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Virus and the village

From poverty to poor health care, from mass reverse migration to fake news, rural areas are facing multiple crises at once as the infection spreads across the country

Snigdha Poonam

Most people aren’t leaving their homes in Abu Sayeed Ahmed’s Khairabari village in Assam’s Barpeta district. “They are following the official guidelines – washing their hands, sanitising their homes, sewing their masks,” says the 20-year-old. But a few people step out every day fearing they would die of hunger if they stayed in. “There must be nearly 4,000 people across villages in this district who eat at night based on what they earn during the day. So, they have been forced to come out and knock on other people’s doors,” he says.

For India’s estimated 260 million rural poor, hunger is the biggest challenge thrown up by COVID-19 lockdowns. In March, the Narendra Modi government initiated bank transfers of `500 rupees for 200 million poor women as part of a $23 billion relief package. But going out to withdraw this cash from their bank accounts is fraught with risk. “I happened to be in the market when the police beat up people going to the bank to take out `500 from their accounts. I ran for my own life,” says Sayeed.

“There might have been some aberrations in the beginning. The police acted with sakhti (firmness) initially, but there’s really no need now. Thousands of people were going to the ‘mandis’ (markets), so we had to shut them down. We don’t need to use violence or force. People in Assam have acted very maturely,” says additional general of police (ADGP) in Assam, Harmeet Singh.

This situation isn’t unique to this village in Barpeta. As infections spread across cities and sometimes outside them, rural areas are facing multiple crises at once: from poverty to poor healthcare, from farm closures to fake news, from administrative gaps to police excess, from sweeping hunger to mass reverse migration.

In India, where the virus toll is rising daily, containing the numbers is as acute a need as feeding people and stopping the rumours.

On April 1, as the pandemic entered its fourth month, the director-general of the World Health Organisation warned the world leaders of its “unintended consequences” for the “poorest and the most vulnerable.” The words bode ominously for many of India’s 649,481 villages where each new day of the epidemic marks a battle between self-sufficiency and disaster. As they tackle one problem after another, many people in the villages say they can at least rely on each other.

Arm’s distance

Take social distancing. In Rajasthan’s Viratnagar, the evening ‘addas’ (get-togethers) are already a thing of the past, says Manish Naik, a social worker. In Ateli in Haryana’s Mahendragarh, neighbours are catching up roof-to-roof while wearing masks, says Komal Aggarwal, a college student. Even inside the house, where 21 people live as part of her joint family, new rules of interaction have been set. “We pass time by playing games, whether it’s carom board or antakshari, but we sit apart from each other while wearing masks. Even in the kitchen, where everyone is pitching in to cook, no more than three or four people go in at a time.” In Jharkhand’s Gumla district, villagers come to the common service centre to collect cash sent to their Jan Dhan accounts. They stand in the spots allocated to them, says Kanchan Keshri, who runs the centre. “No one wants to touch another person,” Keshri adds.

The idea of physical distance has reached the remotest of places, but its execution varies widely. In Karnataka’s Challakere taluka, Naveen MS, a civil service aspirant, says many villages are grappling with the concept. “They just don’t know the meaning of it. In the slum areas, people are in close contact with each other. The men are still gathering under the trees in the evening to play their usual game of dice.” In higher-income areas, he said, some distance is being maintained between homes, but not inside the homes “where the emotional bonds are very tight”.

“People baulk at the idea of social distance between mother and son, brother and sister,” he adds.

Rumour mills

In Jharkhand’s Gumla district, on April 8, a village mob attacked Anis Ansari from Basia Road for entering neighboringBhadauli. “Rumours have gone viral in this area that infected Muslims are intentionally spreading the virus,” saysKeshri. While the seriously injured Ansari was taken to a hospital in Ranchi, a mob from Basia Road killed BolwaOraon from Bhadauli on suspicion of spreading these rumours. Three other men from Bhadauli were also attacked and suffered injuries.

Such rumours are swirling across rural India. “WhatsApp, radio, television – there is no source of news that you can trust,” sayslawyer, Prabhakar Sonwane.

“We have no idea what the situation is in Assam. One day you hear that there isn’t a single positive case in the state, next day you hear that there are 20 cases. On top of that, many people are using social media to create hatred between Hindus and Muslims,” says Sayeed.

The [state] government is using Twitter to release official information and bunk rumours, but only urban and educated people benefit from that, says Naveen MS.“I think they should find a platform where everyone can access information equally and at the same time,” he adds.

