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Tribal Communities of Bhopal Despair Amid Raging Pandemic

The second wave of the pandemic has left the weakest sections of society—the marginalised communities and daily-wage earners—even more vulnerable than during the first wave. This is largely because the government’s pandemic management machinery is in tatters, write NEELANSH and HEMAN. 


IN March, it seemed as if the COVID-19 pandemic was fading across the country. Those who had suffered most during the first lockdown of March 2020—the marginalised communities and daily-wage earners—were slowly returning to their livelihoods. However, the illusion of comfort broke as soon as new COVID-19 infections started to surge in April.

Daily new cases jumped from 20,000 to over four lakhs a day. Another round of lockdowns has returned to haunt them and their families. Now the situation is worse than last year. The crisis is evident from the vulnerable conditions of the tribal communities of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh.

In March, the government, the mainstream media and the entire bureaucracy were ignorant of what lay ahead. The result is that in and around Bhopal, the tribal and denotified communities such as the Gond and Pardhis, the Kanjars, Sapera, Dafale and others are struggling to survive. 

These communities are finding it impossible to manage enough food for their families and have absolutely no income security. The local governing bodies and leaders are at a loss too. Most members of these communities work in collecting scrap, on construction sites, catering services, run ornament stalls or sell musical instrument such as dholaks.

For a year, these social groups were told that the country is moving towards “normalcy”. They let down their guard and prepped to resume work. When the pandemic first hit and a sudden lockdown was imposed, migrant labourers, daily-wage earners, and many others were left stranded. Instances such as of the Pardhi youth Narendra, who was stranded along with his family on the outskirts of Delhi and could not find a way back home, offered a glimpse into their horrible conditions.

Those who belong to denotified and tribal communities also suffered food insecurity, cramped health infrastructure and income insecurity due to the sudden and absolute loss of livelihoods for three months. They got hardly any support from local governing bodies. Nor was a coordinated policy developed by the Centre and states to offer them relief.

Second wave worse than the first

During the first wave, Udit, a Pardhi youth, had said that “Corona se pehle bhook aur berozgari se mar jayenge—Before Corona kills us, we will die of hunger and unemployment”. However, the second wave is taking away livelihoods as well as lives. The dreadful virus is now exposing the incapability of the government to provide sufficient food (just like last year) and the shattered health infrastructure is failing to save lives.

Despite repeated warnings from scientists and medical experts that a second wave is inevitable and will perhaps be more virulent, the government failed to prepare for enough food supplies and health infrastructure that could have helped the vulnerable communities in testing times. Instead, BJP leaders fed the popular delusion that normalcy is here again.

Food and income insecurity hit again 

It is around a month of lockdown in Bhopal. The savings of the weakest communities have depleted. Their last resort is the Public Distribution System (PDS). However, the PDS only provides Bajra (not a staple grain in this region) and wheat. Other essentials such as cooking oil, pulses, etc., are unavailable while the open market prices of these items are sky-high.

As a member of the Kalandar community told us, “Hume to ration card hone ke baad bhi bajra hi mlita hai, jo paryapt nahi hai—we only get Bajra despite having a ration card, and even that is insufficient.” Another grave issue with the PDS is that it was coercively linked to the vaccination programme. A Gond community member said, “Meri mummy ko kaha pehle tika lagva ke aao, phir ration milega—first get vaccinated then only you will get the ration.”

No official policy links rations with vaccines but instances of denial of rations did come to light in March. However, now that the state is falling short of vaccines, such absurd events are not taking place. 

Members of denotified and tribal communities in Bhopal have been sending their complaints and demands to the ward parshad and collector. However, since last year, there has been no election for a ward parshad, which has made local bodies lackadaisical and dysfunctional.

Also read: One year since lockdown 1.0: Share in workforce already falling, Covid-19 job losses hit women harder

The struggling people have therefore been trying their hand at other jobs, at risk to their lives and of facing police atrocities. It has come to light that a Pardhi woman who went to collect scrap amidst the lockdown was taken into police custody. In Nishatpura, a vegetable vendor’s stall was damaged by police even though vegetables are an essential commodity, not barred from trade during the lockdown.

In and around Bhopal, women and children from the Gond community are resorting to begging, and men wait near chaurahas (crossroads) to see if they can get any labour work. 

The vicious circle of food insecurity is forcing these vulnerable communities of Bhopal to step out amidst the raging pandemic at risk to their lives. Dealing with the police atrocities is a repetition of the situation they faced in the first wave. Despite having enough time to prepare and being told a second wave seemed inevitable, the government has failed these communities yet again.

Crumbling health infrastructure

In the first wave, only a few members of the tribal and denotified communities of Bhopal died due to the virus. However, the second wave has cost 16 deaths in these communities in and around Bhopal in the last three weeks. (These cases came to our attention through our work with these communities, and may not have been reported as Covid-19 deaths).

