The workers who make their living from the tourism sector in the pilgrim island town of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu are stranded for the past several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pilgrim guides, street vendors, hotel and homestay workers, van and auto-rickshaw drivers continue to suffer income losses.
Though the temple in Rameshwaram has been open for four days a week, the famous ‘theerthas’ or the holy ponds within the temples remain closed. The workers attached to the All India Pilgrim Guides Association say that the closure has restricted the inflow of the pilgrim.
The families of the workers demand that the state government should open the theerthas with standard operating procedures to ensure that their livelihoods are protected. The workers also allege that the state government has not provided any financial assistance to the suffering workers.
‘425 THEERTHA WORKERS JOBLESS’
The famous Ramanthaswamy temple in Rameshwaram is known for the holy theerthas and pond inside and around the temple. There are 64 theerthas and ponds of which 22 are located within the temple premises. There are 425 workers recognised by the temple administration to guide the pilgrims through the theerthas and ensure they take the holy bath.
“Since March 2020, the theerthas are closed with the exception of three months during February to May 2021. During all these months the 425 workers have had no jobs and income,” said G Siva, a theertha worker.
The state government has ordered the opening up of the places of worship and tourism centres after the reduction in COVID-19 fresh cases in Tamil Nadu.
“But, the closure of theerthas despite the opening of temples continues to leave us without jobs and income,” said Siva.
The island with a population of one lakh depends only on fishing and tourism. With tourism taking a hit, different sections depending on the sector have lost their livelihoods.
‘JOB LOSSES ACROSS TOURISM SECTOR’
The city wears a near-deserted look since the pilgrims are only trickling in after the relaxations have been announced. Different sections of the workers depending on tourism remain the most affected, but the theertha workers have totally lost their jobs and income.
“We have been doing this job for three generations and this is the first time that we are rendered incomeless. Our financial and mental stress have increased due to the pandemic and the lack of attention from the state government," said another theertha worker, Ashok.
Many of the theertha workers have left their jobs and are taking up other daily wage jobs to make their living. “The pilgrims and tourists have started to come back, but the workers depending on tourism are getting only 20% of their income before lockdown," added Ashok.
Hundreds of tourist homes and hotels are longing for visitors to come in. Rajesh, a manager of a tourist home, said, “We have 35 rooms which would usually overflow with visitors. But now we have only 10-15% bookings."
The street vendors also face a similar loss of income due to the pandemic and reduced inflow of pilgrims.
Muthu Kumar, a street vendor selling goods for the past 8 years around the temple premises, said, “There are very few pilgrims coming to Rameshwaram. The closure of the temple on weekends also has affected our sales."
“With tourism being a major source of income in the island, around 10,000 people depending directly and indirectly on the sector have lost their livelihoods. The state government must intervene and ensure the opening of theerthas with necessary protocols to ensure the livelihoods of the thousands of families,” said Bhaskaran, president of the All India Pilgrim Guides Association.
‘GOVT UNAWARE OF SITUATION?’
The workers including the pilgrim guides and other dependent workers accuse the government of denying them any financial assistance during the lockdown period.
“The government seems totally unaware of the theertha workers and workers dependent on tourism in this island. This is a very pathetic status and the workers have not received any assistance from the state government so far,” said Ashok.
“Due to the pandemic, the subsequent closure and the lives of the workers have gone back by at least 5 years. To meet the expenses of education and healthcare of the families, we expect the government to extend help at the earliest," said Bhaskaran.