Posted by Hemant Soreng, Bengaluru
“Hemant Sir, would you be able to send me some money?” Ramesh–Guide (that’s how the name was saved in my phone) whatsapped from his hometown in Himachal Pradesh. Ramesh wrote in Hindi mixed with a smattering of English words.
After a long pause he continued typing. “I need it for the day-to-day expenses. Had it not been so bad I would’ve never asked.”
I knew that.
Ramesh was one of the regular guides for our high-altitude trekking expeditions in the Himalayas. He was reliable, simple and honest, as most of the folks from the hills are.
The immediate casualty of the COVID-19 outbreak was travel and tourism. The travel bans and restrictions had ensured that this season was a complete washout. The next season was looking to go the same way. The fear psychosis in the average traveler meant that it would be quite a while, before one would start traveling again for leisure.
“I would also like to help Pema Sherpa and Shiva, who have come from Darjeeling and are now stuck here due to the lockdown.”, he added. Pema and Shiva were his assistant guide and helper.
Every year during the trekking season (Spring and Autumn), many travel from their villages in India and Nepal. They work as guides, cooks, helpers and porters in the trekking and climbing expeditions. After the season is over, most return and do odd jobs or farming in their villages. Some go to other parts of India such as Goa, Rajasthan where the tourist season is on throughout the year.
While I was about to reply to Ramesh, the loud WhatsApp alert sounded in quick succession.
There were 6 new messages from Rashmi, our travel partner from Rajasthan. I quickly browsed through her messages. She had shared contact details, profiles and photos of three people. These were Iqbal, a local guide at Taj Mahal in Agra; Manish, a guide in Jaipur and Shoaib, an auto rickshaw driver from Jaipur who mainly drove foreign tourists for sightseeing around the city.
With no tourism and with an even more dismal chance of foreign tourists returning soon, these primary bread earners had lost their livelihoods. Along with Rashmi, we were trying to see if we could help them in some way.
I started thinking furiously on what to reply to Ramesh and Rashmi, and also to similar WhatsApp messages from other partners and folks with whom we have been working on a regular basis. It was a dismal situation all around.
One of our partners is Maya Organic, an NGO that runs a small manufacturing facility for wooden toys in Channapatna, a small town 60 km from Bengaluru. The craft of Channapatna wooden toy making is centuries old, with thousands of artisans involved in it when it used to thrive. However, with decreasing handicraft demand, many artisans moved to the city in the search of better paying jobs. Those who continued were not optimistic about their future.
In such circumstances, NGOs and micro-units such as Maya Organic trained, re-skilled and created livelihoods for the locals. They employed around fifty of them, mostly women. They generated additional revenue by organising demos or short tour of their units for tourists, by partnering with travel and tour companies such as ours.
But alas, with the lockdown, the facility was shut with no production, no tourists and no revenues. They were struggling with the various expenses such as salaries, rent etc. They were in real danger of shutting down if the lockdown continued. Maya had started a crowdfunding campaign to raise working capital and were looking for us to contribute as well.
In better times we could have helped, but we were in a similar situation. With 100% cancellations, no bookings, and a bleak possibility of resumption of travel in the near future, we were looking at zero revenues for the year. And still required to foot the basic expense bills to stay afloat.
The only beacon of hope were our customers and fellow travellers. Ever since the COVID-19 crisis began, many of our customers reached out and personally enquired about our well-being. All of them assured that they would be back traveling with us once the travel restrictions are removed and the pandemic is under control. It was indeed nice to receive their calls and speak to them.
And at that very moment the phone started to ring. It was Anup from Hyderabad. He was our customer and had traveled along with his wife twice in the past through our company, Rustik Travel. He also ran a restaurant in the city, which was now closed due to the lockdown. However, with the support of his network of friends, he along with the help of his kitchen staff were cooking and distributing food to the migrant daily wage workers who were in the most distressed situation.
Anup and his wife (left). The makeshift kitchen (right)
Such positivity and action despite his own problems was inspirational. He said, “See Hemant, we are in uncertain times. If I can do the right thing today, I know that I will be able to face tomorrow.”.
That set me thinking. And I knew what to do. Just do my duty.
To quote from Bhagwad Gita:
“Karmanye vadhikaraste, ma phaleshu kada chana,
Ma karma phala hetur bhur, ma tey sangostva akarmani”
[You have a right to perform your duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions.
Never be motivated by the results of your actions, and never neglect your duty.]
The characters and events in this story are based on real life persons and actual events I have come across. Travel and tourism industry in India employs around 10% of the total workforce while contributing to 9% of the GDP. The industry has been affected the most with 80% of the jobs at risk.
Hemant Soreng is the founder of Rustik Travel, a sustainable experiential travel company. Sustainability, in terms of creating livelihoods, protecting environment and preserving culture.
Cover image : Maggie Leslie
Story images : Author
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