At the moment, there is no Covid-19 positive case in Assam, yet Bubul Nath, 37, is a worried man. A naturalist and conservationist, he runs a small-scale hospitality venture, Florican Cottages, in the Bansbari range of Assam’s Manas National Park with eight other locals from diverse communities such as Bodo, Bengali, Assamese and Nepali.
In any other year, the park would be teeming with tourists, especially bird watchers and photographers. The resorts would be packed to the brim. However, it’s peak season and not a single guest can be seen at Florican Cottages. This follows a decision by the Assam government to shut down national parks and wildlife sanctuaries till 29 March to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This has spelt doom for tourism and conservation in Manas, which had been hobbling toward development for the past 17 years, after the violent insurgency and agitation for Bodoland until 2003.
Assam has it worse — it is still reeling from the aftermath of the worst floods in 15 years, which struck in 2019. Then the state emerged on the forefront of a sweeping agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Now, Covid-19 has hit conservation, tourism and informal workers. “People are depressed. All the locals in Manas are involved in the tourism sector. Their livelihood first suffered due to disruptions by the CAA-related agitations. And now this. People are unable to pay back loans, taken from landlords and small banks,” said Dr Deba Kumar Dutta, landscape coordinator, Manas Conservation Area, WWF-India.
Manas is never closed. March to June is peak season, but the past week has seen Nath and his colleagues facing cancellations. “This is true not just for us, but for all the 13 resorts in the area, which had group bookings,” said Nath. “If this infection spreads, everything will go for a toss. In 2008, there was not a single Gypsy (safari jeep) in Manas. Today there are 120. So, this means that all those associated with them — drivers, guides, conservationists and hospitality professionals—will lose their jobs,” said Nath.
There is another worry to add to the livelihood woes—reverse migration. “A lot of people from Assam’s villages work in Kerala. There is a fear that they will come back, due to the panic, and carry the infection with them. If positive cases start emerging, then the situation will escalate, as people here are not so educated and wouldn’t know how to handle this,” said Nath.