Unseen Warriors of COVID: Sanitation workers in rural Haryana unable to access ration, primary health care
Hit by lockdown the Primary Health Centres in rural areas of Haryana’s Hisar, Kurukshetra, Yamunanagar and Ambala have no stock of necessary medications. Swabhiman Society, a collective of Dalit women in the state managed to help many during the lockdown.
Editor's note: As the second wave of coronavirus infections ravages parts of India, millions of front-line workers and citizens are caught up in the middle, providing their services to distressed families on one hand while trying to cope themselves on the other. This is part nine of a series profiling the stories of these people.
A significant number of daily wage and sanitation workers, all belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities, across five districts of Haryana are facing enormous challenges in accessing ration, water and primary health care facilities.
These include villages from Hisar, Yamunanagar, Kaithal, Ambala and Kurukshetra districts.
"It's been three months, my husband has not gotten any work and everyday survival has become difficult. We have not received any help for ration from any source," said Shamim Bano from Ambala’s Barada village.
"Paying rent is another major issue for us. The landlords have been troubling us since a few months," she added as she spoke to Manisha Mashaal, advocate and co-founder of the Swabhiman Society, a Dalit women’s collective working for the welfare of SC, ST women across Haryana.
Ever since the pandemic began, Manisha, along with 15 other women of her team, had been visiting villages across several districts of Haryana to provide ration to daily wagers, migrant workers and sanitation workers.
Till May 2021, they have visited over 60 villages and have catered to at least 9,000 people, procuring reports and testimonies of people who are stuck in the villages without any aid for food and healthcare from the district administration.
The mid-day meal services in these villages have also been disrupted by the lockdown restrictions.
"We have been receiving lists of people who are struggling for work, food and other basic facilities since the 2020 lockdown. Our networks and co-ordinators across Haryana have been conducting surveys and constantly working to help as many as we can," Manisha said while highlighting Swabhiman Society’s relief work for over a year now.
The organisation has provided ration to at least 3,000 people across Barada, Gandhinagar, Dahima and Mukhala villages, until May. Each of their ration kits included 15 kgs wheat flour, 15 kgs rice, two kgs of oil and two kgs of sugar, packets of tea leaves, one kg dal, half a kg of soybean, and packets of other spices such as salt, chilli powder, turmeric etc.
In addition to ration, they have also provided masks, gloves, safety kits and sanitisers to over 700 sanitation and sewage workers.
“While we carried out our relief work, it was brought to our notice that people who are working as cleaners, sweepers, cleaning the drains and are engaged in other sanitation workers, mostly Dalit women, are not being provided the necessary personal protection equipment by the administration even during their Covid duties,” said Manisha.
While people in rural areas are dependent on the Primary Health Centres (PHCs) for immediate healthcare facilities, the PHCs in most of the villages from the five districts mentioned above are facing a severe shortage of medicines, injections for diseases such as Typhoid, Diabetes and Thyroid.
Additionally, due to the lockdown, villagers are unable to commute conveniently to the healthcare centres and hospitals.
Bateri Devi, a labourer from Hisar district’s Dahima village has been struggling to look after her aged and bed-ridden husband, said, “Commuting is the main problem. We still somehow visited government and private hospitals both. But, he is not getting up at all.”
“Now, we do not have enough money or facilities to do anything beyond this. Since everything is locked down, there’s no work either. How to earn? There’s no help for the poor,” she added.
One of the significant interventions of the Swabhiman Society has been to conduct regular health camps and blood testing camps in these villages from February to May 2021.
These health camps have played a vital role in catering to Covid-19 fears among women, for information dissemination and for spreading awareness, physical and mental, about how they can take care of themselves amid the pandemic.
The team had hired private nurses, doctors and councillors to provide free healthcare facilities to the women, through their health camps.
In one of the incidents highlighted by Manisha, during a health camp at Barada village, they found that out of 70 women, 60 women had drastically low blood count. Many of them tested positive for Typhoid. Incidentally, this is the same village where they found that the PHC did not have enough stocks of Typhoid medications.
“They are not eating enough. There’s no balanced nutritious diet for them. How will they get the necessary minerals and vitamins to maintain their blood count and strength,” Manisha said.
Another cause of concern is the skin allergies faced by SC, ST women who have been engaged in sanitary work for years now. They are the most vulnerable groups who are struggling to get regular medicines for their treatment and it was found that the infection was spreading among their family members too.
On being asked about whether the government doctors’ team had come for a visit and check-up, Nirmala Devi, a labourer from Kaithal district’s Rajound village, said “They came, but did test our blood. They just said everything is fine here and left.”
“We get Rs 1000 for 15 days of work. How can we afford to buy food, water, and medicines in thousand rupees,” she said while talking about how something as basic as healthcare has remained unaffordable to them.
Manisha and her team had visited the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Ambala district to report the conditions of PHCs at villages, but officials from CMO’s office responded that “lockdown has hit all the services and currently we do not have the resources to provide every medicine to each PHC. We are trying, but it will take time.”
They had even reached out to the District Collectors of Ambala, Kurukshetra, Yamunanagar and Kaithal. But, even after multiple attempts, the offices didn’t respond to schedule an appointment.
An attempt to meet Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar resulted in a day-long wait, but to no avail. The Chief Minister’s office cited reasons such as “the CM is busy with Covid related meetings” and “social distancing” to not schedule an appointment.
On 29 March, the team received a phone call from the Khattar’s office stating that the CM is available for a while and they can meet him as soon as they can. While Manisha coordinated with the officials and requested at least half-an-hour for reaching the office, the CM had left before they arrived.
“We wanted to discuss with the CM the issues faced by SC, ST women in the state, their working conditions, violence inflicted upon them, the resources at their disposal for their welfare and development among many other points,” Manisha said when asked about what the team would discuss with the CM.
She adds that the response they received from the women during their camps suggested that government intervention is crucial to enhance the resources and reach out to a larger number of people who are devoid of basic facilities necessary for daily survival.
To support the grassroots work of Swabhiman Society, check out their website.
Read other parts of the series here
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