Is Sikkim really ready to open its Borders?

Is Sikkim really ready to open its Borders?

After having shut out visitors from elsewhere, entry into Sikkim will now be possible as long as they are fully vaccinated (both doses). The government of Sikkim brought out an order on July 4, 2021, revising the measures for the containment of COVID-19. The order with reference number 31/Home/2021 states that “all persons, including tourists, who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, shall be allowed entry from Melli and Rangpo check posts, without RTPCR Negative report, on production of valid vaccination documents.” With the number of positive cases reported having reached 21,226 of which 1869 are active, the decision to open the borders to fully vaccinated individuals, is to be pondered upon.

Even while the general trend of COVID-19 positive cases reported in India is on the decline, the statistics in Sikkim is fluctuating. As much as it is important to open the state to tourists, as many livelihood options such as hotels, homestays, taxi cabs, eateries, etc., are dependent on it, it is also necessary to show some amount of responsibility and accountability. 

It is a fact that some other states in India have included in their SOPs that fully vaccinated people are allowed to continue with their movement and business activities. However, a Division Bench of the Gwahati High Court (the Aizwal Bench) had ordered recently that such a SOP and the prohibition of those who are not fully vaccinated from carrying on with their chores violates some of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The Court had held that “The restrictions placed upon unvaccinated individuals vis-à-vis vaccinated individuals are arbitrary and not in consonance with the provisions of Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution.” 

There are two interesting observations made by the Aizwal bench on this issue. The first being, the extent to which the vaccination drive has been successful, as many people are yet to receive their first doses. It is a known fact that many States are facing a vaccine crunch. The second observation is that there is no report that scientifically proves that vaccinated individuals cannot be affected by the virus. There is a strong possibility of not only infection, but also of spreading the virus after being fully vaccinated. And hence, discriminating between vaccinated and unvaccinated people hold no justification. 

With this factor in mind, it is a great initiative by the Sikkim government to open its borders, as the persistent lockdown has had a severe impact on both the general economy and individual livelihoods. But having said so, the clause in the notification that reads that fully vaccinated people need not produce RT-PCR negative reports could lead to the further spreading of the virus. Being a State with two major points of entry and an airport, Sikkim can definitely tackle the pandemic in a more effective manner by close monitoring on the border check posts.

Kapil Meena IAS, Director-cum-Additional Secretary, Department of Tourism, said, “The Department of Tourism welcomes this notification as the prolonged lockdown has affected the tourism sector, and hence many livelihoods. Taking into consideration, the concerns of both the stakeholders of the tourism sector and the tourists, the Department along with various associations have decided to maintain COVID-19 guidelines and welcome tourists again. We have organized various training programs to manage tourism under the given circumstances and are looking forwards to more relaxations in the future.”

Meanwhile, the High Court of Sikkim in an interim order on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) had stated that, “Although the report (by an Amicus Curiae appointed by the Court in this instance) does indicate that the State took several steps to ramp up the health infrastructure and facilities to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic we are concerned that the State government did not feel it necessary to formulate any concrete policy to face the present COVID-19 pandemic.”

With the Health Department in Sikkim working towards preparing the State to face the third wave of the pandemic, it is necessary that the other bodies also show an amount of consideration and act accordingly keeping the benefit of the State’s and its peoples’ welfare. 

By Vaidyanath Nishant. The author is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at vaidyanathnishant7@gmail.com