Light at end of tunnel for Covid-hit Himachal Pradesh

Light at end of tunnel for Covid-hit Himachal Pradesh

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the strategically important Atal Tunnel in October

Tourists arrive in Dalhousie after heavy snowfall in Dhauladhar mountain range, in Himachal Pradesh. Credit: PTI.

The opening of the nine-kilometre Rohtang tunnel, the longest in the world at that altitude, was a bright spot in Himachal Pradesh’s Covid-marred year that saw tourist arrivals plummet and sittings of the state legislature cancelled.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the strategically important Atal Tunnel in October, cutting travel time between Manali and Lahaul-Spiti by four to five hours. The tunnel also leads to the route to Leh.

Not just tourism and economy, the pandemic took a toll on the proceedings of the state’s Vidhan Sabha. The Budget session in March was cut short as the fear of coronavirus spread. The notification for the winter session was issued in November, but the state government later backed out.

Himachal Pradesh seemed to be doing very well in containing the pandemic in its early phase. In March, the government launched a campaign to screen its “entire population” for symptoms. On May 4, Himachal Pradesh had just one active coronavirus case, and Modi singled the state as a model to follow.

In the remote Lahaul-Spiti district, untouched by coronavirus for long, there was initial opposition to “outsiders” bringing the virus.

Local MLA and Himachal Pradesh Agriculture Minister Ram Lal Markanda was not allowed to enter the sub-divisional headquarter at Kaza by a group of protesting tribal women who wanted him to go into quarantine first.

But cases did multiply in the months to come, forcing the state government to announce night curfews and stricter curbs on social gatherings.

By the end of the year, about 55,000 people had tested positive and 900 died. Including Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, 12 MLAs of the 68-member assembly caught the virus.

Indirectly, COVID-19 also cost state BJP chief Rajeev Bindal his job.

He quit as the party’s Himachal Pradesh president on “moral ground” as he was close to one of the people who figured in an audio clip which purportedly revealed corruption in the health department.

An official was accused of seeking a bribe from a private firm in Punjab for placing an order for COVID-protection kits to be used at government hospitals.

Bindal, who was appointed the BJP state president after he resigned as the assembly Speaker earlier in the year, said he was stepping down so that the case can be investigated without any pressure.

He got a clean chit later, but did not get his job back in the ruling party and there was also no spot for him when Thakur expanded the Cabinet, inducting three more ministers.

At an event marking the third anniversary of his BJP government, the CM admitted that development had suffered because of Covid-19. The opposition Congress observed it as Black Day, accusing the state government of failure on all counts.

The government followed the lead by other BJP-run states like Uttar Pradesh to implement a new anti-conversion law.

The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019 was passed by the state assembly about 15 months earlier, replacing a less stringent 2006 version, but remained to be notified.

That happened only this month, well after Haryana said it was studying the Himachal model for drafting its own law to deter religious conversions through force or fraudulent means.

The idea of the Rohtang tunnel goes back a long way. Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reportedly announced it at a public meeting at Lahaul-Spiti's Keylong in 2000. He laid the foundation stone for an approach road in 2002.

A foundation stone was also laid by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in 2010. So when Modi opened the Rs 3,200-crore tunnel in October, accusing the previous government of dragging its feet on the project, a controversy followed.

The state Congress protested that the stone laid by their leader was removed ahead of the Modi event and lodged a police complaint.

The Kullu Police got back, assuring that the stone is in safe custody and was removed from the original spot only to allow construction.

On Christmas-eve, some rowdy travellers parked their cars in the middle of the tunnel and begun dancing there. Arrests followed, but the unsavoury incident also signalled the beginning of a return to the old days, when tourists thronged the state.