Stay Home. Stay Safe. The message has been clear since India’s nationwide lockdown, which began on March 24, sent millions of people home from work and school to stop the spread of COVID-19. But many more, considered essential, cannot take such precautions. Despite the danger, these frontline workers are providing emergency care for those who fall ill and food to families in need. Every day, they go to work more for you and me than for themselves.
But what does it mean to be on the front lines of a global pandemic in some of the most remote places on earth? From deep in the Saranda forests in Jharkhand to the open fields of Bangamunda in Odisha, volunteers from local development organizations are stepping up.
Meet Sitaram, Manoj, Babita and others who, without any official badge or the special permissions and honours that come with it, are delivering food and supplies, combating stigma, and making sure the most vulnerable people in their communities are not left out of emergency aid.
In normal times, these frontline staff from Trickle Up and it’s partner organisations in India navigate local extremist activity, political conflict, violence, and natural disasters to help vulnerable families in Jharkhand and Odisha overcome extreme poverty.
Despite these hurdles, they meet with families regularly to monitor their progress, help anyone facing difficulty, and make sure they have access to urgent government information. They are used to working through challenging circumstances, but this year’s lockdown is unprecedented.
What has been their experience? Let’s hear from them:
Sitaram Oraon is Field Coordinator at Trickle Up. He works in 24 villages situated deep inside the Saranda Forests in the West Sighbhum district of Jharkhand.
Q: What exactly did you have to do during the lockdown?
Sitaram: “I live in the operational area of Trickle Up. I did not stop working during the nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19. I realised that our participants would need help and guidance to access and avail all the safety net programs announced by the government for the ultra-poor population during these distressing times. I have been passing on the information, helping our participants withdraw the money deposited in their accounts by the government as pension and conducting regular meetings with the village heads and leaders to ensure that no one in my operational area goes hungry due to the lockdown. For the ones I could not reach, I have been conducting regular training over the phone to help them understand and practice physical distancing and maintain hygiene.”
“The Jharkhand Government is running a community kitchen by the name of ‘Didi’s Kitchen’. The objective is to distribute hot cooked meals free of cost to the villagers during the lockdown period under the ‘Dal-Bhat’ community kitchen program. While our participants have been chosen to lead the initiative, I have been helping them with the coordination of the ration. Trickle Up works in some of the most remote areas of the world. Among them, are some parts of the cluster of hamlets in Sonapi, tucked deep into the Saranda forest. I have been helping our participants running the ‘Didi’s Kitchen’ in Chhota Nagra to transport cooked meals to the remote areas in Sonapi.”
Manoj Kumar Dani is a Field Coordinator with SEWAK, Trickle Up’s partner in Odisha. He works in 9 villages of the Sundergarh district.
Q: How did you deal with the situation you faced in the field?
Manoj: “From the beginning of the lockdown in India, I have seen so many people go out of their way to help the ones that really need support. Being part of the development sector, I too wanted to do something on my own. When masks became mandatory, I saw how some people could buy them while many couldn’t.”
“My wife can stitch and once I discussed the situation with her, we both agreed that we could buy the material, make cloth masks and distribute it to the people who cannot afford to buy them. It wasn’t a difficult decision to take, just something that needed to be done. I went back to conducting regular field visits since mid-April because I felt that our project participants in the remote corners of the country needed the support.”
Babita Mahanand also works with Trickle Up’s partner NGO SEWAK, in Balishankara block of Odisha. She is a frontline worker, overseeing nine villages.
Q: Did you see any positive outcome of the work you do, during this lockdown?
Babita: “Nobody knew this was in store for us. When we would be promoting the benefits of Nutrition Gardens, our participants would follow the instructions mainly because they place a lot of trust in us. But during the nationwide lockdown due to COVID19, they realised the importance of the gardens. Many of them had a regular supply of nutritious food because of it. They got hold of my number and kept calling me to tell me about it and ask when I would be coming for a visit.”
“After the first phase of the lockdown, when I started going to the field again, the participants welcomed me like a family member they had been missing! I have never felt anything like this before. I guess this is exactly why I love my work.”
Sushanti Hembrom is a frontline staff with PRAVAH, Trickle Up’s partner in Jharkhand.
Q: Why did you not work from home during the lockdown?
Sushanti: “I was asked to work from home. But, I volunteered to travel a distance of over 70 km everyday between Dumka (where I stay) and Litipara (where our participants stay) on my own two-wheeler. I did this just to ensure that our participants have access to every Government scheme ensuring food security to the most vulnerable and helping them survive the tough times caused by the global pandemic.”
