The tourism sector went into a tailspin and hordes of migrants returned home as coronavirus cast its shadow on the country and hit Uttarakhand’s economy hard in the past year. It was also the year when Gairsain in Chamoli district was formally declared the state’s summer capital. Environmentalists slammed a state government move to denotify the Shivalik Elephant Reserve. The Supreme Court kept its eye on the Chardham road project and a ruling BJP MLA faced a rape charge. The state made a staggered exit from the lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the tourists are yet to return in great numbers. The migrants, who had left for work to the cities, did. The coronavirus numbers in Uttarakhand remained relatively small for some months with a few hill districts not reporting a single case, now showed a surge. Many blamed it on returning migrants.
The state government had to sponsor special trains to bring many of them back. Hotels in Rishikesh were converted into quarantine centres. The Chardham Yatra, the state’s biggest revenue-spinner, could not start on time and the livelihood of thousands was hit.
The famous Himalayan temples were opened to devotees as late as July against the wishes of priests, who opposed it fearing a spread of the infection.
A daily limit was put on the number of pilgrims visiting Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – the ‘char dhams’ — to avoid crowding. Visitors were told to produce a negative coronavirus test report on arrival.
The tourist footfall during the yatra season was just about three lakh, less than a tenth of the previous year’s turnout.
The annual Kanwar Yatra in Haridwar was also cancelled. So were the holy baths on the banks of the Ganga on occasions like Somvati Amavasya.
According to the latest data, the Covid numbers in the state has risen to to over 89,000 with the fatality count nearing 1,500. “The seven-month period from March to September when the hotels remained closed caused huge losses. We need at least a year to recover from the effects of the lockdown,” said Devraj Singh, general manager of Hotel Taj in Rishikesh.
Sudhir Roy, president of the Chardham Yatra Management Rotation Committee, said 2020 will be remembered as a year which brought an economic crisis to Uttarakhand. Bus operators have suffered losses totaling Rs 25 crore, he said.
“We haven’t received any help yet from the government,” he claimed.
Rafting hotspot Rishikesh was devoid of tourists.
Pratik Kaliya, a rafting resort owner and district president of the Dehradun’s Yuva Udyog Vyapar Mandal, said the bitter memories of 2020 cannot be forgotten. Tourism and adventure sports industries have been the worst victims, he said.
“From March to monsoon, which is usually a period of five months, we used to do 60 per cent of the business, which came to nil this year. We are now doing nominal business on weekends,” Kaliya said.
Hari Singh Mann, president of the Hotel and Resort Traders Association, Ramnagar (Nainital), said they had to cut on their staff as the government offered no economic relief.
The infection didn’t spare the top brass in the government. Governor Baby Rani Maurya, Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, Urban Development Minister Madan Kaushik, Tourism Minister Satpal Maharaj and Vidhan Sabha Speaker Premchand Aggarwal contracted coronavirus during the year.
BJP MLA from Salt, Surendra Singh Jeena, passed away at a hospital in Delhi after testing positive for coronavirus in November. Former Congress MLA and ex-deputy speaker Anusuya Prasad Maikhuri died from virus-related complications earlier this month.
As the state gears up for Haridwar Kumbh next month, the government is mulling options like imposing a daily limit on the number of pilgrims. If this happens, it will be a first for a kumbh anywhere in the country.
But there was some good news for people in Chamoli, with Gairsain being declared the state’s summer capital. In the state assembly, Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said this was being done to honour the sentiments and aspirations that had led to the creation of Uttarakhand.
There were murmurs of protest from environmentalists when the government decided to denotify the Shivalik Elephant Reserve, considered the state’s lone jumbo corridor.
The authorities justified the decision, saying it will simplify the land acquisition process and increase development activities in an area spread over 5,405 sq km.
However, environmentalists said it will involve felling of thousands of trees and wreak havoc on animal habitats. Addressing another environmental concern, the Supreme Court asked its high-powered committee monitoring the Chardham highway project to consider applications against its September 8 order to follow a 2018 circular stipulating that the roads’ width should be 5.5 metres. The Ministry of Defence wants the width to be increased to seven metres so that men and equipment should move swiftly from the army stations towards the India-China border points.
The strategic 900-km Chardham highway project aims to provide all-weather connectivity to the pilgrim towns which make up the four ‘dhams” in Uttarakhand.
The BJP government faced embarrassment when Mahesh Negi, its MLA from Dwarahat, was booked for rape and criminal intimidation in September. Negi has dubbed the incident as part of a conspiracy to defame him, claiming that some Congress leaders are involved in it.