found out that the contractor had an application stating permission to clear the land/trees. But, on further inspection, it was revealed that it had not been approved.

And to the surprise of everybody, Darjeeling Municipality were unaware of the situation. It is only after the local administration gives a nod that trees can be felled. After the local people pressurised the Municipality, the local administration got their act together and asked the Rohini Engineering Co-operative Society Limited, which has been awarded the contract to build the hawkers market, to stop the construction as it is a clear case of violation of Section 220 of the West Bengal Municipal Act, 1993.

''Moreover, as per the orders of the Supreme Court as well, in the hilly region, which is above 350 feet above the sea level, a standing tree cannot be felled unless it has been properly surveyed by a number of groups and experts,'' said Bharat Prakash Rai, Secretary, FOSEP.

The DM has not been supportive to the locals as and when discussed and is taking the matter lightly. ''His (DM) statements are really provocative and very unbecoming of a bureaucrat. Recently he said 'the district administration will go ahead with building a hawkers market in Chowrasta,' who does he think he represents?'' said Upendra, social and political observer in Darjeeling.

It is surprising for a person of such stature to come up with such statement when the local elected civilian administrations - the Darjeeling Municipality and the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration have outrightly said 'no' to the building of a hawkers market in Chowrasta area. He further added, ''who is he to push for a market to be built?''

Blaming the DM and Bengal government might not be completely fair, for Darjeeling Municipality also seems to have failed to check the growth of the hawkers occupying sections of roads to begin with, and later once they removed the hawkers, the municipality failed to provide hawkers with an alternative place of doing business.

Upendra puts up a valid point, ''They (Municipality) did not have any plans, and seems like they still don't have any. If they can open shops on the mall road, why not allow them to go back to opening shops where they have traditionally been located, along NB Singh and Nehru road.''

One understands the need for rehabilitating the hawkers in a proper area, for they also depend on it for their livelihood. After the announcement of the hawkers market in Chowrasta area sprung up, many people in Darjeeling also eyed it as an opportunity to conduct great business, which can be established from the sudden increase of hawkers license to 342 from around the original 110 licenses. One does not need rocket scientists to understand that the powerful local political outfit is taking undue advantage of the situation and filling their pockets.

''We are protesting against it as setting up of the market would only increase noise pollution in the area. The aesthetic value will be destroyed. Apart from this, the area would also be crowded, which would be devoid of peace and people are going to litter everywhere. Its charm would also be lost,'' said Bharat.

If such things would shape up, Chowrasta would no longer be the same again. Justin sums it up perfectly, ''Even if the market is brought up, will they (hawkers) have a sustainable livelihood if no one wants to visit Darjeeling any more, because it has lost its character and charm?

Many feel that not only Chowrasta, but the entire area across the mall road should be declared as a green belt, where no construction should be permissible. People in Darjeeling are not against the hawkers market, but it is the location, which angers the population. No one would have raised their voice, if the authorities would have chosen some other place. Many suggest that the hawkers can be accommodated in the Chowk Bazaar area. Nobody wants to disturb the tranquility of Chowrasta.

People in Darjeeling are emotionally attached with Chowrastha, irrespective of their age. Generations have spent some of the best time of their lives in Chowrasta having fun with their loved ones - family, friends, colleagues etc. It is at the same location, where one has shared sweet and bitter memories with their special ones as well.

One such resident of Darjeeling, who treats Chowrasta as his second home, Diwaskar Chettri said, ''Chowrasta is the never changing background in the life of anyone in Darjeeling. Right from childhood, walk with your parents, the first horse ride to while growing up the first place where you saw your first girlfriend. It is the same place where you nursed your first heart break along with sweet and fun loving memories.''

For years now, Chowrasta remains to be an iconic place in Darjeeling. Chowrasta is what Connaught place is to Delhi, Brigade Road to Bangalore, Park Street to Kolkata, Banjara Hills to Andhra Pradesh and Taj Mahal to Agra.

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