While Urban India struggles, tribals in Bastar follow strict self-isolation norms; villagers barricade roads to prevent spread of virus
Tribals in the seven districts of Bastar region in Chhattisgarh have voluntarily adopted measures to implement lockdown in their villages, without much of the state’s intervention, to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus
It has been over a month since tribals in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, a Maoist hotbed, suspended their centuries-old ritual of rooster fights in villages to adhere to social distancing and avoid being infected by the novel coronavirus.
Rooster fights forms an integral part of the tribal life and culture, and never before, as far as the people in the Bastar region could remember, was this ritual ever suspended. But, by doing so, these self-driven tribals have set an example for the urban population on how to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and maintain self-discipline during the nationwide lockdown.
Interestingly, when the administration and police are having a tough time restricting civilians in their homes and preventing them from gathering on streets, in several cities across India, including the metros, the tribals from the seven districts of Bastar region have voluntarily adopted the lockown measures within their villages, without much of the state’s intervention, to prevent the spread of the pandemic.
With a population of more than 30 lakh (as per Census 2011), not a single COVID-19 positive case has been found in the Bastar region yet.
The lockdown story of the tribals in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region is one of a self-driven initiative rooted in their traditional reverence for community values and their socio-cultural way of life. They pay utmost respect to nature, traditions, their value systems and totems, which in a way is a code of conduct for the tribal population of the Dandakaranya region of Chhattisgarh. The region comprises more than 20 lakh people, accounting for 67 percent of the total population of Bastar region.
“Rooster fights are a celebration, a ritual and a social sport, which tribals have been following for centuries. But this is probably for the first time that they have suspended it to avoid gathering of people at market places,” Basant, a resident of Naxal-affected Dantewada district in Bastar region told Firstpost.
Even Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel has commended the self-discipline shown by tribals in the rgion on Twitter.
Tribal population has shown extraordinary self discipline during this tough time.
Probably for the first time in recent history they have stopped their favourite 'Murga Ladai' i.e. Rooster Fight.
Salute to them.https://t.co/nuK3dsCIRJ
— Bhupesh Baghel (@bhupeshbaghel) April 22, 2020
Without much intervention of the state, the tribals in Bastar region have isolated themselves by fencing their villages with bamboos and tree branches placed on road sides and inside the jungles.
Handmade posters or placards have been hung at entry points preventing outsiders from entering their villages. Barricades have also been placed on rural roads connecting two villages.
Barring ambulance, health workers, Panchayat and public distribution system (PDS) workers for supplying rations, no one including vehicles, is allowed to enter these tribal villages.
Surprisingly, the Naxals who present themselves as ‘big brothers’ and often exert authority over tribals, have maintained silence on the lockdown. Unlike their regular calls to tribals for an armed struggle against the State to protect ‘Jal, Jungle, Zameen’ (Water, Forest, Land) and tribal rights, the banned outfit CPI (Maoist) has issued no instructions to Adivasis on hygiene, social distancing or isolating themselves for their safety.
Contrary to popular perception about the literacy and awareness level of the tribal population, the tribal villages in Bastar region seem better aware about cleanliness and rules related to isolation, quarantine and lockdown. Whatever guidelines they receive from the government, they implement it without questioning.
Many of the villagers, if not using masks, protect themselves by wrapping ‘gamcha’ (native word for a towel) on their faces.
“Initially, when we started getting news about COVID-19, we were worried about the tribals, but believe me they are more aware and wiser than us urbanites. The next day after the Janata curfew, my friend and I went on a round to Teknar village some 10 kilometres away from Dantewada town early morning. We were amazed when three villagers confronted us asking why we were roaming after prime minister’s instruction to stay home,” added Basant, who’s a field staff in the Chhattisgarh government.
According to the locals and government officials, the strong community values within tribals and their past experiences make them self-disciplined and follow measures needed during an epidemic.
“In the long past, there had been incidents of cholera and small pox epidemics, and Adivasis are aware of it through generations. So, while we create awareness among the tribal population on COVID-19, they get a warning signal that something big is happening and they need to protect themselves. This intuitive instinct helps in building a quarantined system in their society,” deputy collector, Dantewada district, Lingraj Sidar told Firstpost.
Routine life takes a backseat
With the imposition of the nationwide lockdown, the daily routine of tribals has undergone a change. There’s no more going to haats (weekly village markets) for buying and selling of crops and vegetables and panchayat meetings. Visits to other villages have also been suspended, and there’s no celebration of rituals and fairs.
Instead, they have isolated themselves within the boundaries of their villages. They go to forests to collect forest produce especially mahua or mahwah (Madhuca Longifolia), which is used for preparing local country liquor, and fishing. At home, many are busy in brewing liquor out of the mahua flower, as it forms an essential part of the tribal culture.
The government has allowed preparation and storage of mahua liquor up to five litres for each tribal household.
“Besides preparing mahua liquor, at this time, we’re repairing our huts and fixing the overhead roof tiles. As we don’t have much demand, the essential goods like rice, gram, salt, sugar or jaggery, etc, that we get from PDS are enough for us. Almost every household is involved in small poultry farming (chicken) and growing vegetables in the backyard, which is complemented by fishing. So, we don’t need to step out of our villages,” said Phoolchand, resident of Katulnar village at Geedam block of Dantewada district.
“Moreover there’re no haat, mela or mandai (village fair) to visit. Entry of outsiders into villages has been banned. So there’s no interaction with the outside world. Now, our village is the world for us. Inside the village, men, women and children maintain social distancing whether during fetching water from hand pump or collecting our ration supply," added Somaru of Gadhiya village under Lohandiguda block in the Bastar district.
Govt steps in with advance ration
The Chhattisgarh government has supplied two months’ ration to tribals in advance. At many inaccessible villages, where there’s no PDS outlet, door-step delivery has been ensured. Rice and salt are supplied for free.
In the wake of the lockdown, which led to shutdown of schools, the government has been providing midday meal ration (rice and pulses) for 40 days till 30 April by reaching out to the students at home or at a central place in the village.
Panchayat CEOs have instructed village sarpanchs (heads) and panchs (members) to prevent outsiders from entering any village and to inform local police about any such movement.
Every Panchayat samiti (society), which includes a village secretary, a patwari, a teacher and an employment assistant, is monitoring the movement of people coming from outside.
“With the help of PDS workers, panchayat members and self-help groups, we’re reaching out to interior villages with ration supply. We’ve supplied two month’s quota of rice in advance. Health workers are visiting them to advise them of preventive measures. Social distancing is being maintained everywhere. Each village is self-sustainable in Bastar. They don’t have much demand in life and lead a simple life. This has also helped them in isolating themselves in the strictest manner and follow government advisory,” Sidar added.
Amid lockdown, health workers have even gone into some of the tribal villages in Maoist strongholds inside deep forests in Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur districts, where government schemes and supplies fail to reach due to inaccessibility and locational disadvantage.
Meanwhile, women self-help groups (SHGs) comprising Adivasi women are playing an inspiring role in combating the ongoing crisis in Bastar. Besides creating awareness on maintaining proper hygiene to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reaching out to villagers with ration, these SHGs have made more than 18,000 masks as per health department’s guidelines for the tribals in Dantewada district alone. They are also producing vegetables for local consumption to counter shortage.
From the day lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendar Modi, the Bastar tribals have put themselves on a self-driven safety mode. And they have no qualms about it. As several people with whom Firstpost interacted remarked, “Once this mahamaari (pandemic) and lockdown ends, life will be back to normal. Tab tak aaraam karte hain (Let’s take a break till then)."
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