Updated: Aug 11, 2021
-Dr. Bibhuti Mary Kacchap, PhD.
Source: The New Humanitarian
“Corona Carriers'', “Mass Spreaders” were some of the common names for returning migrants during the first lockdown in India. As the pandemic hit, in early March, majority of us (Indians) had the luxury of staying in our homes, adopt hobbies of cooking, dancing, etc. and post on social media, while several thousands of fellow Indians walked for long miles to reach their homes, as occupation, accommodation and remuneration was lost. Given the economic demography of labour and informal work in India, a good portion of the ‘migrant labour’ population belongs to the Adivasi (or indigenous community) of India. Our team at CRRSS decided to take over the responsibility to bring stories, struggles and stigmatisation faced by these migrant labourers forward.
The indigenous communities that live in India are often considered as the original inhabitants of the country and are called “Adivasis''. These communities are distinctly different in their identities, be it their socio-cultural and religious characteristics, linguistics, historical narratives or geographical locations. The Indian government under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution uses the term Scheduled Tribes to define these communities administratively. Almost every state in India has indigenous communities who dwell in the forests, hills or other remote locations. Between the Adivasis and the non-indigenous populace in India, there exists stark inequalities in terms of socio-economic resources, health, education, and standards of living. The health care resources that are available to the Adivasi communities of Jharkhand are significantly low giving rise to Severe and Acute malnutrition in children and life threatening diseases in adults ranging from contagious diseases to other serious types of illnesses. Communities who live near the coal mines often suffer from severe respiratory diseases like black lung which is caused due to coal dust which has made them especially vulnerable in the COVID-19 situation. Lack of proper health care resources, lack of nutrition and access to proper sanitation facilities like clean water, soaps, masks, sanitisers which are mandatory to fight the virus has added to the suffering of the people from these communities.
The onslaught of the global Coronavirus pandemic further broadened the gap between the indigenous and non-indigenous population. While the affect of the pandemic was seen relatively later in India (compared to China, Italy and other European nations), cases suddenly amplified in mid-March resulting in a nation -wide lockdown by the government in late march.
The nationwide lockdown wreaked havoc on these communities as they often migrate to urban areas to work in the unorganised sector. With about four hours to find adequate means to transport or in-fact, everyday survival, many migrants labourers, who had no jobs or financial security left anymore, started walking back to their hometowns and villages.
COVID-19 and the consequent lockdown phase brought to the forefront the inhumane treatment and severe discrimination faced by the Adivasi communities, including various levels of marginalisation, stigmatisation and lack of adequate ( or even limited) help from the administration ( central or state-wide) as they travelled back to their homes in the midst of the crisis on foot.
Hardman, while studying the effects of the Spanish Influenza had pointed out the specifically high mortality rates in the tribal regions of the country. It was observed that most of these deaths were the result of the poor healthcare resources that exist even today, a 100 years later. While tribal communities suffer from the lack of basic facilities including clean drinking water, proper sanitation, poor reproductive health, and educational opportunities, women in these area face deeper marginalisation. Women face institutional patriarchy and discrimination within and outside their communities. Women’s systematic exclusion from the economic opportunities, ownership of livelihood resources are major factors that have hindered the progress of these communities.
They are often excluded from taking part in the decision-making process of their groups and tribes, which is largely dominated by the men of the communities.
As compared to developed countries like the USA and Australia where extensive research has been done on the indigenous population and problems faced by them, not as much is known about the indigenous population of India.
Given the capacity of our team, and limited resources we narrowed our research to a specific region of the country - Jharkhand.
Two very prominent tribes of Jharkhand, known as Oraon, Santhal and Munda tribes, exhibit similar realities of poverty and inequality. If we look at the case of the migrant workers from the various villages of Jharkhand, it was evident that even after they reached their home states, there was no respite. Often the quarantine centres were hundreds of miles away from the city and they often had to walk almost 200kms to reach their villages (further in this article, we will discuss these concerns in more depth). Once they managed to go back to their homes the loss of employment and economic resources led to even more crisis. They had sparse or no money to feed their families as they were offered work only for a few days which was not enough for their sustenance. Lack of money, jobs, healthcare services and often the existing conditions in villages like frequent elephant attacks on their farmland drove these people to a deplorable and inhumane living standard.
