“People don’t have money right now, it’s a cycle. For people like us who just do our daily jobs never thinking of anything bigger than our individual self, or to the largest, our families, the economy seems far more intricate with so much interconnection. If they don’t have money, we don’t earn money,” says Rojan, a government employee and a small business owner from South Sikkim.
It is incontrovertible that the economy is slumping and every section of society is hurting, lacerations have been created in the economy with the ongoing pandemic and the lockdown that coalesced. Kiren Rijiju, India’s Minister of State for Youth Affairs & Sports (Independent Charge) and a Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, spoke to SC on the announcement of 20 Lakh Crore worth Aatma Nirbhar Package, a special relief package given out by the Government of India to revive the Indian economy which has sustained a blow from the COVID-19 pandemic and its role on the slumping economy in the pretext of North East India.
“It is a global pandemic and the effects aren’t unique just to India, but this economic package will really take Indian economy back to the track because the entire activities have come to a standstill and by infusing such record amount of money, which will be brought back to the market and through various sectors, there is a chance at the revival of the economy,” says Rijiju.
10 per cent of the GDP of the largest democracy in the world is not a small amount, a pandemic that has locked down major countries and hurt economies all over the world; this special economic package is surely one of the best decisions even by the standards of any government in the world. The North-Eastern states in India, that includes our own, Sikkim, have been fortunate to have lesser number of COVID-19 cases and some say that ours has been blessed to have registered 0 cases.
However, when it comes to the economy, most of the states are in the farther borders of the country, and in hilly regions making it difficult for the state itself to sustain the economy. Most of the NE states have a co-dependent relationship with the rest of India when it comes to the economy.
“The NE is very dependent on central (government’s) assistance, most of the NE states are not in a position to come back to normalcy on its own resources. So the Prime Minister’s economic package is a huge boost, especially for the NE,” says Rijiju.
With a new Economic Revival Committee for the state already set up, it is now a waiting period for the team to put forward a clear game plan to revive Sikkim’s economy. As Rijiju said, the NE economies are also very much dependent on tourism, which is a primary income source for countless families in Sikkim, but since the sector is solely dependent on movement, it is going to be difficult to get things back to normalcy on that sector. Also taking the fact to heed is how Sikkim has introduced policies that directly put a hiatus on tourism and ensured the COVID-19 free status of the state. Even though the sector’s workers and stakeholders are in complete compliance of the policies and direction given by the government, there is the underlying issue of a tremendous loss in business and in some extreme cases, livelihoods.
Tourist drivers are the backbone of the sector with the terrain of the state being friendly with bigger vehicles, mostly dealing in shared jeeps (Bolero, Sumo, Marshall, Maxx, Innova, Fortuner, Xylo etc.) and buses that run across towns.
The members of North Sikkim Tourist Drivers’ Association are one such group who are in the verge of facing a loss of their livelihoods.
According to Chandra Mani Dorjee, the Joint Secretary of North Sikkim Tourist Drivers’ Association (NSTDA), with utter faith and compliancy towards the guidelines the Government of Sikkim have laid, many drivers that the association is addressing have been emergent with questions about why the tourist drivers have been exempted from reliefs and policies for their livelihoods. Recognising the fact that essential services are the support system that will help win the war against COVID-19, Dorjee speaks about the association’s grievances.
“We adhere to all the guidelines and are in total support of the lockdown, but we have a fear that even after the lockdown, tourism will not be back to normal, in fact, nothing will. In that future we are afraid about our livelihoods, even now no relief work has been announced for the drivers. Drivers are the people without whom Sikkim tourism will definitely hurt,” says Dorjee.
“We are fearing the payments of our Insurance, renewal of Bluebook, EMIs of Loans which we are paying off but nothing has been addressed yet about this, and this raises fear and a lot of confusion amongst us drivers. Will there be a relief for us? We don’t know, we also don’t know what we are to do after the lockdown is over and tourism is still closed.”
Kumar Subba, of NSTDA, says, “We are afraid our livelihoods will be lost or will sustain huge damage. Even now we have to think about our families, but with the loans, the renewals piling up, our road permits losing validity, it is very hard for us, which is it. We also fear for our lives, the protection of our land and we support this lockdown, but in my shoes, we have another fear of losing our livelihoods.”
It is certain that even after the war against this pandemic is won, hoping optimistically, the tourism sector will have faced a heavy setback, maiming the sector even few months or even years after all of this is behind us. The fears and questions of the drivers only seem guileless. With the economic relief package, the information Rijiju has shared and eyes on Economic Revival Committee, there is only patience on the table for the tourism sector which will surely feel the biggest hit even after the economy is en-route to normalcy.