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The Humble Heroes of Narayanpur

The Dandakaranya Forest, keeper of the mighty Indravati and home to Sita, Ram and Laxman during their exile, is a hilly and extremely dense jungle. It is also known as Abhujmad, which translates to The ‘Unknown Hill’. In the heart of this forest lies Narayanpur. Notified in 2007 after Bastar district was divided into 7 parts, it is completely cut off from the rest of the world. With no highways and only 2 approach roads into the district, mainstream development has yet to arrive in these parts. It feels like a time machine running a few decades behind the rest of the country.

The district has a total population of roughly 140,000 with over 85% of them belonging to schedule tribes and comprises of over 90% forest cover with only one major town, making the majority of the region highly inaccessible. It is also home to the largest proportion of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) in the country. Given the recent status of a district and the context of the region, government services need a lot of improvement, specifically in healthcare.

Poor State of Healthcare

In early March as cases of COVID-19 were cropping up in various parts of the world, the administration knew that they would be on the back foot in case such a disease would start spreading in India, particularly in places like Narayanpur where healthcare services were far from adequate. An acute shortage of equipment and staff in health services has plagued the district since its formation in 2007, with only 3-4 specialists present in the entire district at any given point due to the high rate of attrition. None of the health centres are staffed as per guidelines and doctors have to be paid huge bonuses in order to lure them into working in the region.

The Pivotal Nature of Haat Bazaars

The region is also well known for its traditional ‘Haat Bazaars which are essentially weekly markets organised every day in some part of the district. Depending on the locality of the Bazaar their catchment can vary from 15-20km to almost 100km, drawing anywhere between a few hundred to thousands of people. Some indigenous tribespeople often trek for 2-3 days in order to reach their nearest market to sell forest-produce they collect and purchase basic commodities such as oil, salt and cheap plastic articles i.e. combs, torches, hair-clips etc. Owing to the high footfall, Haat Bazaars are also used for dissemination of health services by providing instant diagnosis, vaccination drives and basic OPD services.

These Haat Bazaars which form the backbone of trade and even health services would have proven to be the emissary of utter devastation in case of an outbreak. The administration, realising the gravity of the situationthought it was best to prevent an outbreak instead of responding to a disaster, therefore taking strict measures to ensure the safety of the district.

The Essential Cog - Mithanins, ANMs and Rural Health Workers

At the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 were the Mithanin (ASHA workers), ANMs and other Rural Health Workers. Together they form the most essential cog in the machinery fighting against the outbreak, even under normal circumstances, their services often go overlooked and under-appreciated. They are usually the only person trusted by the entire village as most Mithanins are chosen from the community. Additionally, ANMs invest years into building a strong rapport with their communities in order to earn their trust. These workers are the first point of contact for identification, isolation of potential cases and escalation to the concerned authorities.

Contribution of Community Influencers

Sarpanchs and Village Elders have also proven to be crucial in such dire circumstances. Due to their incredibly proactive nature and the longing to protect everyone in the village, they have ensured complete lockdown and isolation of their respective villages. They have put in place strict restrictions on movement into and out of their villages to curtail the potential spread of the disease. They have also been critical in ensuring home isolation of people considered to be high risk individuals.

Nothing is stronger than the heart of a volunteer

Volunteer groups formed of off-duty & non-essential administrative staff and youth groups have carried the burden of a large chunk of duties on their shoulders to ensure stability and peace. These groups were given the responsibility to ensure that prices of essential goods did not inflate hence avoiding the tendency to hoard and ensuring their availability and affordability to everyone in the district. They also took charge of being the first responders to distress calls from migrant workers or any person in need including aiding in distribution of ration and other essential supplies. In addition to all of the above, they are also involved in spreading awareness about COVID-19 and ensuring social distancing protocols in public spaces such as vegetable markets.

The Invisible Incredibles - Self Help Groups (SHGs)

Historically, women have always been underrepresented and under-appreciated for their contribution towards society despite playing crucial roles. Women SHGs are also playing such a role in the fight against COVID-19. Since the State has been unable to supply essential commodities for healthcare workers such as masks and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) kits due to shortage in supplies and a disturbed distribution network, SHGs across the country, including in Narayanpur, are filling this crucial gap by manufacturing masks and PPE kits which are potentially life-saving to healthcare workers who are at the highest risk of contracting the disease. They are also manufacturing soaps for distribution in public spaces as it is currently our best known defence. SHGs have also strengthened the production of ‘Ready To Eat’ supplementary nutrition packets for distribution amongst pregnant women which was a regular practice but has now become a crucial part of the fight against COVID-19.

Civil Society At Its Best

During these testing times, the contribution of NGOs has been recognised on a national scale. SAATHI Samaaj Sevi Sansthan and Ram-Krishna Mission are the only NGOs working in Narayanpur and both of them have been absolutely critical service providers by coordinating with the administration and assisting to fill any gaps left by the government machinery. Responding to distress calls, distributing ration and essential commodities to inaccessible areas and conducting awareness drives on COVID-19 and the importance of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in such times are only a few of their contributions.

The Catalyst - Narayanpur District Administration

Perhaps the most under-appreciated yet the entity without which many of the above would not exist, an entity which acts as the catalyst bringing together all the above stakeholders, is the administration. Headed by the District Magistrate with support from the Superintendent of Police, they have ensured prompt response and accountability for any complications that arise. Regular monitoring and updates have become a daily practice which ensures the smooth functioning of the machinery to fight against COVID-19. Line departments such as the electricity board have also risen to the challenge and ensured uninterrupted services during these time.

The Big Picture

All high risk individuals were identified and strictly quarantined in the district to curtail any potential spread. Narayanpur has tested a total of 16 cases as of publishing this article, all of which were negative. Roughly 350 migrant workers are stuck in the district, all of whom are being taken care of and regularly followed up with to ensure their safety and well being. Ration is being distributed to every family in the district regardless of the status of their ration card to ensure nobody has to face hunger.

At a time when most media outlets are looking for giant leaps and bold steps in preparedness, it is often the small steps that go overlooked, taken by individuals or small groups, expecting nothing in return, when put together form the only wall protecting us from utter destruction.

Source : Case Studies of Combating COVID-19 pandemic in Aspirational Districts

Last Modified : 6/16/2021

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