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While We Are Social Distancing, How Are India’s Adivasis Coping?

With very low levels of nutrition, education, sanitation, it’ll be a herculean task to protect adivasis from COVID.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Painting on the wall of traditional mud hut of Santhal tribes, Jharkhand. Image used for representational purposes.
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Most of the world is fighting the coronavirus pandemic while being heavily dependent on a basic scientific precept of ‘social distancing’ which is now increasingly being called the more accurate ‘physical distancing’. In India, however, observing physical distancing is not just a challenge but also a privilege. A privilege that falls into the lap of only those who live in planned cities with urban housing, secure jobs, access to sanitary products, clean water and healthcare.

Jharkhand is one of India’s starving states.

With ignominiously low levels of nutrition, education and sanitation, it is going to be a herculean task to execute the prime minister’s seven directives to fight COVID-19 in Jharkhand’s interior villages, that is home to various impoverished tribal communities.

For instance, expecting a community that does not have regular access to digital media, or electricity to download the Aarogya Setu app, would be a mockery of its penury.

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Celebrating Festival of Harvest Makes Little Sense When We Disregard Health of Farmers

Successive governments have also allowed for the destruction of tribal livelihoods and rights in the state. When tribal settlements on the banks of the river Kajhia in Sunderpahari are fraught with extreme water scarcity, dams are erected on the same river that divert enormous gallons of water to the numerous steel plants that operate in Jharkhand. To take someone’s potable water away is a breach of their human rights. Also, without water there is no existence of the concept of hand washing.

It’s also ironic that as we celebrated the inception of Baisakh and harvest festivals all across the country, we continue to disregard the safety of those who are ensuring a constant supply of food to our tables.

This comprises small scale farmers, subsistence farmers, farmworkers, daily wage workers who tirelessly run the food supply-chain for us. Adivasis make up a lot of this workforce in India.

COVID-19: Adivasis Are a High-Risk Group, Need Immediate Attention

In Jharkhand, it is a common sight to see women with goitered necks, protein- deficient children with protruding chests and gaunt men with stick-thin legs. The infant mortality rate is a shocking 29 per 1000 births. Monitoring and treatment of children with Severe and Acute Malnutrition (SAM) has not conformed to the UNICEF prescribed guidelines and suggestions. Even when there is an anganwadi next door, babies are still delivered at home by mid-wives, and doctors are never consulted for vaccinations.

The concept of menstrual sanitation just does not exist.

Some kids go to school only to later drop out  —  to either migrate to the cities as widely exploited daily wage workers, or work under grave occupational hazards at nearby coal mines. One of the accompanying health hazards of working and living near coal mines is the ‘black lung’ caused by coal dust. The constant inhalation of coal dust causes shortness of breath and scars the lung tissues. This also means that tribal folks have increased risk of carrying underlying lung issues. Clearly, the immunity of adivasis has been systemically compromised due to already existing inadequacies in the socio-economic system. It is not certain if their bodies will be able to bear the infection of the novel coronavirus or not.

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If India Can’t Ensure Food Security, National Security Is Of Little Use

The foundation of India’s social infrastructure has long been rickety, and it is not surprising to see it crumble under the current coronavirus pandemic. As reported by the Jharkhand Janadhikar Sabha, an alliance of progressive organisations based in Jharkhand, it took 21 days after its announcement for the state government to allocate funds to ensure the delivery of 10 kg grains to eligible families who had been excluded from PDS despite applying for a card. The adivasis now believe, “Bimari se pehle Bhookh maar degi”, meaning that starvation would kill them before the virus. Granaries in India are overflowing with food grains, but the Public Distribution System of ration is not universalised. That’s not just a void in the social welfare system but a travesty in the life of a fully-functioning, seemingly independent country.

In an attempt to beef-up national security, India just secured a deal worth USD 155 million to procure defence contraptions such as missiles and torpedoes from the United States. Maybe it’s time that India learns that ensuring food security for all citizens is the biggest security.

To contain the spread of the coronavirus, state-owned Coal India Limited has developed a sanitising chamber to disinfect the coal mine workers in Jharkhand. But where is the fear of the novel coronavirus when our tribal folks are dying a slow death every day?

For now, our government needs to avow to protect all of its marginalised communities, including the various tribes indigenous to India. What we need is a more inclusive outlook to provide safety nets to all our socio-economically challenged communities.

(Mrinali Dhembla is a student at Hunter College, New York City, New York. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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