America’s most famous road Route 66 running from Chicago to Los Angeles died in 1956 because new, faster interstate highways were built. North Sikkim’s lifeline, NH 310A is in a coma for the past decade or so because it is being eternally widened.
Like the hotels, fuel stations and restaurants that went out of business along Route 66, tourism stopovers and roadside amenities between the forgotten 60 km stretch from Gangtok to Mangan are scratching for a living.
Blessed with famous monasteries and natural sightseeing spots like waterfalls,the North Sikkim highway was once a bustling route with tourists and locals taking this road on their way to Mangan or Gangtok. The footfalls, or rather, the tyre tracks, started fading away when Border Roads Organization (BRO) undertook the road widening project around ten years ago.
Gradual deterioration of the road saw vehicles carrying tourists or local commuters dropping down to Dikchu from Pangthang and then continue to Mangan bypassing the highway.
In May 2013, this SIKKIM EXPRESS journalist had extensively reported on the socio-economic-tourism meltdown at Phodong, Phensong, Kabi and other settlements along the North Sikkim highway due to the terrible road conditions. A follow up visit this month reveals not much have changed and only the frustrations have grown.
“We have been raising the road issue in almost a platforms for many years but nothing has been done by BRO to improve the road condition. Transportation, communication, area development and tourism growth are major problems. Taking patients to hospitals in Gangtok is a big problem considering the road condition,” said Phodong panchayat secretary Zamyang Bhutia, Kabi panchayat president Pintso Tashi Bhutia and Phengla panchayat president Norjeela Lepcha to SIKKIM EXPRESS.
“If the road condition is not improved timely then the villages settled along the highway would turn into a ‘Kalapani’. Government employees living in these areas are also facing hardship to commute daily to their work places. There are no drainage facilities along the road and no protective walls causing regular slides blocking the vehicular movement for days,” said the panchayats.
There are five gram panchayat units spread along the North Sikkim highway with 15 hotels and restaurants and around 40 shops. These commercial units used to do good business in past providing livelihoods to the local people but many are now closed and others are on the verge of shut down.
The example of Seven Sisters Falls can be made here.
“We have two roadside food stalls near the Seven Sisters Falls. Over the years, business has gone down. Earlier when the road was good, tourists going to Mangan and beyond used to halt here to view the waterfall and eat snacks. But tourists hardly come here these days ever since the road widening works took place.
Tourist vehicles for the past five and more years are taking the other route. This has completely destroyed the tourism revenue of our area and crippled our source of income,” said stall owner Nim Phuti Lepcha to SIKKIM EXPRESS.
Occasional customers like the football teams travelling in the area are not even enough to meet the rent of the stall, said Nim Phuti. Tumlung resident R.D. Bhutia informed that the road widening works started since 2001 but the progress of the works is very slow. Due to the pathetic road condition, various flagship missions of the State government and tourism have been hampered in the five GPUs falling under the highway, he said.
“The area has monasteries which are more than two hundred years old and are important for the visitors but the road conditions have eroded their importance. Restaurants, hotels, homestays and fast food stalls have closed down as all vehicles going to Mangan take the Dikchu route. The youths here are enterprising but until the road condition improves, the development of the area will suffer,” said Bhutia.
Damage to the road during monsoon is acceptable but to have poor road conditions throughout the year is the carelessness of the BRO, said Bhuti