This is a brief description of our emergency response in wake of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown in India since last week of March 2020. This has included relief in form of bank transfers and dry ration, on-phone counselling, advocacy with government and online awareness campaigns.
We have reached over 1900 families till date of nomadic tribe (NT/DNT), adivasi (ST) and dalit (SC) communities with dry food rations or direct bank transfers across 15 districts, with focused reach in Thane District of Maharashtra; 250 youth and clients with on-phone counselling; and approximately 10000 people with online campaigns for rights & justice of NT/DNT communities during the crisis. We reiterate that this is only a very small way of repaying the huge debt that we owe our Adivasi, NT/DNT and other worker communities who have historically built, repaired, created, and run our societies while being paid too less.
Why nomadic & de-notified tribes: We decided to reach those who are furthest removed from government as well as civil society. Founder Deepa is herself from a nomadic tribe and knows from experience how severely such a lockdown can impact them whose livelihood depends on their nomadic lifestyle. These tribes were stamped with the label of criminal by the British for having risen up for independance long ago. Since then, the stigma has never left them. Extremely poor, their first generations are still struggling to complete primary education. In this lockdown, they are seen with suspicion and abused by villagers, and beaten by police if they venture out - these tribes are stuck outside villages with no shelter, no safety, no sanitation and no dignity in this pandemic. They are suffering a double calamity - foremost of which is widespread starvation. It is a mentally & physically debilitating question, as is known only by someone who has faced hunger.
Few learnings: in our current experience, majority of those coming to get food rations are women. The long-term injuries on their mental health is going to be terrible. Because, it is the women and girls who are bearing the brunt of hunger as well as the fear & despair of how to find food. It is a mentally debilitating question, as is known only by someone who has faced hunger.
Our usual on-ground activities have been modified and all resources directed to emergency response:
- Team was immediately trained on the phone, to start counselling with our communities and in relief work.
- On-phone counselling started with youth, women and clients of our community counselling centres. Financial aid also sent through direct bank transfers, as part of mental health and justice work.
- Bank transfers and dry ration distributions done to nomadic tribe/denotified tribe families across 13 districts of Maharashtra. We decided to reach out much beyond our project areas because Deepa, herself belonging to a nomadic tribe knows personally the severity of the impact of such a lockdown on those whose earnings depend on their nomadic lifestyle. Contact is being established through grassroot leaders – they are anyway leading the emergency response on ground, and know the best. This was followed by recording details, getting documents, screening, bank transfers – all of which happened on the phone. It was a massive challenge as many people did not even own a phone, and we had to learn on the go. This includes still ongoing round the clock counselling with the NT/DNT ground leaders and families.
- Youth leaders in communities and volunteers are being trained on phone, whatsapp groups, etc. to carry out relief operations while maintaining safety & lockdown protocols.
Online advocacy is being carried out through social media such as through tweet chats, zoom talks. Complaint letters have been sent to district collectors of Maharashtra to look into the severe problems created for nomadic tribe communities (who are stuck outside villages with no shelter, not allowed inside by villagers and even abused if they use the community toilet, reports coming in of violence & lynching). 2 districts have responded positively. Two nodal officers have been appointed for providing essentials to NT/DNTs in Mumbai District, and the Kalyan court has directed surveys to be carried out to identify locations with nomadic families.
Online campaigns are being carried out to provide platforms for expression and connection to people from marginalized communities, such as sending their video for our online “Ambedkar Jayanti At Home’ series or ‘Hear the Workers speak about Labour Day’ series, sending their write-ups to our ‘Mental Health Stories’ competition.
At least 800 more families are left that we must reach. They live in adivasi, rural or urban interiors where no NGO has yet reached, nor have government facilities, and there isn’t any awareness of helplines or relief operations for them to even reach out. We must do everything we can to find and reach them.
Long-term disaster response needs: In the long-term, nutrition of women is going to take some time to recover, as pointed out above in learnings. Mental health of entire communities will need sustained response. Education of girls is also going to take a hit after the lockdown ends, since it won’t be a priority for families struggling to meet food and shelter needs.
Anubhuti is therefore planning long-term responses that includes scholarships for girls, nutrition support to women, disaster management training to youth & community leaders, community-led emergency response centres, etc.