Systemic shortcomings

Print edition : June 19, 2020

Migrant labourers from Chhattisgarh about to board the Shramik Special train at the Bhubaneswar city railway station to return home, on May 24. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

The poor state of public health infrastructure in the heavily forested and predominantly rural State of Chhattisgarh, among other things, contributes to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Heavily forested Chhattisgarh managed to keep its coronavirus infection well under control until migrants started returning to the State. From fewer than 100 positive cases in April, the number of infections rose to 500 towards the end of Lockdown 4.0. There were also around a dozen deaths in quarantine centres across the State. The State, however, claimed that none of these was caused by COVID-19 and listed the reasons for the fatalities as snake bite, electrocution, suicide and non-COVID health conditions.

Government functionaries attributed the deaths to overcrowding and the summer heat. Health Minister T.S. Singh Deo admitted that the system was too burdened to handle the huge number of returning migrants and said that strict action would be taken if any lapses were found.

At least three cases of suicide were reported from different quarantine centres, raising questions about the condition of those centres. Alarmingly, within a span of 48 hours, three infants and one pregnant woman died in different quarantine centres. Photographs of migrants being served food on newspapers spread out on the floor went viral on social media and drew sharp criticism. The opposition parties in the State demanded monitoring and inspection of the centres.

Local activists told Frontline that the pitiable state of public health infrastructure in rural areas made it difficult for the government to ensure the well-being of returning migrants, good intentions notwithstanding. One of them said: “The pandemic has revealed how inadequate our governments really are to tackle a crisis of this scale. It is also a lesson for those who want to learn—what one does in peacetime decides how much of a fighting chance the community will have in times of trouble. With the rapid privatisation of health care across the country, our public health care systems in rural areas have suffered years of neglect, which needs to be remedied.”

The activist said that the quarantine centres are run by panchayats and suffer from mismanagement, lack of facilities and poor food arrangements. Many migrants endured a great deal of hardship and days of travel before they reached quarantine centres, he added, insisting that it was the State’s responsibility to take care of their well-being.

Three-fourths of Chhattisgarh’s population live in rural areas, relying primarily on agriculture for sustenance. Between January and June, when agricultural activities stagnate, mass migration takes place to cities, the chilli fields of Andhra Pradesh, and elsewhere. This huge migrant population is now returning to Chhattisgarh in the midst of the pandemic.

The number of people returning to Chhattisgarh from foreign countries, however, has been low, which has kept the infection rate in the State from spiralling out of control in the way it did in cities in other States. Alok Shukla, social activist and convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, said: “Since Chhattisgarh is largely a rural area, those who returned from foreign shores did not reach the villages. They remained confined to the cities and the government’s timely implementation of Section 144 ensured that the infections would not spread. We also don’t have too many tourists visiting the State.”

Moreover, villages practised self-isolation by blocking their entry points early on, making allowances only for essential services. “This went a long way in preventing community spread,” said Shukla.

He also said that the Chief Minister might be well-intentioned but ground level implementation of preventive measures remained a challenge across the State. “In the initial days, the government remained paralysed. Only after NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and civil society raised questions on the arrangements did the official machinery get into action. It took a full month for them to organise buses to ferry migrants back,” he said.

The panchayats are responsible for the actual implementation of the government’s policies, and their performances vary. Some panchayats may have only four returning migrants, while others have more than 100 and therefore require more resources to handle the pressure.

Home delivery of rations and other essentials is among the positive measures undertaken by the government. Midday meals are being delivered to children though schools are not functioning. Employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has also brought some respite to farming communities. Around 44 per cent of Chhattisgarh is forested. According to Shukla, the timely purchase of minor forest produce and mahua sustained the population under the lockdown. According to the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India (TRIFED), minor forest produce worth over Rs.18.63 crore was purchased from forest dwellers and villagers, the highest such purchase in India. Only two other States, Jharkhand and Odisha, procured minor forest produce, according to the Chhattisgarh government.

A statement released by the State government said: “In this hour of crisis and amid the COVID-19 lockdown, the forest dwellers and villagers of Vananchal are getting a lot of relief from the government’s purchase of small forest produce at the support price and the cash payment process. Currently, the State government had increased the number of minor forest produce to 22 keeping in mind the interest of the villagers, which has now been increased to 23.”

A local journalist, however, questioned the positive image that the media gave to the State and its Chief Minister  Bhupesh Baghel. He claimed that the government was good with media management and therefore some of the worrying stories were not coming out.

With factories not functioning and construction activities halted, the government will certainly have to do much more to revive the rural economy, which has suffered massively.

In a controversial move in May, the State government made the Forest Department the nodal agency for Community Forest Resource Rights (CFRR) under the Scheduled Tribes and the Traditional Forest Dwellers Act 2006. Activists alleged that the step was illegal. Under the Act, they said, only the Tribal Affairs Department or any other agency authorised by the Central government could be the nodal agency.

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