By Dr Satish C Aikant
A webinar was recently organised to discuss the impact of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic on the tourism industry, the mainstay of the economy of Uttarakhand. With the tourist activities at a standstill ever since the promulgation of nationwide lockdown the pandemic is going to haunt us all for years in ways that we can barely imagine. We have no idea of how it is going to impact our lives and force us to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. The human response to the pandemic has pushed our world into a space of uncertainty. The shadow of a ‘perhaps’ hovers over everything. At the same time, driven by the urgency of the moment, it has also created an opening for actors and institutions to seek new directions to reorder the world and re-imagine our lives acquiring a semblance of normalcy.
Any move to reactivate the tourist industry has to reckon with the reality of the pandemic, its baleful effects and aftereffects since the virus is not going to disappear anytime soon. At the webinar the most sensible suggestion came from Sandeep Sahni, President of Uttarakhand Hotel Association, who said, ‘These are unprecedented times and all of us are living by the day. We should market the idea of a rejuvenation holiday for people living in cities who have dealt with the Covid-19 crisis. If we can offer attractive packages – maybe hoteliers can offer them 50% discount on tariff and ask them to come and relax in the hills — it just might work out.’ I think the keyword here is ‘rejuvenation’. The virus has not merely devastated people physically but has also battered their spirit. Therefore, the tourists would require not only recreation but also rejuvenation in the form of some therapeutic intervention to revive their spirits.
As the pandemic has created a worldwide scare, the tourists will head for destinations within their own country to satisfy their wanderlust with the result that there will be a surge in domestic tourism. The government of Uttarakhand may help matters by providing a stimulus package to the hotel industry and develop new satellite towns around the existing hill stations and places near the Char Dham circuit. The reverse migration that has followed in the wake of the Covid -19 crisis has resulted in a lot of skilled manpower returning to their native villages and towns which could be utilised for employment in the hospitality industry and other activities. It will serve the twin purpose of business and employment. Captains of industry and business houses could adopt the ‘ghost village’ to promote rural tourism and provide much needed succour to the villagers.
Production and marketing of local products, herbs and handicrafts should be encouraged and marketed in a big way. Horticulture and food processing units should be set up at appropriate locations. One can learn much from neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. Traditional arts and crafts should be revived and the local artisans should be offered facilities to work. It is the duty of the state government to provide meaningful employment for the villagers since continued out-migration involves the loss of the familiar local languages, social structures and support networks disrupting families and communities. It is feared that several rural communities may eventually be forced out of existence.
Tourism in Uttarakhand needs to be developed in a manner that shows sensitivity to environment. The sites of tourism should not be allowed to become places for conspicuous consumption and reckless extravaganza. Evidence shows that, in the pursuit of luxury tourism, environmental guidelines are often blatantly manipulated or violated. The local economy does not benefit from such investments as they take away productive village land, monopolise local resources, vandalise local culture and customs and only provide a few menial jobs for the local people.
We also need to draw a line between a pilgrim and a mainstream tourist, the former driven by religious faith while the latter is out for fun and adventure. Pilgrimage in recent times has become a fuzzy experience. Having commenced as an act of piety, its practice is now diluted by the agents to mere rituals or visitations to shrines, making it almost impossible to draw a clear distinction between true pilgrims and mainstream tourists. We must understand that the sacred sites are not for consumption but for devotion. Places like Mussoorie and Nainital are different from Badrinath and Kedarnath. The approach to tourism to these places will have to be different. It is not a very good idea to ‘develop’ the places of pilgrimage on the lines of luxury tourism that merely promotes the culture of consumption rather than religious fervour. The Himalayan pilgrimages not merely entail the physical act of visiting the holy places, but also imply mental and moral discipline without which pilgrimage would have very little significance.
For all its virulent impact, the pandemic has revealed the fault lines in our systems of governance. For decades governments have underfunded, understaffed and privatised the healthcare system across the country and these trends have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic. Now that the belief has taken root that health is of prime importance to people and every life needs to be saved by all means we need to ramp up the public health services. The villages should get special attention.
Nationwide lockdown, though inevitable, has not been a solution. It prevents the infection as long as it is in place, but has the tendency to return as soon as we let down our guard. The much maligned Rahul Gandhi was right when he said that lockdown was merely a pause button. It is not the pandemic, but the response to it that threatens the livelihood of millions of people especially of those who are poor and marginalised. We have seen the agony of the stranded migrant workers walking hundreds of miles. But the strategies to exit the lockdown need to be phased out and not abrupt. Steps to be taken to manage the situation should aim at minimising the collateral damages.
This pandemic is not just about health, it is also about fear. To be afraid has become our watchword and an obligation. People are afraid not just because of what they experience but because they are told to beware of ‘foreign bodies’ and ‘invisible enemies’. Public discourse has become highly vitiated and polarised. Individuals are stigmatised as ‘virus-spreaders,’ and the social media ‘lockdown warriors’ accuse citizens of lack of patriotism if they deviate from normative views. They are threatened with punitive and disciplinary measures in the name of public health.
The response to the pandemic has to be more nuanced than the demonstrative spectacle of fighter jets soaring and zipping through the sky with helicopters showering flower petals on ‘frontline warriors,’ resembling militarised state spectacles. Surely the healthcare workers deserve more than just patriotic slogans and symbolic gestures; they deserve better healthcare equipment and facilities. Flamboyant gestures and rhetorical phrases such as ‘beating the virus,’ winning the war’ and ‘corona heroes’ are contagious and are symptomatic of sheer bravado and authoritarian discourse of power. They oversimplify the fight against the virus.
When citizens responded to the call of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and came out to their balconies to bang thalis and blow conch shells to express their gratitude to the health workers battling the pandemic it was seen as an attempt to foster a sense human solidarity. While it reaffirmed the point that spectacle matters, one cannot ignore how social distancing has undermined the cohesiveness of social relations. Covered in facemasks every individual looks askance at every other individual with whom he comes in contact as a potential carrier of the virus. There is palpable tension in the air while communal relationships become fraught and edgy.
For those with guaranteed jobs, a comfortable couch and apartments with ‘balconies’ this unforeseen lockdown may feel like a gift, a welcome relief from the non-stop whirl of usual routine. Yet for millions of people, less privileged, the condition spells anomie and disaster. Without income, food and access to basic healthcare people are not enjoying the confinement; they are desperate and are suffering. Without a sense of connectedness and absence of hope life becomes precarious and a dreadfully lonely experience.
We also need to relate to the larger reality external to us. Let us not forget that this beautiful earth is not the monopoly of humans alone. We share it with myriads of other beings, birds and beasts included, who have a right to reclaim their habitat. Perhaps the Coronavirus has sent us a strong signal that the predatory arrogance of mankind meeting its nemesis is not a far-fetched idea.
(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University)