Pandemic has disrupted the global order. With rapidly rising cases in the country, the government and citizens have found it hard to adapt to new changes brought in force to contain the spread of the infection. India’s migrant crisis has nothing been short of a nightmare. Several economic activities have come to a screeching halt and the informal sector is badly hit. Tourism, hotel and restaurants, entertainment, sports events have been some of the worst suffering sectors due to COVID-19. Vaccine development programs are still in the early stages and might take an year or two to reach the implementation stage.

Amidst such uncertainty and bleak times, we celebrate the World Environment Day 2020 today, on June 5. The onset of the pandemic has encouraged masses to deliberate on the current state of environment and take proactive steps in mending our ways in which we interact with nature. This year’s World Environment Day 2020, matters a lot, more than ever. It will define our commitments and actions for conservation and sustainability in the post-pandemic era.

COVID-19 will affect the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) differently, in some of the most unimaginable ways. But, it’s not the time to panic, rather it’s an opportunity to build a robust roadmap for reviving the growth and development in the region.

To discuss these issues, on this special day, we interview Dr. Eklabya Sharma, Deputy Director General at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) headquartered in Nepal. ICIMOD has been working very closely with the Government of India and the governments of mountain states in India on issues of climate change. ICIMOD has been strategically involved with NITI Aayog in developing policies on sustainable development in the IHR.

Dr. Sharma talks about the future of tourism in the mountains, gender issues, migration situation, food security issues and creating livelihoods for local hill communities to ensure speedy and balanced recovery of the IHR.

(Dr. Eklabya Sharma, Deputy Director General, ICIMOD. Pic credits: ICIMOD/Website)

What have been the key impacts of COVID-19 on the mountains?

I would say that because of COVID-19 there have been three kinds of broad disruptions in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) ecosystem of which IHR is a part. They are: economic, social, and environmental. And within them, one area I feel is of particular importance is food security and nutrition. Gender and social inclusion is cross cutting issues all of these three broad areas. Let me get into them one at a time.

On the economic front, the impact has been really massive. All the eight countries comprising the Hindu Kush Himalaya have been severely impacted by the crisis. All nations are beginning to struggle with macro-economic issues. For example, GDP is going to be impacted across the board and that means mountain regions of these countries are not going to be spared. What’s worse is that hill and mountain regions are likely to be impacted even more. Another crucial dimension is migration that has been an important contributor to the economy of the hills. Lots of people working in big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, send back some money which has been the source of sustenance for many families in the hills. Now with people returning back to Uttarakhand and other hill states, such remittances are likely to get badly hit.

Now if we look at the tourism sector, which is a source of livelihood for many people in the mountains, it has seen huge setback due to the pandemic. Tourism, which has contributed in pulling many out of poverty, could now see themselves sliding back into poverty. What is worse is people who were already battling poverty prior to the pandemic, might now slide into chronic poverty.  So, from the economic perspective, this pandemic is having a big impact, risking the livelihoods of millions.

On the environmental front, with so many people returning back to the mountains, the pressure on natural resources will increase. More people will depend on forests for firewood, resulting in increase in degradation. We have also seen an increase in illegal trade of wildlife during the lockdown period, which further increases the risk of disease transmission between humans, wildlife and domestic animals. While we have seen some improvement in air quality, there is the concern that it can easily go back to previous levels, as soon as economic activities restart.

Water availability is a challenge that people in mountains have been facing for some time, there is now increased chances of this becoming worse as a result of added pressure due to influx of people, and also because clean water is an important part of reducing the risk of the COVID-19 virus. Access to clean water is therefore likely to become challenging for local communities. Lastly, with lots of people coming back from urban centers, usage of plastics, single use masks and gloves in the hills is likely to increase, which will create major environmental challenges in the mountains.

Socially, hill communities might face a few challenges too. The pandemic has brought an overall change in social behavior of the communities. People are in stress and mistrust is growing. Social media has played a big role in creating communal disharmony and spreading fake messages. All of this will affect the cohesive bonding between communities residing in the hills. Technological seclusion is another challenge facing the mountain communities. As such, prolonged rural distress can make things worse for local communities and we need to be mindful of this.

Now, I would like to focus on what I feel is going to be a major challenge in the short-, medium-, and long-term for mountain communities, and that is food security. With a halt in economic activities, purchasing power of people will certainly decrease. This means food commodities which are brought to mountain regions, are likely to become more expensive across the board. The last couple of months have also seen major disruptions on food supply chains, with difficulty in getting food supplies to mountain communities and mountain agricultural and food produce reaching their downstream and urban markets. With the onset of the rainy season, the challenges will only increase.

Access to fresh, nutritious and health food is central to improving immune system and is being vouched as critical component in our fight against COVID. However, the lack of dietary diversity and micro-nutrients deficiencies, challenges for the hill communities are massive, and the disruptions mentioned earlier will only add to these. Small or marginal farmers, elder population, lactating mothers and children, will be most vulnerable and at risk because of this.

Also, with interruptions in the farming sector and very low agriculture activities, hill areas are likely to be further exposed to food insecurity and malnutrition issues. Already, approximately 50% of people in hills and mountain regions are malnourished, the current situation especially if it continues for a long time will only make the situation much worse.

