Bikal* is a lifeguard. On most days, you can find him on the Puri beach, pitching parasols for tourists and taking children swimming in the sea in tyre tubes. For this he earns between Rs 200 and Rs 300 per day. Like him, most of the workforce in the tourism sector are unorganised. Tourism rarely creates quality employment for local communities, and instead largely generates only menial and low paying jobs, such as cooking, cleaning, or small service providers like Bikal who live on day-to-day earnings. Since the coronavirus epidemic started, with tourists disappearing, Bikal’s meagre earnings have quickly dwindled. From 22nd March, when the Odisha government announced a lockdown in 14 districts, including Puri town, Bikal has been entirely confined to his house. When asked how he has been managing, he looks resigned - “What to do? One day we eat, one day we don’t.” 

Bikal, who has no other source of income, has not received any assistance, either from the government or the tourism sector that he services. Crores of workers like him who service the tourism industry, are staring at a loss of income for many months to come. As highlighted in the previous article in the series, when COVID-19 hit, destroying the tourism industry, all workers were left completely in the lurch. The Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality (FAITH) has estimated that the COVID-19 crisis might lead to 38 million people associated with the tourism sector losing their jobs. This constitutes about 70% of the total tourism workforce, all of whom are contractual and daily wage workers. 

The tourism sector that has provided this sort of work has also historically been responsible for the loss of many livelihoods, by alienating fishworkers from their natural resources. Over the years, development along the coast has consumed so much of the coastal and marine commons that it has left fishworkers with precious little to carry on their livelihood. Tourism has been a significant contributor to this development, pushing communities out of fishing and pulling them into tourism. What is often left out of the calculations of the cost of tourism development is, how many farmers, fisher-folk, and non-tourism workers and entrepreneurs would have to give up their economic activities to allow for tourism to come in.

Take for instance, the life of Shanthi*, who works in Sangumal. Sangumal is a small stretch of coastline, a little over a kilometre in length, running next to the famous holy site of Agnitheertham in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu. Once, this beach was a thriving fishing village, with 50 families, including Shanthi’s, living here permanently. Shanthi herself earned her income from catching and selling crabs and small fish. Fishers from another 21 small villages around the cove used the Sangumal beach to anchor their boats, store and repair nets and sell fish to the locals who lived in the area. In 2005, with tourism to Rameswaram burgeoning, the district administration evicted all 50 families to build a childrens’ park for tourists. The park soon fell into disrepair, but more recently in 2014, private tourist companies started showing interest in Sangumal. The park was converted into a private water sports centre, two government guest houses were added, a couple of new resorts came up, and the remaining land was sold off to other builders. Of the original one kilometre stretch, only about 100 metres of beach still remains for the fishworkers to use. 

Of the 50 families that were evicted 15 years ago, Shanthi and 2 others managed to hold on to temporary hutments that they converted into shops for tourists. After being evicted from her home, Shanthi moved back into her maternal village, on the other side of the cove. Every morning, she takes the single bus running between her village and Agnitheertham. If she misses the bus, she has to walk the 5 km distance with her things. Here, she sets up tea and snacks in a small shack for taxi drivers, hotel staff and sometimes the tourists. Behind the shack, her husband stores the nets he uses to go fishing in the cove. Between them, she says, they make just enough to feed her children and mother. This transition from earning a livelihood from fishing to earning one from tourism has not been an easy one, and comes loaded with risks. Higher paying and secure jobs are limited by particular skills and training, so fish workers who may not have much formal education, but instead years of accumulated knowledge and skill in fishing, find themselves as fish out of water. The woman who used to catch crabs now runs a small tea shop, but she says that the authorities have been pressuring her to move out from here also to make way for the resorts. In a world where tourism is increasingly taking over more of the coastal and marine commons, fishworkers find inclusion only in the margins of tourism. 

In this time of crisis, the fragility of their lives dependent on the tourism sector and the lack of a support structure for people like Shanthi and Bikal become even more evident. The push out from her traditional livelihood has also pushed Shanthi out from the safety nets provided by this community. These safety nets come in the form of unions and collectives, established over years, that work to protect small-scale fishworkers and unorganized workers in the fisheries sector, particularly in crisis situations like this one. Recognising the huge impact that the COVID-19 crisis has had on small-scale fishworkers and unorganised workers in trawler boats, the National Fishworkers’ Forum and several state-level and local unions and collectives have been in constant negotiations with authorities at multiple-levels to safeguard these fishworkers. The costs and losses to fishworkers have been huge, and the negotiation has been a slow and difficult process, but as a result of the efforts of these collectives, the Fisheries Department at the Centre and the departments in several states, including Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala have taken several measures. These have included directions to open separate landing site for fishworkers; planning compensation packages for fishworkers; ensuring safe return of fishworkers to their homes; allowing small scale fishing and others. 

In direct contrast to the fishworkers, who have been able to exert collective force and negotiate with the government, is the feeble response of the tourism industry to the plight of tourism workers. Workers and small service providers in the tourism sector, including those employed in the formal sector, are rarely collectivised and do not hold any recognition as being workers of the tourism sector. Neither the government nor the companies where they work have protected these workers. Instead, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, both big and small tour operators and hospitality groups quickly laid off contractual staff, and cut pay for others. Even before the lockdown was imposed, Lalitamma*, who worked in a hotel in Puri for a monthly salary, was laid off. With one elderly parent and three small children under her care, she has already begun borrowing on her limited assets to make ends meet. She says she expects the lockdown to go on for another three months, and has no idea how she is going to manage the household. Unorganised workers were the first to be jettisoned, leaving them to fend for themselves in the crisis.    

Beyond the immediate relief that is urgently required to be given to tourism workers**, the COVID crisis also gives us an important opportunity to rethink the current structure of the tourism sector and bring about systemic changes. When we begin to heal and rebuild our lives, we need to imagine a tourism that does not displace and alienate fishworkers from their traditional commons. Instead, we must envision tourism to build structures that strengthen the relationship between local communities and their natural resources, and enable support for workers in the tourism industry. 

*Names changed

** For unorganised workers in the tourism sector, we appeal to the Central, State and local governments to urgently make facilities for immediate relief such as setting up community kitchens, ensure water facilities and opening up community halls, schools etc.  to provide safe shelter in tourism areas and integrate migrant workers into relief responses by providing employment in community kitchens etc. where tourism makes a significant contribution to the economy.  We also appeal to the tourism industry to follow the Labour Department advisories to not lay off contractual workers and continue to pay salaries of workers and to extend support to the government institutions to fight COVID-19 by providing infrastructural support, support to workers who are part of individual businesses etc. 

EQUATIONS is a research, campaign and advocacy organization. We envision forms of tourism which are non-exploitative, where decision making is democratized and access to and benefits of tourism are equitably distributed.

This article was first published in The Newsminute