Social distancing and frequent sanitisation efforts that were the only way to contain the virus was essentially a privilege that could in reality, be afforded only by those who lived in middle and upper income urban spaces with proper infrastructure, access to food, healthcare and other necessities. Community living, practiced by the primitive tribal groups in Jharkhand since ages were not compatible with these kinds of measures. Severe malnutrition is a prevalent condition especially among the children and extreme shortage of food grains and poverty has put unprecedented pressure on these communities and multiplied their struggles for survival. The pandemic did not affect all people equally, some of us lived in the comfort of our homes while there were millions in India and around the world whose existence was threatened, first by the virus and then by the methods to contain the disease. The lockdown brought starvation along with it which led people to believe that before the virus it would be the resultant hunger that would lead to their death. Coupled with this, the pandemic saw the subtle rise of the practice of ‘untouchability’ which created a pugnacious situation for these communities. The ignorance and segregation that the indigenous population of India has faced for years have now worsened, as these pre-existing fault lines now collaborate with healthcare, food security and everyday survival of adivasi communities. The issue needs to be front-lined at the policy making level for implementation of better policies. Along with heavy investments in order to boost national security, the Indian government needs to pay attention in providing the more crucial food security, with an inclusive outlook to protect the socio-economically challenged adivasis of the country.
Under the guidance of Dr. Kachhap, a valued senior member of our team who herself belongs to the Oraon community and a native of Jharkhand, our preliminary and first round of data was collected from both primary and secondary sources in the form of surveys, semi- structured interviews with the people from the indigenous communities of the Oraon,Santhal and Munda in Bishrampur village, in Ramgarh district of Jharkhand. Simultaneously, focus group discussions were held with women, people with disabilities and other groups. Published articles, research papers, census data, government data and reports were used as secondary sources.
Reflections from the preliminary fieldwork
Covid-19 pandemic has traumatised the entire world. From first world countries to third world countries the effects have been major. Taking into account the reports on health facilities in third world countries are alarming. The growing number of covid-19 cases in India escalated during May when Unlock 1.0 process began. The reason being the traveling within cities and states. Though the government tried to put people in quarantine for 14 days as a necessary procedure was implemented.
The major setback India witnessed during this pandemic was the unparalleled pathetic conditions of migrant labourers who were stuck in various cities without a place to live and jobless which also left them without food. States like Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh have the highest number of migrant workers who every year migrate to states like Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. It is pitiable to note that the government has no data on migrant workers within the country. For the purpose of study,
we will discuss the effects of the ongoing pandemic among the migrants of Jharkhand. This study will focus on the problems of the migrants of Jharkhand of 3 districts; Ramgarh, Koderma and Simdega. A small village called Sangrampur, Gola under Ramgarh district has around 400 families and according to a resident 40 percent of the households have one member who works in other state.
Suresh Bedia (Migrant Labourer from Auradih, Bartola, Gola, Ramgarh)
During the visit to this village we came across a migrant worker named Gautam Mahto who works in South Africa in a steel plant. He went to South Africa via some agent from U.P in March 2019. According to him there was lockdown only at night and they were given all facilities to work amidst this pandemic and no one in the plant was affected, he also got full pay during this period. And when asked about if he wishes to go back to South Africa to work, he said yes.
