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The Bhils and the Bhilala are strong communities, we need to support them to make them resilient

July 14, 2021

Jimmy Nirmal, Sara Seva Sansthan Samiti Sara Seva Sansthan Samiti is a community based organization in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, close to the borders of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The area has 3 tribes constituting more than 84 percent of the population.  We work specially with the Bhil and Bhilala tribes, within them our focus has been working with 750 PLHIV tribals, 6 lakhs migrants, 3000 farmers, 2000 youths and 600 adolescents, 1000 women in sex work. There is also a focus on women and children. More than 80 percent of the staff are from the communities themselves. This helps to be more connected with the communities we work with. They are a COVIDActionCollab partner.  COVID spread 

When the first wave hit last year, these migrants faced the worst experience. They struggled to get back home. Last year when the pandemic hit and the lockdown was announced, most of the migrants were worried about quarantining at the centres upon return. So they started crossing the border in the dark of the night.  They don’t live in hamlets here. Every family lives at the centre of their own fields. That’s how they had a natural physical distance and the spread was negligible last year. Unfortunately, this year, just as the second wave hit, they all came together for their annual festival, Bhagoria. This, along with the wedding season in February, contributed to a significant spread this year.

The community here mostly relies on quacks and homeopathy doctors. The closest PHC is also some distance away which is not easy to travel. But what discourages people from going there is the way they are treated there. They feel alienated and their dignity compromised. There are many homeopathy doctors and they are on good terms with the government. They are also treating the covid patients based on their symptoms. The patients don’t need any testing to get treated by these doctors. The homeopathy doctors have made 7-day medicine kits for patients with covid symptoms. It costs around Rs. 700-800. There is absolutely no clarity on the number of covid cases as no tests are being done at all. 

 Livelihoods

Large numbers of people are affected in the second wave and everyone is now scared. Just sustenance has been a struggle for the community for a long time. Even under “normal” circumstances, it is difficult for them to meet their daily needs. The agricultural outputs are low. There are only two crops grown in the region – maize and wheat, which is usually for their own consumption. They can barely make ends meet. And that’s why almost 70 percent of them leave their homes to work as migrant workers in neighbouring industrial towns and cities in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, especially Valsad, Vapi, Surat, Baruch. There has been high migration in Jabua since the 1970s. 

They don’t want to go back to the factories now for work either. The moment the lockdown had eased a little last year, the factories had offered three times the usual wages to incentivise the labourers. Especially those from Jabua and neighbouring districts were preferred by the factories in Gujarat because of its proximity. Those who went after the first wave had come for a two week break for the Bhagoria festival. However, now they are afraid of going back. 

Social Protection

Most of the people here are registered on the social protection schemes of the government. The political parties take a special interest to get people enrolled in the schemes like PMAY and NREGA to incentivise them for voting. However, even after registering, encashing the schemes still remains a challenge. For example, payments for NREGA are delayed due to various reasons. Also, the system is not sensitive to the needs of the indigenous communities. Earlier, through the PDS system they used to get grains that are not part of their diet. They used to sell it in the market to be able to buy groceries as they produce only maize and wheat. However, recently the PDS started giving millets like jowar which is neither part of their diet, nor has demand in the nearby markets. This has further affected them in such times when income and food is hard to come by. 

These indigenous groups have been through a lot of hardships and marginalization historically, and have still stood strong. There is an innate drive for survival though it comes with a few crude realities. It is common to see the communities here use the logic of survival of the fittest. They leave very sick members under a tree, especially with chronic and highly contagious diseases. Just a few months back, someone with leprosy was left behind like that. Particularly the old are left behind. We need to make the communities resilient such that they don’t have to make these hard choices. 

Need of the hour

We see a growing need for relief and for long term recovery today. Last year also there was an acute need for relief. We had provided a kit of 40 kg dry ration to 916 families, with the support from 5 agencies. We particularly focussed on serving widows and single mothers. We had distributed masks and sanitisers as well. Today again, the need for relief is high as there are no jobs. Even the biggest farms here are small in size compared to farms in other districts or states. No farm is more than an acre. That is too little to feed the families. Most families here have 15-20 members. 

The other end where we had to work very hard is building awareness on Covid-19. Last year we used many resources from the CAC knowledge repository. This year the need for awareness generation is much much more. 

The government supported with INR 6 lakhs to create awareness on health and physical distancing among migrant workers. We did 300 street plays to generate awareness.

The crises ahead

If the situation is not managed well, and people remain in the villages for too long without jobs, the crime rate might increase. This area is notorious for its crime anyway. It will be devastating. We will have to think about their income and livelihoods options. This area has one of the lowest literacy rates in the country at 36 percent. It is one of the least developed places in the country. Already there are 86 percent child brides and as there is a tradition of bride price or reverse dowry, chances of child marriages going up or even little girls being sold in the face of poverty is a distinct possibility. This larger social impact that covid might have is the real worry. That’s what we need to fight.

(as told to Soumita Basu, COVIDActionCollab)

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