SPYF in protest at Tashiling Secretariat Credit: EastMojo image

GANGTOK: Around 11 members of Sikkim Progressive Youth Forum (SPYF) were arrested on Saturday morning following their 48-hour strike at Tashiling Secretariat in protest against the doubling of taxi fares in Sikkim.

The arrested members have been taken to Sadar Police Station in Gangtok, led by Station House Officer Bijendra Thapa and around 30 police personnel along with East District administration, who “forcibly” removed them from the protest spot.

In Sikkim, one of the traditions of Dasain is people reaching their native villages for celebration. The result is mass exodus from Gangtok and ensuing shortage of vehicles mostly taxis to take them to different corners of the State.

But, the situation this Dasain is troublesome, for two reasons – social distancing in vehicles and high fares that have almost doubled. Highlighting the concern of the common people, Sikkim Progressive Youth Forum have been in protest against the government notification on restriction for commuters in vehicles.

Members of SPYF who have been camping at the Tashiling Secretariat since Thursday, asserted that they will not move unless the government changes its notification allowing commuters to freely travel with no extra charge

The ruling of the government, specifically transport department is that in small 5-seater vehicles, only three commuters are allowed plus a driver. While for bigger 10-seater vehicles, only half of the seats are allowed to be filled. The ensuing result is high fares, some of which have doubled. Along with it, they have placed demands for pillion riders being allowed for two-wheelers,

The fare to Geyzing, a prominent town in West Sikkim, is Rs. 600 against the regular Rs. 300 fare. Similarly, in other parts such as Uttarey in extreme West Sikkim is Rs. 1200, Dentam is Rs. 900, Pelling in Rs. 700 and Namchi in South Sikkim is Rs. 400.

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Members of SPYF camped at Tashiling Secretariat
The local commuters face similar difficulties with each commuter sharing one-third of the taxi fare among the three passengers, making up for one vacant seat

Members of SPYF argue that the hike in prices will affect the common people who may not be able to pay the fares and will not be able to reach their homes for the festivity.

SPYF has been raising the concern since October 5, through virtual press conferences, meetings and letters to the State Government. But a decisive stand from the government on de-notification has not taken place.

On Wednesday, they met Transport Department officials who gave them explanation but failed to de-notify claiming that the onus lies with the State Home Department as it comes under the purview of Disaster Management Act. On Thursday, they met Home Department’s Principal Secretary R. Telang who termed the demand on de-notification to be genuine but failed to take action.

Members of SPYF camped at Tashiling Secretariat on Thursday night

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SPYF claimed, “We were of the view that a simple notification from the government would end the trouble for the common people during Dasain but they have not taken a decision. With them not being decisive for a simple issue, we opted to stay back until notification is passed. 48 hours have been passed, the officials have been evading us, not holding dialogues. We carried out sloganeering at the Secretariat as we learned the Home Secretary was whisked away before reaching us for dialogue. We stayed overnight again and this morning, a large force of Police personnel and District Authorities termed our gathering as unconstitutional.”

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Since then, the protestors have been kept in Sadar Police Station, while it remains unknown what charges under the IPC will they be booked for.

On being asked whether the move to remove restriction on count of commuters in vehicles, puts safety of the people from the virus at risk? SPYF stated, “Everything is unlocked currently, from schools to offices to shops, putting restriction inside or on a vehicle will not suffice on the safety against the pandemic spread. The distance between passengers inside a vehicle will not be sufficient, there is not even a feet of distance between two commuters. There is no 6 feet standard, a closed window on a vehicle adds more risk. Our demand in no way hampers on the safety protocol that is being asserted by the government.”

Gangtok’s mainline taxi stand

SPYF has been critical on the otherwise gathering of masses in the name of politics with ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) being upfront with their mass joining events in various parts of the State. Similar gatherings have been observed in various parts of the State for government functions.

Elsewhere, representative of taxi drivers association for local taxis in Gangtok, Chung Chung Bhutia claimed that the restriction imposed by the government has not made the public suffer as much as the pandemic itself.

“The restriction imposed by the government on the count of commuters is genuine, as it helps in the safety protocol. There has been no protest on the same from the drivers, despite less income. Each of the commuter is being levied only one-third of the price for one vacant seat. The drivers have suffered during the pandemic, now that there is some form of movement since October and tourists being allowed, we the taxi drivers feel that the protest by SPYF is uncalled for. This too shall pass as the restriction may be lifted after Dasain. For this Dasain, people may have to compromise on their commute but the same will not follow for the next Dasain.”

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