From making masks and PPE kits to being frontline health workers, Bank Sakhis, Aanganwadi workers, police officers, women have taken charge on many fronts in Chhattisgarh
Chhattisgarh has been able to contain the spread of COVID-19. Until May 19, 2020, the state has recorded 100 cases of coronavirus, of which 41 are active, 59 have recovered and, thankfully, no deaths have been reported. The state government has set up 148 quarantine centres having a capacity of 2,718 beds and identified 25 dedicated COVID-19 hospitals.
The effort on the part of the state is exceptional, given the general perception of Chhattisgarh being that of a backward and an impoverished state in the central-Indian heartland. The communities living in far-flung areas have also reflected exemplary self-discipline. It was for the first time, probably in centuries, that the famous Murga Ladai (cockfight) was not celebrated in the Bastar region, because of the lockdown.
On the ground, the COVID-19 response has largely rested on the shoulders of women. The women, in this trying times, have been working as the frontline health workers, have engaged in mass production of Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs), have continued to ensure that the people, even in the remote locations, have access to financial services, have ensured that the children in the rural areas got their quota of nutrition, and have also played an active role in strictly imposing the lockdown through policing. They have been the silent corona warriors.
The frontline workers of the department of health are all women. The LWE-Aspirational Districts of Chhattisgarh – Bastar, Bijapur, Dantewada, Kanker, Kondagaon, Narayanpur, Rajnandgaon, Sukma – have approximately 1,300 Auxillary Nurse Midwives (ANMs) and 17,000 Mitanins, serving a population of 57,50,063. The responsibilities of this group of workers have increased manifold due to COVID-19.
Given the dearth of doctors in this region, it is these Frontline Workers (FLW) who are providing primary health care to the communities. These women are working on awareness-building among the communities, monitoring of symptoms, contact tracing and supplying of essential medicines. At the same time, they are also carrying out their routine service deliveries of ensuring ante-natal care, immunisation, institutional deliveries and post-natal care by paying regular home visits. The state has designed a strategy on surveillance, testing, reporting and management of COVID-19 that the FLWs have to follow.
The FLWs continue to work under extremely challenging situations. They are part of the Gram Panchayat Surveillance Teams and are monitoring the quarantine/isolation of migrant labourers. As was reported by an ANM worker from the Dantewada district: “The spread of fear is more than the actual disease and we are working on it. People now proactively use gamchha to cover their nose and mouth and also have created roadblocks for barring entry of migrants.”
The health department has deployed additional vehicles on the field to ensure that the FLWs can reach even far-flung areas. But, in order to reach, the remote rural areas, these ANMs have been travelling on bikes with Multi-Purpose Workers and working with Mitanins who stay in the village/hamlet itself.
As the pandemic broke out and the lockdown and other safeguard measures were undertaken, the demand of PPEs-like masks, soaps and sanitisers skyrocketed. Immediately, the state faced a shortage of these PPEs. Given the disruption in the logistics, as a result of the lockdown, the state had to look for a localised production and procurement of PPEs.
One way to locally produce and procure was to involve the several women collectives which were formed through the Chhattisgarh State Rural Livelihood Mission. There were approximately 45,679 SHGs and 5,05,313 Self Help Groups (SHG) members in the Naxal-affected aspirational districts. The government decided to involve these collectives in the production of PPEs. The SHGs did not have the capacity to produce the complex medical equipment, but the three-layered mask, soaps and sanitisers could definitely be produced by these institutions. Thus, the involvement of SHGs in the local production of sanitary supplies became an automatic choice.
Currently, some 592 SHGs and 1,686 women members are engaged in mask production in the Aspirational Districts. The selection of SHGs for mask production was made on the basis of prior training of tailoring among the SHG members and ready access to tailoring machines. So far, these members have produced more than 6.5 lakhs masks at a unit rate of Rs 8 and sold some 5.7 lakhs masks at a unit rate of Rs 10-15.
A member of the Maa Danteshwari SHG from Kondagaon district shared her experience. “There are some 15 members in our SHG. I was working as a Community Resource Person and most of the SHG members were mostly engaged in agriculture. The idea of producing masks locally was proposed by the Block Project Manager and our members readily accepted this. We already had tailoring machines at home. We were provided with the raw materials and we paid the cost of these materials. We quickly studied the guideline and got training on how to make the masks. Now we are trained, and each member can produce around 50-60 masks in a day. Till date we have produced more than 20,000 masks,” she said.
Safety precautions, such as social distancing, washing and drying of raw materials, women stitching the products from their home premises and then dropping off the masks at a collection centres, are being followed as part of the standard operating process. These products are been procured by the Nagar Panchayats, Janpad Panchayat, Police Department, Panchayat Surveillance Teams, Gram Panchayats and Forest Department to be used for their frontline workers.
This activity of involvement of the SHG in PPE manufacturing has given a shoot of aspiration among the SHG members. As was shared by one of the SHG member in Kondagaon district: “After this activity, we would now like to take up bigger tailoring projects like school uniforms and the suits for patients being admitted to health facilities. We want to identify items that are currently procured from outside for meeting the local demands and develop a mechanism in which we can produce and sell them locally”.
The Bank Sakhi Model has been operational in Chhattisgarh since last three years. The Bank Sakhi operations are generally used for three purposes. The primary purpose is to enhance bank linkage. Hence the Bank Sakhis are engaged in opening of new accounts and undertaking the necessary documentation. The Sakhis also acts as ATMs for cash withdrawals and perform the role of a Mobile unit (Digi Pay) for money deposit and withdrawal.