There are several reasons why deaths in these communities have escalated. The virus has mutated since the last wave but symptoms of the infection it causes were never conveyed to people. This is a source of great confusion. 

There is also a tendency to deny that a person could have COVID-19. People fear getting tested even if they have symptoms because they associate a positive results with being taken to a hospital where their health would deteriorate and they might die.

Also read: Selfless act: Hyderabad’s good samaritans help those in need amid COVID crisis

Local doctors have been giving people ‘drips’ and prescribing typhoid medicines (including antibiotics), which contributes to the denial since many end up recovering after “treatment”. Nobody wants to go to a hospital until they are running out of breath completely and on the verge of collapsing. But hospitals refuse to admit those who cannot produce a positive COVID-19 report.

In several cases, despite serious symptoms, the COVID-19 tests turned out negative. One woman’s oxygen levels dipped to a dangerous level but her family could not find a hospital bed in the city. She was taken to a hospital in the adjoining Sehore district, where she breathed her last. 

Can a community that barely has food to eat navigate all these dilemmas, along with tracking oxygen levels and temperatures? By propagating the delusion that sufficient health infrastructure exists and we have defeated the pandemic the government has caused this situation. Fact is, the Centre did not care to invest in informing the public about the virus or breaking myths about the disease it causes.

While the government has been completely passive, social media created several channels of communication that provided leads about ICU beds, oxygen beds, oxygen cylinders, steroids, etc. However, the question is, can the marginalised access medical leads that are available only on social media?

Even rural localities are suffering during this wave, but their struggle is invisible, which makes their condition worse. Not only can they not access medical facilities easily, they are also ignored when relevant information about the pandemic—symptoms, precautions, leads on social media, vaccines—are communicated.

In Mundikhedi village in Sehore district, a member of the Pardhi community who returned due to the lockdown and is jobless, says, “Ek baar tika lagvaya, ab kab lagvana hai, kaunsa lagvana hai ye aur kaha pe lagavana hai ye pata nahi, mobile bhi nahi chal raha to message kaise aayega? I have received the first dose of vaccine, but I have no clue when to get the second dose, of which vaccine and at what place; since my mobile is also not working, I do not know how to go ahead with this.”

Also read: Covaxin puzzle: 6 crore shots ready, 2 crore given. Where are the rest?

Many rural people struggle to register for the vaccine as well. Things could have been much simpler if there was proper dissemination of information and awareness about vaccination. The technocratization of the processes would not have constantly excluded the marginalised from availing healthcare, which is their right.

Hypocrisies of the state 

When the entire nation is going through a crisis and the second wave was inevitable, politicians were busy conducting rallies for state elections, promoting the Kumbh Mela and investing massively in the Central Vista project by claiming it is an essential service. This not only takes away the funds required to strengthen health infrastructure and ensure food security but also encourages massive gatherings that allowed the virus to spread exponentially.

The hypocrisy around vaccination is such that on every phone call we are made to hear how important it is but the stocks of vaccines are so limited that most people cannot access it. 

We exported massive doses of vaccines but failed to ensure sufficient supplies for India. All the central government has done is preach and spread the delusion of “positivity” while the country is in chaos.

Also read: The Economic Cost of Non-Vaccination: Why Every Country Stands to Lose

People are afraid and undergoing physical and mental trauma. Those from vulnerable communities are suffering without any assistance or acknowledgement of their trauma.

Being Atmanirbhar

While the central government preaches ‘positivity’, civil society and local communities are trying to become atmanirbhar—self-sufficient—in this struggle to survive. A Bhopal-based youth collective from the Pardhi community named Majal, and a collective from the Gond community named Sangvaari have teamed up with the NGO Muskaan to try and collate ration and medical supplies for the denotified, nomadic and tribal communities across Madhya Pradesh, through crowdfunding and fundraisers. (This link provides more information.)

Other collectives such as CPAP are trying to ensure state accountability by treating the pandemic and the failed health infrastructure as a law-and-order problem. Even individuals—for example, an auto driver who turned his auto into an ambulance—are actively assisting in relief, including information on where COVID-19-related relief can be accessed.

The youth from these collectives are also writing letters to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate and other officials to ask for testing vans to visit their localities and for rations for those who do not have ration cards as well. However, the testing system is neither transparent nor convenient nor feasible for most people. All these organisations can do is try to offer some help in such a dire situation.

(Neelansh and Heman work with Bhopal-based NGO Muskaan, which has worked with vulnerable communities in several localities of Bhopal for close to two decades. Inputs for this article were from Shivani Taneja. The views expressed are personal.) 

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