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A Town Awaits its guests

Jhargram in Bengal was once a bustling tourist spot. But today,Naxal attacks have hit the region’s tourism industry....

Written by Sabyasachi Bandopadhyay |
November 15, 2009 12:29:38 am

Every weekend,the cars screeched into Jhargram,packed with tourists from Kolkata. There,they walked around with food baskets,posed for pictures by the Subarnarekha river and drowned the chirp of migratory birds with their loud guffaws. Then on Sunday night,the tourists—a big chunk of them—would sit in their cars and drive out of Jhargram.

Jhargram,a town in the western part of West Midnapore district of West Bengal,attracted more than 10,000 tourists a year. But that was till 2004. The birds still chirp but with Jhargram in the grip of Naxal violence and the tourists all gone,that seems eerily loud. Murder and mayhem are now a daily feature here and with the Central and state forces declaring war on the Naxals,bandhs and demonstrations have paralysed life. And Jhargram’s tourism industry,which had a turnover of more than Rs 1 crore,has come to a standstill.

Till about five years ago,Jhargram had about 48 tourist spots,including the Rajbhari palace,the Chilkigarh palace,the 600-year-old Kanak Durga temple and the forests and hills at Belpahari and Kakrajhor. The local inhabitants of Jhargram are the Santhals,Mundas,Bhumijs,Lodhas and Sabars and their traditional dances were big tourist draws.

“This place was best suited for budget tourists who mostly came during weekends,spent a few days here,had fun and then went back to the city. It’s a three-hour train journey from Kolkata. Where else will you get to see such dense forests,migratory birds and such exotic animals,so close to the city? And where else will you experience tribal life,their art and culture? But all this is gone,” says Madhusudan Karmakar,secretary Jhargram Hoteliers Association. Jhargram town has 17 hotels,besides bungalows and hotels in the nearby forests. The tourist season was between October and March and all the hotels would be occupied.

But things began to change when in 2004,a forest bungalow at Kankrajhor forest was burnt down by Maoists. Over the years,the situation worsened. Over the last one year,at least 90 people have been killed in Naxal attacks in the area. Over 100 people have been arrested ever since the joint operations began on June 17 this year.

“There has been a steady decline in the number of tourists since 2004. After the attack on the chief minister’s convoy at Salboni on November 2,2008,and the launch of anti-Naxal operations this year,things have gone from bad to worse. In fact,we hardly get any tourists now,” says Karmakar.

The tourism industry and everyone associated with it—hoteliers,drivers,rickshaw pullers,tribal dancers—have suffered.

“During better times,tribal dancers would be paid Rs 500 for each programme. Now,that’s difficult. Also,hotel owners are calling us saying no tourists are turning up. But what do we do,” says Arindam Dutta,owner of Jhargram-based tour operator Chhuti Travels.

Atankabhanjan Sharangi,a priest at the Kanak Durga temple at Chilkigarh,says,“We are caught in the battle between the Maoists and the security forces. I don’t know who is benefiting from the violence. All I can tell you is we are starving.”

Sumit Dutta,a young entrepreneur who launched jhargramtourism.com,a venture he started to promote tourism in this area,says he always believed in Jhargram’s tourism potential. “Not even 25 per cent of the region’s potential has been explored. A lot could have been done but now terror has killed tourism,” says Dutta.

The state government says it took up projects worth Rs 7 crore to develop Jhargram and project it as a tourist spot. “We had started building an attractive forest resort near Jhargram. There were other projects as well and when completed,Jhargram will become a major tourist attractions in eastern India. I hope peace returns to the area soon,” says Manab Mukherjee,West Bengal minister for tourism.

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