Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed multiple challenges in different geographies, especially for the vulnerable groups living in areas that already have existing issues of water and food security. India Natural Resource Economics and Management (INREM) Foundation has worked in such areas for many years to resolve challenges around water contamination by strengthening governance systems and raising awareness.
Like most civil society organizations, even they have stepped up to help the communities in the wake of this pandemic, but instead of just distributing food items they started out by first assessing what communities needed at the hour. They have completed health assessments in the villages to identify nutrition gaps, high-risk population, and isolation needs for vulnerable groups. And while doing so, they uncovered multiple other areas that require interventions.
Water woes in Chikkaballapur
In Chikkaballapur (Karnataka) while performing assessments by talking to people from villages, they found major gaps in awareness as well as shortage of certain food items and water scarcity. While the government through public distribution system outlets gave 10 kg rice and 4 kg wheat, people required specific food items like oil and spices, which helps them to cook a meal, instead of masks and soaps. Earlier people went to nearby markets and bought essential food items from the daily wage they earned. The lockdown and loss of daily work has had a toll on such families.
The ongoing summer has just increased the hardships of people in the semi-arid parts of the district. Some villages have reported that due to falling yield in the public borewells, panchayats have resorted to rationing of water. In extreme cases, borewells are yielding no water. In such scenarios, water tankers are supplied.
In one of the villages, one water tanker (5000 litres) supplies water for 145 households which roughly translates into 35 liters per family (five pots) i.e. 7 lpcd, which is not enough to follow the WASH protocols of this time (washing hands five times a day requires at least ten litres of water per person). Hence, INREM have been working with the local government to facilitate adequate water supply to these villages.
Migrant population in Jhabua
The experience in Jhabua (Madhya Pradesh) highlighted a very different set of issues. Given that the region has a large population who migrate for work to urban centres in western and peninsular India, it saw an influx of at least 60,000 workers returning when lockdown was announced. They have attempted to enumerate these workers and understand challenges they were facing in partnership with the District Covid-19 committee.
Given that a large number of these families in this largely tribal region depended on daily wage and remittance, they were facing a severe shortage of cash for food. Shops in these villages were found to be charging exorbitant prices for basic necessities like soaps and food items. Hence, working with the gram panchayats, INREM team was able to procure necessary supplies from outside and create mechanisms to distribute in the villages. They also ensured that all their frontline workers had adequate masks and sanitizers. Since a large number of migrant workers keep returning home, it was crucial to distribute soaps and masks. They supplied raw material (cloths) for masks to twenty-one women SHGs groups who have produced over 20,000 masks for local distribution. The women are paid Rs. 4 per mask in such cases and Rs. 10 per mask when they use their own raw materials, as per government guidelines.
Creating awareness and education
In Jhabua, education levels are quite low. Rumours on how the consumption of meat and alcohol could help prevent pandemic had spread rapidly through the villages. People were not following social distancing in some villages while collecting water from tankers as they felt that the tanker may be emptied soon. Hence, INREM participated in the Designathon event for NGOs to create locally-relevant awareness materials. Additionally, nukkad natak (street plays) are being performed in order to disseminate the right information.
The quarantine centres in Jhabua currently have people from other states. Migrants from the villages are slowly being collected at the state borders and provided transportation facilities to reach their villages. But due to the stigma attached to being “an outsider with disease”, most people are sneaking their way into their homes.
Also, due to the fear of being quarantined or taken away, people are not reporting even when they have any symptoms of other common diseases. Considering this, the ANM and ASHA workers in the villages are informing the people on protocols that must be followed to prevent spread of infection. They have been asking people to avoid gatherings as well.
Make hay while the sun shines
This year saw one of the highest yields in a large number of crops in the region and farmers were hoping to make good profits. However, due to the lockdown and closure of procurement centres and transportation facilities, a lot of the produce is still lying with the farmers. At the same time, there is little cash flow for buying food. So, finding ways to procure the produce locally and then distribute it locally could resolve some challenges. This is something that the INREM team has been working on with the local gram panchayats.
As there are no weekly markets to buy vegetables, some farmers have started growing vegetables in small patches of land to meet their basic needs. It is something they have not done before, but is likely to make them self-sufficient if the crisis continues. While encouraging farmers to adopt such practices, INREM is also working with experts to find out more such solutions that can be implemented locally for the benefit of the communities.
As there is a lot of demand for MGNREGS work, INREM is also working with the gram panchayats to plan works that have potential to lead to multiple benefits. Desilting and deepening of tanks and transporting silt from the tank beds to fields (a practice prevalent in peninsular India but not in this region) is being undertaken now.
Such interventions that increase dependencies and use of local resources to resolve challenges locally can help increase resilience of farmers not just for the current crisis but also prepare them for anything else that might strike in future. Thus, the primary focus of INREM’s work has been to build resilience in the communities to withstand Covid-19 and to build trust in the right information.
Special thanks to INREM Chikkaballapur and Jhabua teams for their insights
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