Uttarakhand faces an uphill task as it tries to reach vaccines to its far flung villages

COVID cases and deaths register a sharp increase in Uttarakhand but vaccination is on a downward trend. Camps are held at faraway locations forcing villagers to trek for kilometres or hire vehicles for their vaccine dose, and many are staying away.

Deepak Rawat
| Updated: June 3rd, 2021

Many hill villages lie far away from the district headquarters where the vaccination drives are organised. All photos: By arrangement

Dehradun, Uttarakhand

For people of Dumak and Kalgoth villages in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, getting vaccinated against the COVID19 is, quite literally, a distant dream. The nearest vaccination centre is really far away.  

“For getting vaccinated, villagers have to travel thirty five kilometres to reach Joshimath Bazaar where the community centre is located,” Narendra Singh Rawat, member of the panchayat of Dumak, Kalgoth and other villages in the area, told Gaon Connection

“People have to first walk nearly 10 kilometres in order to get to a road head from where they can find transport to take them the rest of the twenty five kilometres away. Then, they have to make their long way back,” added Narendra Singh.

The residents of Need village in Champawat district of Kumaon region, about 350 kilometres from Chamoli, face something similar.

“When the vaccinations were announced for the over forty-five-year category, the nearest vaccination centre was at the PHC [primary health centre] in village Manch, that was sixteen kilometres away,” Sunil Joshi, a resident of Need village, told Gaon Connection. “We have to walk three to four kilometres to a road head. And from there to Manch the one way fare for a transport is fifty rupees,” he added.

In April, 1,338,530 doses were administered in the state but in May, it dropped to 833,149 doses.

Because of the distance they have to travel and the cost involved, many elders in Need village, especially those who were frail or had health issues, could not make it to the centre. They have remained un-vaccinated.

The Himalayan state of Uttarakhand is in a precarious position. On the one hand, the state has recorded 59 per cent of its total COVID deaths in the single month of May 2021, on the other hand, vaccination numbers are falling. Many hill villages lie far away from the district headquarters where the vaccination drives are organised.

Also Read: 59% of all COVID deaths in Uttarakhand happened in the month of May 2021

On May 10, the Uttarakhand government announced COVID19 vaccination for the age group of 18-44 years. But, bringing people to vaccination centres is proving to be an uphill task. Vaccination for people above 45 years began on January 16 this year.

Rising cases, falling vaccinations 

The data collated by the Social Development for Communities Foundation, a Dehradun-based non-profit that has been tracking COVID cases in the state, shows that from March 15 last year till May 31 this year, Uttarakhand has reported a total of 329,494 COVID cases. Of these, 148,973 cases were reported in May 2021 alone.

Similarly, since the beginning of the pandemic last March, the Himayalan state has recorded 6,452 deaths due to COVID19. Of these, 3,828 deaths, or 59 per cent of the total deaths in the hill state so far, have happened in the single month of May 2021.

Vaccination camps in hill villages are held at faraway locations forcing villagers to trek for kilometres for their vaccine dose.

On the other hand, vaccination is showing a downward trend in the state. As per the data compiled by Social Development for Communities Foundation, in the month of April, 1,338,530 doses were administered in  the state but the very next month in May, it dropped to 833,149 doses.  

Also Read: 50% drop in COVID19 vaccination in India in the past month, shows govt’s Co-WIN data

Despite opening up vaccination for the younger population (18-44 years), vaccination has declined. “We have to travel nearly forty kilometres to the district hospital at Main Champawat Bazaar which is the vaccination centre for 18-44 category,” 25-year-old Joshi, resident of Need village, said. “We have to pay a fare of hundred and fifty rupees one way to get there,” he added.

Gaon Connection has been reporting on the spread of the coronavirus in the hill state. On May 11, it reported how several villages in Pauri Garhwal, Rudraprayag and Chamoli districts of the state were sealed by the district administration as several villagers were found COVID positive.

Also Read: Coronavirus creeps up the Uttarakhand hills; villages in Chamoli and Rudraprayag sealed

Another report by Gaon Connection, published on May 20, showed how a large number of children were affected by the virus in the second wave of the pandemic. Between March 2020 and March 2021, the total number of cumulative cases of COVID19 in children (0-9 years) in a year stood at 2,131 in Uttarakhand. But, just from April 1 to May 19 alone, the state registered 3,313 new cases — a huge surge of 155.46 per cent in a period of 49 days over the past one year.