To make sure information reaches “the last man”, says Singh, it must be circulated via multiple platforms. “In Assam, we first release the official statements on Twitter and Facebook and then take it further via YouTube, television and mobile phones including WhatsApp groups for every district. The police personnel are also asked to circulate the same information in their own personal networks. Early on, we released a very clear advisory for the public on how to deal with fake news,” he says.

Stranded mirgants

Worries about how their migrant-worker family members will make it back home, and how long they will have to spend in make-shift quarantine centres, are aggravating an already tense atmosphere in the villages.

In west UP’s Hathras, Dalit-rights activist Sanjay Jatav says hundreds of wage workers have journeyed home. “Some of them walked from Delhi and Haryana. It took them three days to get here,” he says. Many of the returning migrants are kept in the district administration’s quarantine centres. On April 3, a migrant worker in Lakhimpur Kheri, Roshan Lal, killed himself after being allegedly beaten up by a police officer for missing quarantine attendance. Lal’s sister told reporters afterwards that he had left the centre to arrange for food for his family.

In Viratnagar, Naik says people are glad that wage workers have come back, but they are scared about the state of those in quarantine.

“There are people who came from Mumbai, and they are still being kept in a hostel outside the village. Their family members don’t know what’s going on, and they are very worried,” he added. Near his village, Domba, Keshri said two quarantine centres have come up. “But we don’t know if they have sufficient number of beds or if provision for regular meals.”

In its response to a PIL filed at the Supreme Court, the home ministry acknowledged the scale of the problem. “This migration is not only dangerous for the migrant workers but also for rural India for which they have started the journey,” noted the status report filed on March 27. The ministry estimates that 1.3 million people are housed in relief camps and shelter homes across India. It has ordered the local governments to use the state disaster relief fund to provide them food, shelter, clothing and medical aid wherever there are. The ministry has also instructed their employers to continue to pay their wages during the lockdown. The district officials are to screen and quarantine those workers who have already reached their destination as per standard health protocol.

There isn’t anything that their families can do in the meantime but sit at home. The country’s three million police officers must ensure that 1.3 billion people stay in, and many of them are using violence to get the job done. “The police patrolling is constant,” says Manish Naik about Viratnagar.

Farm fears

Cut off from their sources of income, villagers wonder how long they can carry on. An estimated 30 per cent of India’s rural population falls below the poverty line according to a Mint analysis of the official figures. The average monthly surplus for rural households is limited to `1,413.

More than half of India’s workforce is engaged in farming, and the lockdown has affected every aspect of their work cycle: harvest, planting, procurement, labour, markets.

“I am harvesting the wheat crop in my own fields. We can’t employ farm labourers at this time. They are out of work completely,” says Naik. In Challakere taluk, Naveen MS says the out-of-work labourers used up their savings to buy small stocks of essentials – vegetables, coconut – that they sold locally. “Now, they are borrowing from local moneylenders to continue the work.”

Hunger is being discussed everywhere. “Morning to evening, people only talk about one thing here: how long will we survive if this continues,” says Naik.

As part of the Indian government’s $22.6 billion economic stimulus plan, free food is to be distributed to 800 million families and free gas cylinders to registered beneficiaries. The measure signifies a huge relief for rural areas, but it’s all on the execution. The free ration is reaching some villages but not the others; some of the authorised shops are either hoarding it or charging people for it; some are distributing it selectively; and in some areas, the beneficiaries have no information about their entitlement.

In rural UP, Sumantra Goswami, an officer with the Prayaagraj district administration, says the delivery of free rations can be tricky. “Some areas are so remote, or the roads leading to them are in such bad shape, that no one agrees to carry the ration for fear that if their vehicle breaks down, they won’t find anyone to repair it because of the lockdown. We usually deliver the ration through our contacts in the relevant block or panchayat or police office, but in UP, unless you belong to the dominant caste or community in a village or have the support of the local political operators, you aren’t allowed to go in and intervene. In some cases, we also found that village chiefs hoarded half of the relief supply sent to them to distribute,” says Goswami. As a result, “we have villages where enough ration has reached to last two or three months, and then there are those that haven’t received any”.

Left to their own devices, many in India’s rural areas are drawing solace from knowing that they have each other. “My father grows his own vegetables, so when the neighbours can’t go to the market, they come to us,” says Aggarwal from Ateli. Sonwane from Latur believes this lockdown is best survived in a village. “You have wide open spaces which reduce the risk of infection. And, in a village, one family can ask another for help.”

(HT Media)

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