Acting pre-emptively, the Nilgiris gain upper hand against Covid - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 2 May 2020

Acting pre-emptively, the Nilgiris gain upper hand against Covid

The Ooty Flower show will take the form of floral decorations all over the town
By Ajai Shukla
Coonoor, The Nilgiris
Business Standard, 3rd May 20

For the last 124 years, the picturesque town of Udhagamandalam (Ooty to most people), headquarters of the Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu, has hosted the Ooty Flower Show in mid-May – a horticultural extravaganza that at least 300,000 visitors attend each year. Now, with Covid-19 having locked down the country, Ooty’s flower show, as also the prestigious Ooty Dog Show, will be cancelled for the first time since independence. 

The effective cancellation of this year’s tourist season is a crushing blow, not just to Ooty, but to all of the Nilgiris. In this scenic mountain district at the north-western tip of Tamil Nadu, 4.5 million tourist visitors each year support many livelihoods through a plethora of hotels, home stay cottages, tour operators, shop owners, street vendors and taxi drivers. 

“These three summer months see 90 per cent of the year’s tourist arrivals. This year we will earn almost nothing,” says Mahendran, who operates a taxi.

Seeking solace from this disappointment, Ooty’s citizens are going ahead with their own version of the flower show. The cornucopia of blooms grown by the famed Ooty Botanical Garden are going to decorate the town, splashing colour across its parks, crossroads, markets and public spaces.

This is being promoted by J Innocent Divya, the Collector (district magistrate) of the Nilgiris, who aims to lighten up the mood of the people through a repeatedly extended lockdown.

“You know how crazy Ooty becomes during the summer season – so crowded and full of traffic – that the residents don’t get to enjoy the real essence of the place. So we will make this season for the residents of the Nilgiris. Let them enjoy the serene beauty of their home,” she says.

To be sure, Divya and the people of the Nilgiris have a victory to celebrate. The hill district does not have a single patient of Covid-19 after nine locals were cured of the sickness, which originated in the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi in March. Since then, the district medical authorities have tested 1,105 samples and found all of them negative for Covid-19.

This is remarkable, given that the Nilgiris are situated at the tri-junction of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala – all three states being Covid-19 hotspots. All the districts that adjoin the Nilgiris – Coimbatore and Salem in Tamil Nadu, Mysore in Karnataka and Wayanad and Kozhikode in Kerala – were, and in some cases continue to be, designated Covid-19 “red zones”.

Moreover, when Covid-19 began bubbling up into a crisis in India in early March, the Nilgiris were hosting an estimated 54,000 tourists, including numerous foreigners. The administration faced the challenge of evacuating them from the district.

Making the situation even more challenging is the fact that the Nilgiris are the centre of South India’s labour-intensive tea growing and manufacturing industry, where some 20,000 growers and their labourers work cheek-by-jowl to pluck, sort and produce the famous tea that is consumed all over the world.

Key to the Nilgiris’ success in containing the pandemic is the district administration’s decision to act pre-emptively, in the first week of March, as soon as reports began trickling in of Covid-19 cases in Karnataka and Kerala. 

“We immediately began monitoring all incoming visitors for Covid-19 symptoms of cough, fever and cold. We have 13 entry points into the Nilgiris – 11 of them along the Karnataka and Kerala borders and two that control entry from Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore district. We manned these 13 check posts 24/7 to prevent any possible Covid-19 cases from entering the Nilgiris”, says Divya.

The district administration monitored visitors at all 13 entry points into the Nilgiris

Simultaneously, district officials visited all the hotels and tourist cottages and asked visitors from countries reporting Coronavirus cases to quarantine themselves, or to advance their departure plans. Indian tourists were advised to leave immediately.

“For some nationalities, such as Americans and British, whose governments had arranged special flights to evacuate their citizens from India, we even arranged special travel facilities to Chennai,” recounts the Collector.

Consequently, well before the Centre implemented a lockdown on March 24, the Nilgiris were already in a locked-down situation. District residents were moving freely within the district, but after Section 144 was imposed, even that came to a close.

Divya, who has earlier demonstrated her iron will in shutting down illegal construction in the Nilgiris, has monitored the lockdown personally. Visiting Coonoor to check the distribution of essential commodities, the Collector found a grocery shop violating social distancing norms. She shut down the shop for three days immediately.

Collector of the Nilgiris, J Innocent Divya, seldom shrinks from taking tough decisions

Yet there was compassion on show when the administration allowed the return of eight local residents from the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi. They were allowed to enter, quarantined, treated and declared Covid-free on April 10. “We had to let them in… they are our people, they are from this district,” said Divya. 

As the situation came in hand, the district administration allowed tea plantations to resume plucking since the first week of April, subject to social distancing and sanitary measures. In the second week, tea factories were permitted to commence work, a decision that demanded complex coordination since the factories require firewood from other districts and the wherewithal for machinery workshops to function.

Despite the district’s precarious success so far, Divya is cold-eyed about the post lockdown scenario. “We will have to reconcile to a new normal and adjust to what that will be. We cannot keep tourists away indefinitely because that is our lifeline. We will have to find ways of controlling numbers and the time they can spend here, enforcing social distancing and so on. If we are going to open up the Nilgiris to tourists, it will have to be with these measures in place,” she says.

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