The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of many systems. Its impact is especially stark in Kodaikanal, a small hill station with a population of 42,000 and a maximum tourist inflow of six lakh per month. Approximately 75 percent of the local population is dependent on tourism and has been brutally hit by this second lockdown of 2021. From early May through to today, non-essential shops and hotels have remained closed, grocery stores are open only until 10 am, and restaurants have provided only take-away services (some ceased even these). The movement of people was restricted to essential purposes.
Many hoteliers, including this reporter, have had to dip into savings for more than two successive years. Some residents have developed health problems due to the financial strain and there does not seem to be an end in sight. ‘This year we are in a dark place,’ says B Ganesh, 32, a resident of MGR Nagar who is struggling to make his loan payments. Ganesh is the owner of three cabs and the father of two girls, with a wife who works in a hotel. ‘Banks do not accept that there is no income here. They say that the Government allows you to go to work, so you need to pay up. But where is the work?’ Like many others, he is unable to pay his employees full salaries. He extends as much financial support as possible while he figures out what to do when his savings run out in the aftermath of India’s second wave.
These days one barely encounters traffic. There’s not a boat on the lake, just the wind blowing ripples across the water; there are no horses, no bicycles. Roadside stalls along the Lake Road are all covered or missing. There is no aroma of boiled peanuts, raw mango, or roasted corn on the cob. Most shops along Anna Salai have their shutters down; people rush to get their essentials, which are all that is available. Kodai is now pristine and private—or a ghost town—according to your perspective. The curb on commercial activity has led to a tremendous loss of permanent income, especially for those in lower-income groups.
When news of the lockdown began surfacing, members of many traders’ associations, including the Taxi Drivers’ Association, Tourist Spot Shop Owners’ Association, and allied workers, all congregated at Moonjikal on April 19th. Their appeal to the government: to allow tourism with restrictions, in the absence of welfare support to mitigate the adverse impact of the pandemic on their income. Their protest was called off the next day on the assurance of the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) in-charge, S Sivakumar, who said he would take up the matter with the District Collector, M Vijayalakshmi. There has been no update from them, as of now.
How do we protect the livelihoods of residents while keeping the town safe?
According to Kodaikanal’s Block Medical Officer, Dr M Aravindh Krishnan, as of June 5th, 2021, a total of 916 people have been affected by Covid since March 2020; 22 deaths were reported in total till date. Of these, 414 cases have emerged since the beginning of March 2021; of which seven people have died in the Kodaikanal block after March 2021, during the second wave. There are 53 active cases as of today.
‘There are three reasons why a lockdown is compulsory,’ Dr Aravindh told The Kodai Chronicle in May. ‘Residents interacting with many tourists, like shopkeepers, waiters, etc, can become super-spreaders and Kodaikanal does not have the health infrastructure to nurse large numbers of Covid patients. Also, contact tracing becomes extremely complicated and complex in a dynamic population.’
On 5th June, he informed us that the local test positivity rate was now 3.33 percent (up from an average rate of 2.23 percent). To keep track of the transmission of the virus, more than 4,000 fever camps have been conducted since last June, attending to over 1.79 lakh people; these are planned so that those with flu-like symptoms can be checked by doctors and tested for Covid-19 where necessary. While 27,130 vaccine doses have been administered, jabs are now difficult to get, and there are still only two Covid wards with O2 supported beds (36 available beds as of 5th June, out of 48 sanctioned beds).
There are other numbers to be considered too.
Shopowners like P. Manohar of Kamatchi Stores are extremely frustrated, as his turnover is down by 90 percent. ‘Everyone who is trying to make a living in Kodai is suffering,’ says the grocery store owner. ‘We all have invested a considerable amount of money preparing for the season. My main clients are all hoteliers and restaurants. I have large quantities of stock in sauces, masalas, chocolates, etc. With hotels selling nothing, what can I sell? Even the locals are not buying from me as much as last year.’
Nagarajan of Rajan Stores, who sells hardware supplies on Anna Salai, is also worried. He paid all his staff during lockdown 2020; he has since moved to a larger shop with more employees, and needs to find a way to pay all eight employees, while his turnover is down by 75 percent. Unlike most people in Kodai, he knows someone who tested Covid positive: ‘He was hospitalized for a week but is now hale and hearty,’ he says.
Krishna Rajendran, Additional Secretary of the Kodaikanal Club, insists that things have to change soon. ‘They are saying that the rooms can be let out, but who is going to stay?’ He asks. ‘Visitors need to come. Only then can establishments break even and look after their employees as well. It’s all connected.’
Other locals feel differently. A retired, long-term resident commented, on condition of anonymity, that he is glad Kodai is under lockdown, ‘as most people have not learnt from the experience of the past year: they are still congregating and [with] absolutely no masks!’
He believes that business owners should polish their existing skills, learn new skills, and venture into areas that are not dependent on tourism. ‘Any agriculture-related business like bee-keeping or food packaging is going to be very successful.’ He added, ‘Our local people are extremely talented.’
Upskilling is not easy, or an immediate option for everyone. Subhashini, 26, who owns a vegetable stall on Law’s Ghat Road, near Moonjikkal, is a mother of two. Her husband is a cook in a popular restaurant, who has been sent home on unpaid leave. Her business has closed due to travel restrictions. ‘There are no tourists, and the locals just go to the weekly market to buy fresh produce for the week,’ she says. She feels 2020 was a better time, as locals used to shop from local shops, at least.
How do we move beyond this impasse we have arrived at? Many feel that vaccinating to achieve herd immunity is the answer. To this end, many establishments have vaccinated employees and encourage associates to do the same for safety. There are many who do not want to get vaccinated for various reasons, even though vaccines are being provided free of cost by the Rotary Club of Kodaikanal and the Primary Healthcare Centre, who are conducting regular drives. Now, of course, it is hard to find one, and some residents and long-term visitors are going down to the plains to get their dose.
Some still insist that the second wave in Kodai has been caused by election rallies and religious congregations, not by visitors from the plains, holding out for the promise of controlled tourism as a sustainable option.
Dr Aravindh agrees with this approach in theory, but feels it would not be practical to implement, involving measures such as enforced wearing of masks, regulating tourist inflow with e-passes, negative RT-PCR tests, and vaccination certificates, as well as a compulsory booking confirmation at ‘safe’ establishments for tourists staying overnight. Hoteliers are in agreement, but many are uncertain whether the rules will actually be followed.
As we persist through an extended, ongoing lockdown, traders and other business owners hope that the sun will soon rise on their economic fortunes—but who is to say what the virus’s plans are.