Suresh Bedia a tribal migrant worker from Auradih, Bartola, Gola, Ramgarh had a different experience. He went to Bhutan and has been working outside his state since last 3 years. While he was in Bhutan the lockdown began and he lost his job (contractual labor). When he returned, he was under quarantine for 14 days in a nearby government school premises and no government help was provided. The panchayat decided that for the safetyof all the people in the village the migrants should be quarantined collectively at the school. Suresh’s family would visit him thrice a day and bring food and clothing for him. When asked if the other migrants were also provided food and clothing by their families he immediately responded with a ‘yes’. This situation was prevalent throughout and there was no government help. Once as he was told by his fellow people that the Mukhiya (elected member who works for the gram panchayat) distributed rice, mask and soap. But he denied that in his absence his family received any help. On being asked whether he wishes to go out to other states to work he said a clear ‘no’.
He said that he wants to work in the state, this also throws light on the mind set these migrants have, as Gautam who suffered no problem during the pandemic said that he would like to go out to work while Suresh declined. Suresh also experienced stigmatisation as he came from another place.
A lady whose husband and sons are also migrants said that they had to sell their goats and chickens because they are dependent on the money her sons and husband earn and during lockdown they ran out of money. They need to feed children too, in order to buy at least rice, salt and oil they had to sell their goats and chicken. According to Inod Mahto, a migrant from Sangrampur, returned by the special train for migrants run by the state of Jharkhand that brought back the migrants from Hyderabad. He also informed that he was given proper food and water throughout the journey and was happy with the state government and had no complaints and would like to return when things get better. He was working as a labourer in a construction site by L&T.
Families of the Migrants from Sangrampur Village
The condition of the migrants as reported by the media during the lockdown was alarming but even after returning back, they hope they would get back and help the situation improve at home. The children of the migrant workers are raised without them as most of the time they are brought up by their mothers and grandparents. They return only during the harvest season sometimes only once a year. Under the NABARD projects these migrant workers who returned, got jobs for few days but the pay can only provide food for few days
and no extra money in case of emergency. The prevailing situation questions the healthcare facilities provided by the government. No primary check-up was provided for them on their return especially in Sangrampur. Along with the above-mentioned problems this village also witnesses the elephants destroying their homes.
A wife of a migrant worker said that his husband did not return during this pandemic in there is no electricity in her house because of the elephants who come out of the forest very often especially after forest when wheat and rice is stored at home. Therefore, she has left one child with the parents and stays with the son here. She along with the son climbs a ladder and goes to the roof whenever there is elephant, to save their lives.
In Jharkhand the situation deteriorated when the migrants were brought back as the State government brought back the migrants, they were left with no money to go back home from the quarantine centres. Majority belonged to the villages and the cabs and autos had hiked their price. Many walked for days to reach their village. During unlock 1.0 a migrant worker walked on foot from Jamshedpur a city in Jharkhand along the railway track to reach Ranchi which is around 130 kms. They carried food and water along with them for their
journey but the idea is this pandemic left people of the lower strata in a despicable situation.
The primary objective of this project is to understand and document the narratives of struggles like food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare facilities, stigma and historical discrimination faced by indigenous communities of Jharkhand during the pandemic and the consequent lockdown phase (s). The focus was particularly on two Adivasi communities, the Oraons and the Mundas who inhabit the rural areas of Jharkhand, led by the youth belonging to these communities.
The project aims to create a repository through various platforms to create awareness among the indigenous and the non-indigenous groups regarding the daily challenges faced by these communities and other indigenous groups in India for their survival by looking at the condition of education, health care, food security, cultural practices, gender gap and availability of information and technology that is accessible by these groups.
Through this small excerpt, we mark the International Day for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, by officially bringing our project into light and presenting our intentions to take a project (and responsibility) of such a scale.
(More updates on this project will follow soon, from our team at the center and on ground, in Jharkhand. We aim to bring together a scholarly collection of struggles, stigmatization and hardships faced by the Adivasi community of Jharkhand during the lockdown(s) throughout the pandemic. Stay tuned for updates on this project).
Dr. Bibhuti Mary Kacchap.
She is currently serving as an Assistant Professor at IIT Tirupati. She is an expert on South Asian Literature, Migration and Religious studies. She serves as a senior Advisor for the Peace and Conflict mandate at CRRSS.