During the lockdown period, it was evident that people in the remote areas were bound to face financial issues. In order to overcome this, the banks were given orders from the state capital to utilise the Bank Sakhisto reach out to the poor population. During the lockdown, some 250 Bank Sakhis are active in the Aspirational Districts to provide financial services to people.
Since Bank Sakhis are based out of the local area and have a data of the beneficiaries, it became easier for the people to avail financial services even during the lockdown. Some of the services that were provided by the bank sakhis were the disbursal of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) payments, old age pensions, cash transactions related to the Rs 1,500 transferred by the government into the Jan Dhan account of women. Apart from these, the routine deposit and withdrawal of cash activities continued.
According to a Bank Sakhi from the Dantewada district: “Once the lockdown was imposed, people were advised to stay at home and the banks were not allowed to be overcrowded. Since then mainly people have used my services for the withdrawal of money as there was a shortage of work during the lockdown. In the initial phase of the lockdown, many SHGs also offered their unused corpus to be used by the Bank Sakhis for providing cash withdrawal service for the needy.”
The Aspirational Districts have approximately 7,776 Anganwadi Centres (AWCs). Anganwadis are one of the oldest public institutions, and are crucial for monitoring of nutrition and proper growth of a child, especially in the rural areas. In many of these villages, the parents have to leave their children at home unattended during the day time as they are out on the fields in order to earn decent livelihood through agriculture or collection of forest produce or some other activities.
In absence of the parents, the Anganwadi worker become solely responsible for ensuring proper nutrition of the child. An AWC is run by an Anganwadi Worker (AWW) and a Sahika (helper). Both are women. In the post-lockdown phase, these two people are not only responsible for ensuring nutrition of the children, but they are also are part of the Gram Panchayat Surveillance Teams.
From March 24, 2020, all the AWCs were shut down with immediate effect. A huge nutritional setback was expected. But the state government was committed to minimise the setback and so were these women on the frontline. So different aspirational districts tried to ensure that nutrition still be provided through the AWWs and their helpers.
In Bijapur, a centralised district-level procurement of dry ration from markets is being undertaken and the ration is then transported to the Child Development Project Officer level centres and stocked. From there, the sector supervisors then distribute these items to the AWCs. The AWWs and their helpers further distribute these to the households. Community volunteers are also helping these women in distribution of the food items.
In Bastar, the AWWs were involved in packing of dry ration, which includes biscuits, rice, soybean, chana, oil, onion and potato. Special attention is also being given to the delivery at the doorstep for the pregnant women, Severe/Moderate Acute Malnourished children, and lactating mothers through the Take-Home Ration program.
The team of AWWs and helpers are also part of the Gram Panchayat surveillance teams and are taking active role in awareness building among the community about disease prevention, need for home quarantine, common signs and symptoms, and promotion of safe hygiene practices in the district. They are also the first point of information for reporting of suspect cases.
“Nutrition is our responsibility. Even now we are doing home visits to monitor weight and height of children and for counselling of pregnant women and lactating mothers. My sahika and myself walk on foot everyday with weighing machines and registers. Additionally, I have to spend at least two hours for panchayat surveillance, on a daily basis. Home delivery of ration has been one of the key reasons why people continue to stay at home,” shared an anganwadi worker from Bastar.
The entire police force in Chhattisgarh has been engaged in strict enforcement of the lockdown in order to contain the spread of the virus. In the aspirational districts, some 10% to 15% of the police workforce is women. It is a complex role, especially for a woman, as they have to be both tough and compassionate. There have to be humane, yet firmly deal with the cases of violations of the prohibitory orders, hiding of travel history and nonadherence with the quarantine protocols.
A lady inspector from Narayanpur said: “Usually people have been cooperative. Only in a very few cases, people have not co-operated and crime has been registered. At check points, we are involved in screening and permission checks. In case of doubt, we immediately contact the nearest health facility. Monitoring the influx of migrants and students has also been a challenging task. We constantly patrol Gram Panchayats to ensure enforcement of quarantine and isolation and are committed to perform our duties.”
During interactions with many women, their willingness to continue their active participation in combating COVID-19 is exemplary. They have led the fight of COVID head on and fearlessly, and they will continue to do so. Much of their work is in the far-flung areas or in apparently routine and mundane activities and hence often their contribution goes unnoticed.
Apart from the various activities mentioned above, women are also engaged in agriculture and collection of minor forest produce. While they continue to function as an extended arm of the state to combat COVID-19, their engagement in their respective household work remains unchanged.
Also, a lot of times these COVID warriors do not have the necessary support from their spouses/families due to the implicit patriarchal norms that the society follow. So, accommodating to those pressures and also for their families to accept their wife, daughter or daughter-in-law to act as COVID warriors is very difficult. At the minimum it is necessary to recognise and acknowledge the humongous effort that the women COVID warriors are putting in this combat. It will also be important to create a socio-economic revival strategy that is sensitive to the engagement, acknowledgement and involvement of women’s efforts and skills.
Neeraja currently works as the State Programme Officer for the Aspirational Districts Programme in Chhattisgarh. An alumna of the University College London, she is currently an Acumen Fellow as well as an ex-Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow. Her interest area is working with women tribal farmers.