As India battles the COVID-19 pandemic, Sikkim remains untouched by the virus. However, the state remains cautious even as it prepares for relaxation of restrictions while the lockdown enters the third phase. Sikkim Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang speaks to The Indian Express about the road ahead.
Sikkim has not had a single positive case. How did you ensure this?
Ever since news of the virus in China started coming in, we remained alert, especially as we share a border with China, apart from two other international borders with Bhutan and Nepal. We conducted intensive screening of those entering and leaving the state at four of our main checkposts since February, after the first case was reported in India in January. We didn’t want to wait for the Centre to issue instructions. I felt we should take immediate measures.
By March 5, we had banned all foreign tourists from entering Sikkim. Foreign tourists who were in the state were asked to leave. By March 17, we had banned all domestic tourists and, like foreign tourists, the domestic tourists who were in the state were asked to leave. The hotel industry was upset when we brought these measures, but now they tell us it was the right thing to do, otherwise we would have got cases as well.
We also completely shut all our borders, including Nathula pass, where our people carry out traditional trade with the local Chinese across the border. Nathula was in any case hardly functioning at the time because we were just pulling out of winter. By the time the pandemic in the country is brought under control, I feel winter will be upon us again, so we will keep the pass shut this entire year. We have kept only two checkposts open — Rangpo and Melli — where our police forces have been deployed and there is strict vigilance. Then, of course, on March 25, we went under complete lockdown like the rest of the country.
While the Northeast had been relatively unaffected, in the last month, several cases emerged in states there as well. How did you avoid this?
No one, including Sikkimese people living in other states, were allowed to enter, no one was allowed to leave. In other Northeast states, positive cases came when locals living outside came home. We have more than 2,000 students studying in other parts of the country and many more working. We asked them to stay where they are. We have been in constant touch with them through our resident commissioner, sending them food rations, monetary assistance and any other form of help that they need.
I myself have spoken to a number of students. Some want to come back, I have assured them they will be brought back at an appropriate time. Many others have voluntarily stayed on, saying they wanted Sikkim protected from the virus. This is one of the main reasons why we have been so successful—it is because the people of Sikkim have been extremely disciplined, following all guidelines of the lockdown like social distancing, strictly. We have not had to use police force at all, so our police have been effectively used in monitoring and surveillance of borders.
For those outside the state, we have provided Rs 5,000 one-time assistance to students, Rs 10,000 assistance to Sikkimese employed in other cities and Rs 30,000 to those who had gone out for medical treatment.
Migrant workers within the state — from West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar — who were not allowed to leave were given Rs 2,000 per month. Registered labour within the state were also given this amount, apart from ASHA workers who were given a one-time incentive of Rs 5,000, frontline health workers a one-time incentive of Rs 3,000 and safai karmacharis Rs 5,000. This financial assistance further
ensured that they followed our directives.
With the lockdown being relaxed from Monday, and Sikkim being a green zone, will normal activities resume? And will those living outside be brought back?
We will bring back people in a phased manner with precautions. There are 3,500 people who have already registered with us to come back in the past 24 hours, since we began registrations. Those coming from green zones will be kept in 14-day home quarantine after they return. This will be monitored, and the responsibility of the local MLA, police, zila parishad head and sarpanch.
Those coming from red zones will be kept in government quarantine for 21 days. They will not be allowed to come back in personal vehicles but in government buses, so that movement can be easily monitored. We have given an option to those who can afford it to stay in government-designated hotels, under government supervision, in case they don’t want to stay in government quarantine. They will, of course, have to pay.
Tourism is Sikkim’s main industry. How badly will the state be affected because of the pandemic?
Tourism is our main industry, but our second biggest industry is the pharmaceutical companies — there are 49 of them in the state, and they have been fully operational. We will allow inter-district movement soon. Inter-state movement is unlikely. Since the first tourism season is from March to June, we have already lost that season. We will have to take a call on the second season, which is October-November. International tourists are unlikely to come this year. But we are confident about our economic situation.
I set up an economic task force yesterday to see how the economy can be revived. But there some austerity measures that the government took even before COVID-19, which are paying off now. In the previous government, ministers and officers were using luxury cars like Audis, Prados and even BMW. These have been all auctioned off. Government events used to take place in hotels and were therefore expensive. I have banned this.
We have no shortage of food as we are self-sufficient in vegetables, which we have been exporting even during the lockdown. We only bring in rice, dal, onions, tomatoes and cooking oil. Cultivation has been under way even during the lockdown, as has been construction activity, while following social distancing norms.
We are healthy as far as the economy is concerned and will not even have to stop our development projects.
We will, of course, cull out unnecessary projects and exclude them.
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