The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the economy of Devbhumi with a double whammy. The tourism industry, on which lakhs of livelihoods rely, has been severely affected with the state having closed its borders with the announcement of national lockdown. Although initially only three positive cases were registered, with one death, and a manageable number of international returnees needing monitoring and tracking, the Tablighi Jamaat incident in Delhi triggered a drastic rise in the number of positive cases in Himachal Pradesh even as the health authorities were scrambling to identify primary and secondary contacts of those who had visited Delhi.
Simultaneously, huge loss have been experienced in apple crop and trade from the state. Shimla’s apple bowl, which consist of areas such as Narkanda, Rohru, Chopal, Kotgarh, Kumarsen and Matiyana, lives with the fears of the coronavirus’s effect on the next crop season, with small and large apple growers shut and the unfavorable conditions that could adversely affect timely, safe, nutritious and rich harvest.
Tourism, which according to Martin Parr, is the biggest industry in the world; in Himachal, it is the biggest employer. The state’s entire tourism industry depends largely on three months—April, May and June—when lakhs of tourists make beeline to hill stations to get some respite from the scorching sun. The rest of the nine months, when very few tourists visit Himachal, are considered slender season. Early April is the time when hoteliers begin hotel’s maintenance and repair work to welcome the tourist crowds. The beginning of April brought friction among hoteliers who, for the very first time in decades, have no excuse to decorate their hotels as tourist movement around the world has come to a complete halt.
The tourist season for the people of Devbhumi has concluded and seems to be put on break till 2021, with almost all the taxi drivers, hoteliers and travel agencies equally losing hope till the next summer. The three-month loan moratorium offered by banks is insufficient to recover from the trauma of Devbhumi’s tourism industry. Hundreds of hotels were recently constructed in Himachal, and significant numbers of state-run hotels are still under construction. More than 50% of hotels owe the banks thousands of crores. Numerous travel companies, taxi operators and others are all under the pressure of large loans. The hoteliers, who have little to do these days, are busy writing letters and emails requesting support from the union and state government.
The Manali Hoteliers’ Association has sought help from the government to contribute to the staff’s salary by adding 50% share from schemes such as MGNREGA until hotels are closed. They also demanded that electricity bill be paid at domestic rates, and not on a commercial basis.
“We thank the Indian and Himachal governments for taking prompt, strict action to curb COVID-19 spread by enforcing nationwide lockdowns. Yet we want to express that tourism is the principal contributor to the state’s economy. The COVID-19 is badly hitting this industry, especially the hospitality sector. As of last year, the hotel industry has been facing slowdown. Now the virus has escalated the situation“, said MHA president Anup Thakur.
On the other side, the required March–April preparatory work on the apple farms and orchards is severely hit. The lockdown is disrupting the supply of insecticides, required nutrients and other inputs such as anti-hail nets and honey bees which help in the pollination process. The period of quarantine also stops the farmers from entering their orchards.
For their part, horticultural scientists have expressed concerns about weather uncertainties and prevailing low temperature conditions. The transformation of winter to summer is not as usual according to according to Dr Vijay Singh Thakur, former Vice-Chancellor of Dr Y S Parmar Horticulture and Forestry University, Solan. It will alter the flowering and also impede the process of pollination in the orchards. In order to avoid hindrance, crops require the optimal temperature between 16°–24° according to the farmers, and yet Shimla and nearby areas exhibit temperatures between 11°–13° Celsius. Cloudy skies and snow at higher altitudes are not suitable conditions for the apples to mature.
The fruit growers’ concern is not only about the lockdown impact on apple orchards, but also farms growing cherries, pomegranates and green almonds which will also not be able to enter the markets as transportation is likely to remain a problem when the crop matures in July–August. Those concerns were expressed to Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur by Narendra Bragta, MLA, Jubbal-Kotkhai and former Minister of Horticulture.
The Government has issued an advisory to bring boxes of honey bees, which is a necessity for pollination, says Bragta. Honey-bees are brought to farmers from Haryana and Punjab and rented, but that too is facing a crisis as Joginder Chauhan, an orchardist from Kotkhai, explained that the people who rent out honey bees are taking no chance and in case they reach Himachal Pradesh somehow from any other state such as Haryana and Punjab, then they must undergo a quarantine period as per the guidelines for the coronavirus. Therefore, bees are still in short supply.
In recent years, Himachal’s apple economy has shown high growth given the decline in GDP share of agriculture from 15.35% in 2014–2015 to 12.73% at present. According to the Vidhan Sabha Economic Survey 2019–20, the state’s horticultural production had increased by 42.83%, of which apples accounted for nearly 60%, worth ₹4,500 crore. Yet that was back then.
Today, due to the lockdown and coronavirus concerns, an unwelcome calm hangs over the apple belt. Even skilled workers from the state’s Karsog, Sirmaur and Ani regions, who are experts in putting up anti-hail nets on the plants, stayed home. And, for the tourist sector, all hotel advance bookings are cancelled until May. After May, the hoteliers hope for good tourist inflow but the likelihood is very grim. When it comes to tourism, even the smallest place of Devbhumi is the tourist attraction, when you google the best places to visit in Himachal Pradesh, there are more than 50. The best apples found in India come from the same state.
The world cup which takes place in Bir-Billing, Himachal Pradesh, every year was also called off consecutively for the second time in which 200 pilots from 28 different countries were expected to participate.
Devbhumi is in shock, as the number of patients are still increasing, and yet there is no confirmation of the lockdown getting over soon and the two major ways of earning for most of the state is on halt as tourism contributes 6.6% in the state GDP, and apple cultivation supports 1.7 lakh families, i.e. Devbhumi contributes 40% of total production in India, which is at the top with 50% production.
This might be the best time to recall the famous quotation of Martin Luther King, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”