AN ATTENDANT winds up the garage shutter. Inside is a blue-coloured bus, which cost the (previous) Punjab government Rs 4.5 crore but is now literally gathering dust after Tourism Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu put the brakes on former deputy chief minister and SAD leader Sukhbir Badal’s dream project of running an amphibious bus in the Harike wetland.
The bus boarding station cost Rs 1 crore to build and the ramp from where it was to slide into the waters of the bird-rich wetland with tourists on board, for another Rs 50 lakh. After all this, it functioned for a mere 10 days. The total project cost, including insurance, was Rs 8.62 crore.
An attendant at the boarding station said, “Now, tourists come to see the bus.” The bus was assembled in Goa, with imported parts including a Scania engine from Sweden.
A total of 14 employees — manager, a supervisor, accountant, security guards, divers and sweepers — engaged by Krishna Amphibious Tours LLP, the contractor who was to maintain and run the bus, continue to remain in their jobs, hoping that the tourism department will either revive this project or find another place to use the bus.
As the project is non-functional, the contractor has been repeatedly writing to the tourism department to pay for the salaries of employees engaged by him.
Sidhu halted the project, calling it “Badalan da gharukka” (an improvised vehicle), and saying it was “unviable.”
Sources in the tourism department of Punjab said that the department was “exploring” alternate projects to utilise the bus.
Ropar lake, sources say, was being considered as an alternative venue for amphibious bus rides. Water bodies in Bathinda and Nangal were also being considered. But sources said Ropar was the “most strategic” venue as it was close to Chandigarh and was a transit point for most places in the region.
The proposal to run amphibious bus at an alternative site is likely to put before Tourism and Cultural Affairs minister Navjot Sidhu and it would be his call whether to give go ahead or not, said sources. Sidhu was unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts to reach him.
Shallow water and threat to migratory birds were among the reasons he cited for shelving the project at Harike but the tourism department had obtained necessary clearances back in 2015. An official of the Punjab Forests and Wildlife Preservation department said permission to run the bus at Harike was given in December 2015 with certain riders, which included that bus would ply on “fixed route” and “wild habitat will not be disturbed” due to its operation. Later, Sidhu also said the additional water that had to be released to run the bus at Harike had submerged crops of 5,000 farmers.
Locals, and the staff of the contractor, however, say it was politics that put an end to the project. “When the amphibious bus was run for some days in June, nearly Rs 80,000 was deposited with the government from ticket sales,” said an employee of the contractor firm at Harike. As per Punjab government, it earned a revenue of Rs 64000 in ten days.
Sanjeev Aggarwal, the managing director of Krishna Amphibious Tours LLP, said there was a revenue-sharing arrangement of 80:20 percent. “For operation and maintenance, we were to get 20 percent of the sales and remaining 80 percent was to go to the government as per the agreement,” Aggarwal said.
An official of Punjab tourism department said in the event of increased sales, the percentage share of contractor was to increase.
Aggarwal said he was in a bind, as he was contract-bound to honour the agreement. “I signed agreement not just with the government but with firms in Goa for operations and management. For instance, as per our agreement, a Goa firm was to provide us with marine pilot. Legally, I have to honour these agreements, at least for one year, the tenure of the agreement. Moreover, so far there is nothing in writing from the government that the project has been shelved. So, I have retained the employees,” said Aggarwal. “But I have to take a call on what to do when the agreement period ends,” he added.
Harike residents The Indian Express spoke to were all in favour of running the bus in the wetlands. “[Former chief minister of Punjab] Partap Singh Kairon had a dream: To make Harike a mini-Chandigarh. Amphibious bus project could have attracted a lot of tourists and helped in development of Harike,” said Parminder Singh, a resident.
Another resident Manjit Singh said, “The project would have not only promoted tourism in Harike but also provided job opportunities to the locals.”