“See, I work with Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups and I know most information doesn’t reach them on time because their villages are so remote. I just had to do my bit.”
Aatish Barik is the Block Coordinator at Lokadrusti, Trickle Up’s partner in Odisha. He leads a team of five, working in 30 villages in the Bongomunda block.
Q: Did you face any new challenges during this time?
Aatish: “When the nationwide lockdown was declared, I just felt one thing. We work with the most vulnerable people. If we can’t reach them during these times of distress, what’s the purpose of our work? We took the risk and started our field visits after the first phase of the lockdown. One of the new experiences for me was working with return migration workers. Not only were they not registered for services, but also, there was a social stigma around them.”
“We tracked 83 such families, dug out their old records from 2015 and helped link them to services. We also made home-visits to spread awareness about quarantine, preventive measures and also to remove the stigma. It is important to fight the disease together, people need empathy and care, not social isolation.”
Naba Kumar Bishi works with Trickle Up’s partner in Odisha, Lokadrushti. He works in 7 villages in the Muribahal district. He has been part of Trickle Up’s mission for over a decade.
Q: Did you learn anything new?
Naba Kumar: “I realised the importance of building relationships. I have my own medical vulnerabilities and was under strict instructions to work from home during this time. However, I could not help worrying about the 96 participants I work with. I coordinated my entire work over the phone by keeping in touch with them regularly and ensuring they had access to and information about all Government entitlements. The strong relationships I’ve built with the local government representatives helped me keep track of the participants who did not have phones.”
“As soon as I was allowed to visit the field, I first met the ones I could not contact personally during the lockdown. The distress of the trying times was writ large on their faces. We are now looking forward to engaging them with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme so that they can start earning again till the situation normalises and they can go back to their small businesses and other livelihood options.”
Santosh Marandi is a frontline worker with Pravah, Trickle Up’s partner in Jharkhand. He works in 17 villages in the Litipara block.
Q: This situation is unlike any we have faced. Please share your feelings about your experience with us.
Santosh: “I work with indigenous tribes staying in some of the most remote villages in Jharkhand, India. Change-Makers are local cadres that help bridge the gap between us outsiders and the tribal population. We have to work very hard to gain their trust and our frequent and regular visits play a huge role in the process. With mobility restricted due to the nationwide lockdown imposed due to COVID-19, our field visits completely stopped for over a month. All we could do was keep in touch with the Change-Makers through frequent phone calls to ensure that all our participants have access to the food security provisions made by the government.”
“My emotions were on a roller-coaster. Initially, I was very tensed. People from indigenous tribes do not share their problems with outsiders. But when they started communicating with me through the Change-Makers, I felt trusted. That gave me a huge sense of relief. When I could go back to the field in the month of May, I was surprised to see how well the Change-Makers had managed their jobs during this time of distress. Our training had borne fruit. That was a huge satisfaction.”
(The Jharkhand State Livelihoods Promotion Society has developed a cadre of youth called Change-Makers from the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups communities to help spread awareness about Government schemes and to address the social issues in the villages.)
Arundhati Das works with Trickle Up’s partner NGO PRAVAH, in Jharkhand. She heads a team of five other frontline workers that work in 72 villages.
Q: Would you call yourself an ‘Essential Worker’?
Arundhati: “We work with indigenous tribes in some of the remotest corners of the country, where most services have not reached yet. During the nationwide lockdown, we have coordinated with 65-70% of our participants and ensured that they receive their entitlements as promised by the Government. We have reached every single place through Change-Makers, Savings Groups participants and active participants who have mobile phones.”
“My team has also voluntarily travelled to two to three villages every day with proper precaution even during the lockdown. I do feel that we are essential workers too. If we too, were issued passes, we would have ensured that no person goes without access to the many schemes announced by the Government to ensure food security during the lockdown. It is a matter of survival after all. If food security is not essential, can you tell me what is?”
These few are actually not just a handful of people. They are the voices of thousands of frontline workers working in non-profits across the country. They’ve chosen this job to stand by the marginalized people in difficult times. Although they are frontline workers, there isn’t much discussion about them or a huge appreciation for their work. Yet, in troubled times, these are the ones you’ll find standing up for people, every single time.
And yes, very importantly – they have been working while wearing masks, sanitizers on their hands, following physical distancing norms, and in compliance with all precautions to keep COVID-19 at bay.