The Health vs Jobs Debate: A False Dichotomy?

As the second wave of Covid-19 ravages our country, Kodaikanal faces yet another season of economic hardship; like other hill stations such as Ooty and Yercaud, to which travel has been banned. This town of around 42,000 (as per Kodaikanal’s modified Master Plan 2021), has always depended on tourism for its economy, and has had three years of tourism loss already: Cyclone Gaja in 2018, the sealing of hotels and guesthouses in 2019, and the pandemic-related lockdown of 2020.

After repeated income deprivation and growing debt, the town saw a revival of tourism this January and was gearing up for the season that runs from April through June when the April lockdown was announced. All those who depend on tourism—hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, taxis, horsemen, shops—reacted with anger and alarm, calling a Kodaikanal bandh against the lockdown announcement. Another non-season may drive many into penury, and the extension of the lockdown through June exacerbates their fears.

At the same time, there is no denying that a lockdown right now offers better protection against the risk of a Covid-19 surge in Kodaikanal. The town simply cannot afford a spread of Covid-19 with its extremely limited medical resources, and a large tourist influx will undoubtedly escalate that risk. Especially given that the proportion of vaccinated residents aged 60+ is low in Dindigul district, to which Kodaikanal belongs: 10-20 percent, according to The Hindu in early May. Vaccine shortages compound the problem: according to official sources, Kodaikanal’s Covid-19 cases continued to rise through May. 

Is there a feasible compromise solution? Kodaikanal’s professional tourism-related associations, from hotel owners to taxi drivers, have jointly suggested a series of regulations to the municipality: these would limit tourism but not close it off altogether. Only Tamil Nadu residents should be allowed in, they suggest; permitted tourists should have e-passes, Covid-negative test certificates and pre-assured bookings, and should give details of their stay for tracking; numbers should be restricted to no more than 50 percent occupancy, and no more than three persons should be allowed in a taxi.

These are all very positive suggestions, but they may not be sufficient to the challenge. Kodaikanal’s medical facilities are not equipped to deal with even a local epidemic. The town’s few hospitals usually have a total bed strength of 145 and only 15 doctors (Master Plan 2021). While it has expanded this capacity, only two hospitals have Covid-19 wards with oxygen supplies (Van Allen and the Government Hospital), with a total of 36 available O2 beds as of 5th June (normal capacity is 48 beds). While new facilities have been set up for asymptomatic patients or those with a mild attack of Covid-19 at Swedish House and the Mother Teresa Women’s University, as well as the Kodaikanal Municipality Guesthouse, BC Hostel in Attuvampatti, and CS International Hotel in Naidupuram (around a 100 available beds as of 5th June), all severe cases have to be referred to Dindigul or Madurai. These cities are a two-and-a-half hour drive away, and have had scarce resources to spare during recent surges.

At the height of the season, Kodaikanal can get up to eight lakh tourists a month, according to the town’s tourist office. Even 50 percent of this number would mean a hefty four lakh visitors a month for around four months of season, and between one to three lakhs per month during low season. All in a small town of around 2,000 hectares, of which around 889 hectares are developed (Master Plan 2021). Of course, tourism may be down anyway, due to the second wave that is sweeping Tamil Nadu. Irrespective, it would be helpful to have an estimate of the number of tourists Kodaikanal can absorb without significantly endangering the safety of its residents.

Arriving at such an estimate would require putting together tourism and medical data location-wise. Much of the data is incomplete or unreliable; a reasonably accurate estimate of tourist arrivals would require cross-referencing figures from the toll gate, tour operators, hotels and taxi drivers, along with place and duration of stay, at least. To collect it, the municipality would need to put together a team of medical professionals (including epidemiologists), local officials, demographers and statisticians.

Kodaikanal is fortunate in having residents who can provide and/or access the skills required to jump-start an estimate. If the municipality were to put it on a priority footing, an expert group could arrive at a rough estimate within weeks.

There will, inevitably, be a rise in risk if the authorities consider opening up to tourists. But loss of livelihoods also endangers the safety of Kodaikanal’s residents, and is an issue that deserves serious consideration. Those of us who do not depend on tourism might have to tighten our existing precautions—to stay at home, mask up and socially distance when forced out—and isolate more than we already do, lockdown after lockdown.

Hotels, taxis and other members of Kodaikanal’s tourist industry will have to do their part too. They will have to agree to a staggered opening, based on estimates of safety and capability, and they will have to push their guests to abide by strict rules of masking, sanitation and distancing.

One imperative for the municipality is to set up a dedicated Covid-19 facility for treatment of severe cases, whether or not tourism is allowed. The army, with facilities across Tamil Nadu, could help set up such a facility speedily. Field hospitals can be established in days, but collecting the equipment, medical supplies and recruiting medical personnel could take months, and the costs would need to be calculated by the municipality in consultation with medical professionals. Small as Kodaikanal’s population is, there is no dearth of volunteers to raise donations if the municipality sets up a fund for this endeavour (assuming it is funds that are lacking). Given the severity of the crisis nationally, the recent rise in local caseloads, and predicted waves to follow this second surge, this is something the Kodaikanal municipality can and should do, urgently.

Radha Kumar

Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst, who lives in Attuvampatti. Her latest books are Paradise at War: A Political History of Kashmir (2018), and A Gender Atlas of India (2018).

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