Negotiating Research, Teaching, and Family amid the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Indian Himalayan Highland

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This post by Uttam Lal is the eighth in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.

Being the least populated state in India, and connected only by a single highway with the rest of the country, Sikkim escaped any coronavirus cases until the third week of May. Many invoked religious belief to explain the absence of the virus infection, insisting that the land had been blessed by the great Bodhisattva, Guru Padmashambava.  However, it was not protected. Sikkim was never the only Himalayan territory for the legends of the Great Guru. Rather, the Guru’s folklore has been strewn throughout Himalaya, and most other Himalayan states had already registered the virus cases by March. It was only a matter of time in Sikkim for virus cases to register in Sikkim (see map below).

The challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, and in the Sikkim Himalaya especially, has not merely been the virus itself, but also society largely taking this scare as a transient erratic rumbling.  Seemingly, most people started waiting for everything to go back to how it had been before the pandemic. Many expected universities, including Sikkim University where I work, to start functioning normally after the lockdown. It’s been over five months of the lockdown in the country, and since then the state has only partially reopened so far. Academic work, including research remains affected, regular in-person classes still seem very unlikely for the remainder of 2020. While I was unable to be in the field for my study on cross-border interactions and on the highland ecology,  on the other hand, students and some colleagues left for their respective villages and towns; some to far off places where even telephone connectivity remains unreliable. Decent internet connectivity has mostly been wishful thinking in many cases. The pandemic affected almost every aspect life, including academics.

As the virus spread, it halted a wide variety of field studies, including those pertaining to borders, communities, climate, environment, and Himalayan geology. Laboratory based research has taken a beating as well owing to the complete lockdown. Field interviews have been limited to phone calls, which often remain difficult in the remote Himalayan villages. Transport has remained largely suspended or highly punctuated, which meant many people have remained largely unavailable for interviews.

Yak herding in North Sikkim. photo by the author

Even online classes presented quite a challenge. Some students had to walk for kilometers in the hills to reach a spot of mobile/internet connectivity; most complained about slow internet and limited data packs. Online classes with video lectures became unreasonable for at least 30 percent of students of the  ‘Geography of Borderlands’ and ‘Regional Geography of India’ classes that I have been teaching. With no relief in sight, I had to resort to smaller voice-clips and assignments over WhatsApp for those students who had left for their villages. Some wrote their assignments on paper and took a photo to send it back to me, while others typed their entire assignments on their smartphones. Those with a stable internet connection in the city and personal laptops frequently gave excuses for late submission or for casually putting together write-ups.

Sikkim Location

While the work from home meant revisiting various research and teaching objectives, the pandemic led to situations that required more attention at home as well. With the Sikkim border completely sealed, and the entire country under lockdown, it was not unreasonable of me to think that my pregnant wife might need medical attention. Hospitals were dealing with thinly spread services in the wake of COVID-19 spread when she delivered our first baby in the last week of April. Family and friends were already finding it almost impossible to visit us during the lockdown, and reaching the hospital in time ended up being more challenging than usual. To ensure we could reach a doctor when the time come, we decided to move to the nearby Himalayan town of Kailmpong, across Sikkim state border, where my wife’s family lives. We waited for almost ten days, and finally managed to travel amid the lockdown with help from my brother who works for the government and managed to get us a permission to travel out of Sikkim. We reached Kalimpong only to learn that the doctor had gone into quarantine for weeks. Meanwhile, the university required that I reach out to my students and colleagues, as the university had encountered that the extended lockdown had led to strains of depression in noticeable numbers.

Eventually, paranoia started climbing the mountains. The same people who urged the state government to bring back stranded citizens from other parts of the country, later started criticizing the authorities on social media for bringing them back once it became known that some of them had tested positive for the virus. Meanwhile, China’s posturing and the subsequent India-China border clashes this year pushed the government to invest more in road construction so as to have better accessibility to the Indo-Chinese border area. But the work needed more labourers to be brought in from neighbouring towns in the plains. In general, Himalayan villages and towns have smaller populations than those in the plains. A smaller population means less stress on resources, but mountainous locations also mean less infrastructure than in the plains. Thus, the Himalayan highlands have been greatly dependent on the lowlands for goods and services, including communications and food. In many ways, the flow of most items has largely been one way – to the hills.

Zuluk Village in East Sikkim towards India-China Border. photo by the author

A lot was happening in the mountains, but little seemed to be happening at the University. Just when things seemed to have stabilised in Sikkim, COVID-19 cases spread from camps of the Border Road Organisation (BRO), and the state underwent lockdown once again. As if the scare of the pandemic was not enough, war clouds reinforced feelings of apprehension. Contact tracing became difficult, and people in Sikkim and nearby Darjeeling hills started patrolling village roads to stop outsiders from entering their villages. Several villages became virtual ‘no-go-zones,’ with sign-boards reading ‘if you try to enter this village your bones shall be broken.’ This further limited some students in their online classes, as they could not move around freely to reach internet-access zones. Similarly, research this year has been either mostly about catching up with one’s pending commitments, or based on secondary sources and data. Studies based on laboratory work also needed to be geared towards stand-alone work and factor in the frequent lockdowns. The pandemic has grounded the regular functioning of the university.     

Amid all this, I was required to teach my classes remotely and carry on my remaining studies, which meant negotiating Sikkim’s closed border once again. After all the paperwork to get back to Sikkim after being stranded for over two months at Kalimpong, I left my wife and the baby to re-enter Sikkim and was quarantined for two weeks in a facility with poor internet and mobile connectivity, thereby limiting my engagements with my classes to text messages and assignment discussions through erratic WhatsApp messaging.

The physical access to field and research facilities, such as laboratories, remained largely inaccessible, and access to online resources have often been quite limited compared to places in Europe and North America. These condition appear to be the new normal in the academic horizon of the Sikkim Himalaya at least until the pandemic subsides.

Feature Photograph: Kupup Village in Sikkim closer to the Chinese border. photo by the author.

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Uttam Lal

Assistant Professor, Dept. of Geography, School of Human Sciences. at Sikkim University, Gangtok, INDIA
Wandering between communities and class-rooms understanding Environmental Humanities in the Himalayan Highlands.

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