Authorities in Himachal Pradesh on Saturday blamed the spike in tourists, largely unregulated, in the Himalayan terrain of Lahaul Valley known for majestic landscapes and rich Buddhist cultural heritage for the sudden spike in Covid-19 cases.
Almost an entire tribal village with current inhabitants of 42 in Lahaul-Spiti district has been diagnosed coronavirus positive, triggering panic among the local authorities.
The village, Tholang, some 12km from district headquarters Keylong, is known producing the highest number of civil servants and professionals. It is located on the Manali-Leh national highway.
As per government health bulletin, 41 residents of Tholang in Gondla panchayat have been tested the virus positive. Only one resident, Bhushan Thakur, 52, was tested negative. Five of his family members were diagnosed positive.
Eighty-one cases were reported in a single day in the district on Friday.
As the health bulletin, they included 20 from Hurling village in Spiti and 18 from Jhagla. With these, the district saw 938 cases of the virus with six deaths.
Deputy Commissioner Pankaj Rai told IANS the sudden spike in coronavirus cases in the district was a matter of concern. The virus-affected inhabitants have been declared containment zones with focus on contact tracing.
The Gondola panchayat with a population 166 is the worst affected.
The lone survivor Thakur said he followed the health protocols by maintaining physical distance, sanitizing hands and using mask to contain the virus. Also his strong immunity saved him.
“All of my family members, including my wife, are in isolation. I am cooking food these days for the entire family,” he told the media.
The population in the district is mainly rural, spread across 521 villages.
Local authorities blame the recent tourist boom in the area with the opening of the Atal Tunnel on October 3.
The 9.2-km long horseshoe-shaped single-tube, two-lane Atal Tunnel has shortened the distance between Manali and Keylong, the headquarters of Lahaul-Spiti, by 46 km, reducing the travel time by nearly three hours. It has also ensured all-weather connectivity.
People in the landlocked Lahaul Valley, who are largely Buddhist and earn their livelihood by growing a single crop of potatoes, peas and exotic vegetables, believe the Atal Tunnel will bring economic prosperity to the otherwise snow-bound, inhospitable region.
Before the tunnel construction, the Rohtang Pass was the only gateway to Lahaul towards Manali. The pass normally remained closed for five months every winter owing to heavy snowfall.
Travel agents told IANS a large chunk of tourists bound for Manali prefer for a day-long visit of villages located in Lahaul with the opening of the Atal Tunnel.
“Since the government has checked unregulated plying of vehicles by imposing an environmental cess on each of the 1,300 vehicles permitted every day to cross the Rohtang Pass, there is no such permit or fees is required while travelling towards Lahaul via the tunnel. This is an added attraction for a large chunk of tourists,” explained a travel agent.
Suman Thakur, the panchayat head of Sissu, said the region has seen a sudden influx of tourists with the opening of the tunnel. “Since there is no adequate arrangement to handle garbage in plenty, a huge trash left behind by the tourists has started creating problems now.”
An official admitted the unregulated movement of the tourists in Lahaul is not sustainable and taking a toll on the fragile ecosystem and its people.
Its impact on environment includes degradation of vegetation, pollution and accumulation of waste, said the official.