Anger as fuel crisis brings India's Tripura to standstill

Policemen guard a fuel station during a protest against petrol crisis caused by damaged section of the Assam-Tripura national highway after incessant rains, in Agartala, India, July 29, 2016. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Monsoon rains and landslides have badly damaged the only highway that connects the remote region to the rest of India

The north-eastern Indian state of Tripura has found itself in the middle of an acute fuel crisis after monsoon rains and landslides badly damaged a highway that connects the remote region to the rest of the country. Subir Bhaumik reports from the capital, Agartala.

A huge shortage of petrol and diesel has forced the shutdown of key services and led to fierce protests in Tripura for nearly six weeks now.

Thousands of trucks and lorries carrying petrol and diesel have been stranded outside the state, as authorities struggle to repair the highway that connects Tripura to mainland India.

Angry mobs have encircled the residence of the state's chief minister, Manik Sarkar, for days now, forcing police to deploy several cordons of paramilitary troops to secure his safety.

They have been encouraged by workers belonging to the main opposition party, who have been demonstrating against Mr Sarkar across the state.

The anger is palpable among the hundreds of men and women who are being forced to stand in long, serpentine queues outside petrol pumps for hours. The shortage has also driven up the price of petrol from 73 rupees ($1.1; £0.82) to more than 300 rupees a litre.

Walk to work

"The government has rationed petrol and diesel. I lined up at a petrol pump near my house and stayed in queue for five hours to get just two litres of petrol for my scooter," government doctor Partha Majumder, who works for the biggest government hospital in Tripura's capital Agartala, told the BBC.

He said he had stopped using his personal vehicle to make house calls.

"I just left it to my hospital to ferry me there from home, so that I could do my duty," he said.

With fuel so dear, many, including several state ministers have opted to walk to work. Public transport has been adversely impacted and the number of buses to towns outside Agartala have dropped sharply.

Schools have also cancelled bus services for students.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Indian vehicles stranded by bad weather wait at the side of National Highway 44
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Protests have erupted in the state over the shortage

"Students stopped coming to schools and so did teachers after a while. This fuel-enforced stoppage will adversely impact our students," the principal of the Sri Krishna Mission School in Agartala, Prafulla Ranjan Dutta, said.

But the worst-affected seem to be drivers and owners of taxi and other transport services.

"How can I run my taxi the whole day if they give only two litres of petrol to a person a day? That allowance may work with normal residents, but not for us," Jatan Poddar, who runs a small taxi service in Agartala, complained.

Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu promised to "try sending" petrol and diesel by train to Tripura from the neighbouring state of Assam, as he launched a new express train service to Agartala from the capital Delhi on Sunday.

Authorities say they expect the situation to improve after repairs along a 20km (12.4 mile) stretch of highway allowed nearly 140 trucks with petrol and diesel to enter the state on Monday and Tuesday.

Image copyright Abhishek Saha
Image caption People are forced to wait in queues for hours to get their fuel rations

Government authorities have said that they repaired the road "in record time" and have also denied charges of mismanagement.

"The Indian government did not respond to our calls for help. The Assam [state] government did nothing to repair the damaged stretch of the highway which runs through their state," Tripura Transport Minister Manik Dey told the BBC.

But that has done little to stem the criticism.

"Since such disruption of transport on the Assam-Agartala highway is an annual phenomenon, why not plan for it in advance?" Pradyot Kishore Manikya, a Congress leader and a member of Tripura's former ruling royal family asked.

"Why did the Tripura government wake up so late? Why did they not make the right noises when it started getting difficult," asked local journalist Ratnadeep Choudhury.

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