For Vishal Singh, 29, a Delhi-based stock trader, Himachal Pradesh has been a second home for the last four years. Every summer for around two months, he leaves behind the metropolis and the heat of the plains and reaches Kareri, a picturesque village inhabited by members of the pastoral Gaddi tribe around 26 kilometres from Dharamshala.
For Rs 15,000-20,000 a month, he rents a room in the village and spends his days playing badminton, interacting with children at the local school, hiking in the surrounding woods, helping his host run a camping service, or reading books. “I feel rejuvenated by my stay there. It takes away the entire year’s fatigue,” he says.
This year, however, his summer home is out of bounds for him owing to the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown induced by it. Movement into Himachal Pradesh for people of other states continues to remain restricted due to fears of a surge in Covid-19 cases. “I can only daydream about Kareri this year. I am desperate for the situation to improve so I can head there,” says Vishal.
Many like him have been denied their summer stay in the hills of Himachal this year. “A number of families or individuals from Chandigarh, Delhi, and other states prefer to spend their entire summer break in Himachal. Many of them have relatives here and stay with them, while others take rooms or cottages on rent in places such as Manali, Dharamshala, Chamba, and Narkanda,” says Purnesh Thakur, a tour and travel operator.
Meenakshi Prashar, a native of Sirmaur who is married in Chandigarh, says that she visits her maternal home along with her children as soon as schools close for the summer vacation. “It’s naturally a different story this year,” she said.
Pankaj Sharma, CEO of a Delhi-based business incubator, said that he shifts to Himachal along with his team for several weeks during the summer, during which they continue to work. “We bring our laptops and work material along, and continue to function as usual, surrounded by a serene environment. It increases our productivity and ability to come up with new ideas. But Himachal government’s decision to curb the movement of people from outside is understandable in these circumstances,” he adds.
Despite the lockdown, several people made desperate attempts to enter the state and reach their favourite destinations. In early May, after the state government allowed the entry of Himachal residents stranded outside, a Panchkula resident obtained a pass by claiming to be a resident of Naggar in Kullu, where he started living at a host’s place until the panchayat members informed the police. He was booked and sent back.
On May 7, former Punjab DGP Sumedh Singh Saini tried to enter the state through Bilaspur district, telling the police he was headed to his private property in Karsog. He was denied entry as he did not possess a pass.
A few people, however, managed to sneak in despite the restrictions. Rahul Kumar, member of a panchayat in Kangra district, said that a woman in his village married outside the state returned home along with her husband last month, and the panchayat agreed to turn a blind eye after the couple promised to observe home quarantine sincerely.
For a tourism-intensive state like Himachal, where a major share of the economy and the livelihoods are dependent on tourist arrivals, the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have come as nothing short of a death knell.
Upto 60% of the tourism activity in the hill state happens between March and August. With half of June gone, those dependent on tourists, including the hospitality sector and the allied activities such as adventure or religious tourism, have all but given up hope of making up for the losses this year.
Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur had earlier told The Indian Express there had been zero visitors to the state this summer and “this has been a big setback to the state’s economy and to lakhs of people dependent on tourism”.
He had said that the government has set up a task force and a Cabinet sub-committee to examine how it can help the hospitality sector, which employs close to 60,000 people.
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