Featured image: A sight in a village in West Sikkim, on the periphery of the Khangchendzonga National Park. Photo: Rashmi Singh.
Sikkim was India’s only state that was free of COVID-19 for a long time, and recorded its first case only on May 23. The state responded proactively to contain the spread of the virus. However, the number of active cases spike in late June, after students native to the state returned home from different parts of the country. On June 25, the number of active cases was more than 50.
As a Himalayan state with snow-clad mountains, rich biodiversity and a diverse cultural heritage, Sikkim has always been a popular tourist destination in India for both domestic and foreign tourists. While the COVID-19 epidemic didn’t affect the people of Sikkim very much, considering the number of cases continues to remain relatively low, the nationwide lockdown has taken a toll on the state’s economy.
Tourism is Sikkim’s biggest source of revenue. A large percentage of the state’s local population depends on the tourism industry, including as taxi drivers, hotel staff, restauranteurs and tour guides, especially in North and West Sikkim. There are more than 800 homestays across the state, and each of these households depends heavily on tourists to draw an income income, especially in the summer months from April to June.
According to K. Jayakumar, the principal secretary of the tourism department, thanks to the lockdown this year, Sikkim has incurred a loss of revenue of about Rs 94 crore, with the bulk of it in the transportation and hotel divisions.
To help those in desperate need of support, local NGOs, panchayats and religious organisations have been distributing basic rations. Some people have also been able to get by on income from the dairy business and wages from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
Following a lack of opportunities and thus income, a number of local associations like the Sikkim Hotel and Restaurant Associations and the Sikkim Union Taxi Operation have been demanding that the state compensate them instead, to tide over the crisis. The state government in response has given every registered taxi driver Rs 5,000, and has been deliberating policies to minimise losses due to the lockdown.
Those at the lower end of the hierarchy in the tourism industry have been hit the worst. In places known for trekking tours, like Yuksam in West Sikkim, a large number of households run small hotels and homestays; many others depend on livelihoods associated with trekking, like tour guides, cooks and pack-animal operators. In the last three months, these households have borne the brunt of the lockdown with zero income, primarily because of the lack of representation of local associations in the capital of Gangtok.
Guides in particular work on a daily basis for trekking-tour operators in Sikkim, but with nobody rooting for them in Gangtok, they haven’t received any support from the government. Similarly, the state hasn’t arranged for any compensation for the small-hotel owners and homestay operators in Sikkim’s more remote parts either.
After tourism, the second-most important source of income for the local community is cash-crop cultivation. The people of Sikkim cultivate ginger, turmeric, oranges and, importantly, large cardamoms; the state is India’s biggest exporter of large cardamoms. Ginger and some other crops are important for local markets and in its neighbouring state, West Bengal. However, since hotels and restaurants have been closed, the demand for ginger has nosedived. Local farmers haven’t been able to sell their produce by themselves either, since roads are closed.
The lockdown’s economic impact has further exacerbated pressures on the region’s natural resources. Specifically, in the absence of any other work, members of the local communities have been engaged in collecting non-timber forest produce (NTFP) and fishing. Sikkim’s forests have more than 90 species of NTFP trees, ferns and herbs, of cultural and medicinal importance, used by local residents. More than half of these are collected and sold in the local bazar, and this contributes to the local economy.
However, since the lockdown, many of those engaged in this activity have over-collected edible ferns from the forests, leading to their disappearance before the season’s end. This is likely to affect the sustainability of this practice as well as the forests’ floral ecosystems. Similarly, there have also been reports of overfishing of Himalayan trout, frogs and toads from local streams.
Some other locals have also taken to organising community picnic and trekking tours to exploring culturally and religiously important sites, like the Bazara Dara trek, the Lhari Ningou trek, the Nubdenchan trek and the Pha Hungri trek, across the Yuksam, Tashiding and Gerethang gram panchayat units of West Sikkim. Some of the destinations in these treks are located deep inside forests, so on the flip side, the presence of trekkers, their vehicles and trash (if any) could be affecting the wildlife.
Nonetheless, while the state is looking for ways to recover better from the lockdown’s economic consequences, these community-based solutions have been quite helpful to the residents of villages in West Sikkim. These villages are populated by members of indigenous tribes, like the Bhutia, Lepcha, Gurung, Chettri and Limboo. Like in other mountain communities, solidarity and cultural brotherhood are a central part of local communities in Sikkim, and villages have been united at times of need as well.
Rashmi Singh is a PhD scholar at the school of human ecology, Ambedkar University Delhi. She tweets at @rashmi89singh. Kinzong Bhutia is associated with a conservation-based NGO, Khanchendzonga Conservation Committee (KCC), and is a member of State Biodiversity Board of Sikkim.