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India’s civil society role 'critical' as lockdown begins to impact rural poor in a big way

Debika Goswami* 
COVID-19 is perhaps one of the most lethal humanitarian disasters the world has witnessed in the last hundred years. The trajectory of the pandemic, which has rapidly expanded across the globe within a very short span of time since it was first announced in China, is much talked about.
The virus, in its tremendous zest to touch millions of rich and poor lives across countries in the world, has also made its inroads into India -- the country where almost 70 percent of the population dwell in rural areas. Despite the remarkable increase in telecommunication footprints and internet-based connectivity, a vast majority of this population remain disconnected from the national mainstream in every respect.
They continue to live with limited access to basic amenities like water, sanitation, healthcare facilities, and the benefits of various social security programmes. But if India has to emerge triumphant in this struggle against COVID-19, then the rural population cannot be left disconnected anymore.
After all, as economist Siddharth Chandra rightly points out, an earlier precedence of pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu took almost 50 million lives globally, approximately 20 percent of whom were Indians and apparently disconnected with the world outside.
A striking similarity between the two pandemics, the 1918 Spanish flu and COVID-19, spaced almost a century apart, is the tendency of the diseases to enter the country through people, who can be termed as carriers returning from other affected regions of the world, and later on having an increased likelihood of community outbreak, especially in areas with high density populations.
In 2020, the government’s attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, at an early stage of contamination in India, by imposing a national lockdown, promoted “stay at home in isolation and avoid unnecessary contact with others.” Simultaneously, this has led to a sudden halt of all sorts of economic and social activities, with very few exceptions.
As suggested by scientists and medical practitioners, a successful lockdown will ensure breaking the COVID-19 chain and cease the spread of infection. But an exceptionally large number of the rural population, being daily wage earners, will lose income and sources of livelihoods, leading to greater crisis in the country’s economy.
Delayed harvesting or sowing in agriculture will likely lead to food scarcity in the future. Under such circumstances, the pandemic is not just a health emergency; it has also placed the country on the verge of an unprecedented economic catastrophe, creating widespread unemployment and poverty.
At this juncture, it is crucial to remain connected with the disconnected rural population of India not only through provisions of better healthcare facilities and support, but also by ensuring proper implementation of government programmes, many of which are modified to fight the current emergencies, such as the free-of-cost supply of ration at the doorstep under Targeted Public Distribution System, coverage of testing and treatment for COVID-19 under Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, and direct cash transfers by virtue of remittances to women account holders of Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, to name a few.

Emerging role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in combating COVID-19