Also Read: Sharp rise in COVID19 among children in Uttarakhand

Because of the distance they have to travel and the cost involved, many elders could not make it to the centre.

Roadblocks to inoculation

While the vaccination drive for those over 18-years-of age has started, there are a lot of impediments coming in the way of its efficient execution. 

Take the case of Chamoli district which already has 19 containment zones within it, as noted in the Uttarakhand State Bulletin. People from nine villages from the north Kadakot region in the Narayanbagad development block of the district, have to travel 54 kilometres to get to the vaccination camp at Narayanbagad.  

Rajendra Singh Negi, the former gram pradhan of Sunbhi, one of the nine villages, said, “There are approximately fourteen hundred people between the ages of eighteen and forty four in these villages. Many of them are paying one hundred and fifty rupees per head one way to hire a vehicle to transport them to the vaccination camp.” The people are already struggling with no jobs or money, and this is an added burden on them, he told Gaon Connection

Also Read: Mayhem in May as Uttarakhand has episodes of back-to-back intense rainfall

“For the Kalghot village area, the vaccination camp should have been set up at the nearby Urgam PHC that is five kilometres away. Now we have to go to the Joshimath health centre that is thirty five kilometres away. The fare to get there is eighty rupees one way,” Narendra Singh said. “There are families here that cannot afford that fare. And there is always the risk of getting infected travelling such distances,” he pointed out. 

Narendra Singh went on to add that it is not just the lack of roads that is hampering vaccination drives in the state. “There is also a lack of a mobile network in these remote areas. Many of our young people have not been able to register themselves online for their vaccines. There is neither a network of roads nor a mobile network,” he said.

Villagers coming for vaccination in Joshimath health centre.

In some areas, because of the restriction on the movement of vehicles, people are not being able to take out their personal vehicles and reach the vaccination centres.

“There is a limit on the number of people that can be seated in a vehicle, there is time restriction, and of course the bad roads,” Devendra Singh Rawat, head of the village Devgram in Joshimath block, Chamoli, told Gaon Connection. “And if they have to depend on hired vehicles, they are fleeced,” he added.

More camps and vaccines-on-wheels

According to information provided by the state government, the total population of Uttarakhand is 11.5 million with 6.6 million above the age of 18 years. So far,  2,231,575 (over 2.2 million) people have got their first shot while only 683,881 have received both doses of the vaccine. 

“In a small and mountainous state like Uttarakhand it makes more sense to have smaller and more vaccination centres. So far the existing vaccination centres have seen medium to very low turnout,” Anoop Nautiyal, founder of Social Development for Communities Foundation, had written in a letter to the state government on May 28. 

Nautiyal said there should be smaller but more vaccination camps organised so that people from remote parts of the state could access them more easily. Many gram pradhans from the far flung villages also said camps closer to their villages would meet with more success than they were doing now. 

Despite opening up vaccination for the younger population (18-44 years), vaccination has declined.

“Just as the government had organised ‘vaccine-on-wheels’ in Haridwar district, they should do the same in the hill districts of the state,” Nautiyal told Gaon Connection. He suggested there be a door to door vaccination drive in the remote villages. Only then can such a huge population be vaccinated fully, he added. 

Also Read: COVID19 second wave: Millions of devotees pour into Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela

Meanwhile, the state administration claims it is trying to address the roadblocks. “We had a virtual meeting with all the district magistrates in the state and discussed mobile vaccination camps,” Kuldeep Martoliya, state immunisation officer, told Gaon Connection

According to him, the district magistrates have been directed to organise the door-to- door inoculation. “The vaccines will be reached to those villages that are very far from the vaccination centres, and to those people who for some reason cannot make their way there,” Martoliya said. 

When asked about the places that had bad connectivity that was preventing people from registering online for the vaccines, the state immunisation officer said: “Our volunteers will visit such places where connectivity is a problem, take down the details of the people and upload the registrations onto the system.”