How will COVID-19 impact the livelihoods, economic and social security of the people in the mountains?

The vulnerabilities of the migrants who have returned to their homes and decreased remittance flows will give rise to a lot of unemployment issues. They might not be able to do farming because of different skill sets developed over the years. But with this, we have a big question to answer, how do we utilize their skill sets now?

Secondly, we have seen that in the entire HKH ecosystem, there are lots of small and medium sized enterprises and industries. Due to COVID, their production has halted, value chains are disrupted, and very little trading  is taking place. The problem will be even more severe for informal economy workers like porters, tourist guides and daily wage laborers.

One thing that we have observed in the mountains for many years is the disproportionate workload placed on women and this continues during this crisis. There has also been a spike in gender-based violence. Now since a large proportion of men who had migrated for work are returning to the hills, we might witness an increase in cases of violence, which is deeply worrying. Also, so far, women have been the ones who have been doing most of the farm related activities. Now with men coming back to the villages, families might also witness conflicts amongst themselves regarding their roles.

Education will also be a major sector where impacts will be felt. Internet connectivity has been really poor in remote and hilly areas. Also, locals cannot afford to buy high end technological devices like iPad or smart phones to have access to online education, which is very much being mooted as the new model of imparting knowledge in the post pandemic era. As a result, children will be majorly impacted by such disruptions in the hills.

How do we now see pandemic and its interplay with the crisis of climate change in the mountains?

From the start of this pandemic, it is clear that sooner or later we will have a vaccine for COVID-19, but there’s no vaccine for climate change. Hindu Kush Himalaya region has been right at the forefront of climate change. ICIMOD’s recent Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report has substantiated the same.

We are living in a very critical climate change hotspot. One of the biggest impacts of this crisis will be on the climate resilience of the people living in the mountains. These challenges will now be aggravated. With the movement of people from urban centres which we are currently seeing,  the pressure on mountain communities to deal with impacts of climate change, for example climate induced disasters, is going to be greater and the resilience of mountain communities will be put to the test. Also, mountains have long been dependent on fossil fuel intensive growth, causing more pollution, which will need to be checked now.

However, having said that,  there are opportunities too. COVID 19 has given us an opportunity to pause and potentially re-imagine our economies and societies. This re-imagination gives room to start thinking about climate impacts and how best to minimize them and build greater resilience. Governments need to develop and invest on special economic and resilience development programs for the region. This will ensure speedy recovery in the mountains post pandemic.

The pandemic cannot slow down our efforts on climate change and resilience. We need to find ways to strengthen the financial systems and to align investments with inclusive and resilient recovery. I am happy to see the efforts of Indian government concerning the small and medium industries in the mountains. We already have the financial institutions, we just need to see on how local communities can access it. It is very important to put money into the hands of communities, systemically.

I see large potential in ICT tools. The mountain states should use this opportunity to invest more in leveraging the power of ICT tools and it can be used for linking farming produce in mountains to the larger urban markets. In turn, making the region and communities economically strong. This is a chance of rebuilding a better future and I am sure mountains will be able to do it.

The national and state governments can also focus more on developing entrepreneurship models in mountain states. These entrepreneurship models should be focused on creating green enterprises focusing on nature-based soultions. There are lot of non-timber products, medicinal plants, and herbal species in the mountains which can be easily linked to such models. I think this is a good time to invest more money and build capacities amongst the communities for developing green enterprises. This will lead to creating resilient infrastructure, ensuring sustainable and low carbon development, benefitting both the communities and the environment.

What is the roadmap for tourism to revive in the mountain states?

The impact on tourism will be long term. The number of tourists will not increase immediately rather it will be a gradual process. So for example, people may start coming to major educational hubs or urban centers like Kathmandu, Nainital, Darjeeling or Gangtok. People with jobs or education may start coming back to mountain cities slowly. The entire process will be slow. But this is an opportunity to build a new roadmap for tourism in the mountains.

Tourism needs to be promoted in a way that it creates green jobs, values mountains, and creates ethical and cultural capital. We should no longer go for mass tourism models rather we should focus on creating more high value and quality-oriented tourism practices that are reserved to people who can pay extra for it. IHR should learn from Bhutan tourism model. To a large extent, mass tourism has had negative impact on our mountains. We should therefore look for ways, where money that comes from tourism stays in the mountains and with the communities. It is time to introduce cultural tourism, local food tourism, and promoting other unique cultural experiences.

During my childhood days, I used to eat barley and millet, traditional mountain crops, as I am originally from the mountains too. Nowadays you see mountain children eating all kinds of commercial and non-nutritious food, resulting in low nutritional intake. The trend has reversed: all the people living in urban centers are now going after organic food items being sold in big departmental stores.

I think government also needs to invest in the sector. Soft loans should be provided in order to sustain tourism assets of the region. This will also ensure sustainability. I don’t believe in providing a poor person with a one-time cash assistance of Rs. 5,000 or 10,000, rather it should be system driven. System should put money in the hands of the people for productive use. The skills of the people in tourism must be preserved and new skills should be nurtured. The food menus of local homestays should be linked with local produce, giving more stability to the mountain economy and system as a whole.