Despite concerted efforts by the national and the state governments in India to control the entire situation, a huge percentage of the rural poor still remains excluded and vulnerable. Primary challenges that rural India is afflicted with include the inadequate and dismal state of healthcare facilities, generic lack of awareness about do’s and don’ts to control the pandemic, shortages of basic ration and other essential commodities, among others.
These challenges bring poor and marginalized sections of the rural population to multiple crossroads. What to address first – healthcare or hunger? Social distancing, isolation, or falling prey to rumour-based panic attacks? And it is here that the role of CSOs emerges to be a very critical one -- to connect with the disconnected!
In the initial phase of the emergency, the role of CSOs in providing support and relief to the rural populace has been multifarious in nature. From relief feeding to converting anganwadi centers and schools into quarantine centers, from awareness generation on do’s and don’ts, sanitizing the villages in collaboration with gram panchayats, to the use of indigenous ingredients in making protective equipment like masks and sanitizers – the ideas have been innovative and actions apt.
Emergency ration: Families who are dependent on old-age pension, daily wages, or have members with disabilities are being provided with ration kits with sufficient food grains and cooking mediums for ensuring basic food and nutrition. In some cases, cooked food through community kitchens are being supplied to the neediest ones who are not in a position to prepare food for themselves (elderly, disabled persons) or are staying in isolation.
Creation of quarantine centers: Creation of quarantine centers are being done in the villages to help make staying arrangements for the returning migrant workers so that they don’t end up spreading the diseases to others. The CSOs are working in tandem with the gram panchayats and local administration to convert panchayat buildings, health centers, and local school buildings into the quarantine or isolation centers.
What to address first – healthcare or hunger? Social distancing, isolation, or falling prey to rumour-based panic attacks?
Making of protective equipment: Apart from distribution of protective items like masks, soaps, gloves, and sanitizers, one remarkable contribution has been home-based production of safety items, using locally available ingredients. Keeping in mind the existing shortage and prevalent black-marketing of items like sanitizers, masks, and gloves, this particular initiative is of outmost importance.
One has to rely upon traditional wisdom, albeit compromising the safety of these locally produced hygiene equipment should never be encouraged. The CSOs, based on their deep-rooted engagement and acquaintance with the communities, are innovating solutions and coming up with alternatives of branded hand sanitizers, soaps, and masks.
Sanitization of the villages: Sanitizing the villages in collaboration with gram panchayats will be a very necessary intervention with voluntary contribution of empowered communities who have been trained by CSOs under its various community empowerment programmes. Furthermore, proactive measures include identifying vulnerable families in a village and place them in locally created isolation centers, spraying of disinfectants in the village, and financial contributions made by mobilizing community-owned resources, gram panchayats, CSOs, and the village volunteers to achieve complete sanitization of the villages.
Awareness generation: Generating awareness about Dos and Don’ts during these trying times through community sensitization drives is extremely crucial. Introducing the concept of social distancing, proper steps for hand-washing, control of rumors/ panic, and other dos and don’ts, using community radio as messengers, mobile vans, showing short documentary films on television, and other audiovisual mediums like YouTube are areas which the CSOs can champion with support from local communities and gram panchayats.
Surveillance of villages: Surveillance of the villages is also a key to ensure all immigrants are sent to quarantines/isolation centers and COVID-19 does not assume the specter of a community threat by mass infection. Local youth should also be sensitized and employed by the CSOs to do this surveillance. Any person in the villages, if found with preliminary symptoms of the virus infection, should also be screened and if required sent to the quarantines.
NITI Aayog’s recent directive has further reinforced the critical role CSOs can play in collaboration with the local government institutions in rural India. As part of this collaborative effort in the coming months, actions like setting up of health camps, distribution of personal preventive equipments (PPEs) like sanitizers, masks, soaps, gloves for community health workers and volunteers, promotion of social and behavioral changes with focus on good hygiene and sanitation practices in daily life, practice of prevention methods like social distancing and isolation, and fighting the stigma among local communities are specifically highlighted.

The way forward: Multi-sectoral partnership

In the months past the preliminary emergency phase, creating connections with the disconnected rural Indian populace will be a prerequisite as well as a challenge for the central and the state governments in India. To address this issue, the government’s primary emphasis should be on generating trust in the psyche of the vulnerable rural masses—you are not the left-outs!
CSOs in India, with their last mile reach and ability to associate with millions of rural poor, have the potential to serve as a connecting link between local communities and the government institutions. Hence, they can become a primary actor by helping people learn about and access benefits of government programmes, including immediate relief plans like health fairs and food camps, to mention a few. Their role in promoting general awareness and preparedness by mobilizing the local communities, including the youth and school students in future, will also be vital.
Creating linkages and channelizing CSR funds is another action point for the CSOs. Innovative ideas, such as use of mobile vans to raise awareness levels of local communities, further use and promotion of technologies like community radios, and Interactive Voice Response System with focus on awareness generation using local dialects, provision of testing kits to detect COVID-19 apart from distribution of PPE items, among others, can be implemented through CSR/CSO collaborations.
Promoting multi-sectoral partnerships involving local governments and corporate/private sector investors, CSOs can spearhead the process of containing the pandemic in rural India as well as create an environment of prevention and protection in the months to follow.
Turn the pages of history: during the late nineteenth century plague outbreak in India, more specifically in Bengal, the earliest manifesto was published and implemented by Swami Vivekananda and his followers of Ramakrishna Mission, one of the oldest CSOs of the country, to safeguard the local communities from the idiosyncrasies of a hitherto lesser-known epidemic!
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*Associated with SM Sehgal Foundation as programme leader, Good Rural Governance, Gurugram

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