Opening the session on Rural Realities- West Bengal, Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director at IMPRI, welcomed the panellists to the session. Since the beginning of May 2021, the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, had organised a series of sessions to discuss the rural ground realities, speaking to rural practitioners and their ways and means of tackling the second wave. On May 25, 2021, the discussion was centred on ‘Rural Realities | West Bengal Practitioners’ Experiences in Tackling the Second Wave in Indian Villages‘.
Following the welcome by Dr Simi, the IMPRI team informed the discussion by locating for the event participants the situation of Covid-19 in India and West Bengal. The team also provided an insight into the geography and socioeconomic conditions of the state. The rationale was to provide the participants with an overview of the state of West Bengal.
Mr Sankar Halder, Founder President, Mukti, presented a picture of the reality of South Bengal. He started his discussion by talking about the cyclones that had devastated the region since November 2019. Coupled with the two Covid-19 waves, the dwellers in the region were facing massive devastation of livelihoods. Typically, the residents of South Bengal depended upon agriculture, fishing and government aid to survive.
Mr Sankar further highlighted the demographic picture of the region, where 30-35% of the residents were migrant workers. Lockdowns in cities coupled with natural disasters such as cyclones posed a livelihoods’ challenge for the locals. Migrant workers were unable to return to the cities for work. Mr Sankar stated:
Saline water from cyclones had damaged agricultural land and washed away the dwellings. As a result, several people had fallen below the poverty line.
He attributed four factors to the worsening Covid-19 crisis in Bengal:
Talking about the work being done by his organization, Mr Sankar said that Mukti was involved in the distribution of oximeters and oxygen concentrators to make up for the deficiencies in public health infrastructure.
Mr Tanmoy Bhaduri, Independent Journalist and Development Communication Expert, stated that the programme was facing problems due to a shortage of vaccines and digital divide and glitches that marred the CoWIN portal.
Lack of medical services such as ambulances, private nursing homes and ICU beds in rural as well as urban areas added to the woes.
Mr Bhaduri spoke about the absence of political help as compared to last year. Only volunteers were responding to emergency calls. Further, several NGOs were facing difficulties in accessing aid to help the poor, marginalised and daily wage workers in rural areas. Mr Tanmoy Bhaduri said:
Diversion of aid to medical needs such as oxygen cylinders and concentrators made hunger invisible,
He also highlighted the work done by him in providing adolescent girls with sanitary napkins and distributing sewing machines to manufacture the same.
Mr Vikram Rai, Assistant Professor, St Joseph College, Founder Vik Run Foundation, provided a perspective of the hills’ region of West Bengal. He attributed the lack of infrastructure and social stigma to the raging pandemic in Darjeeling.
The backlog of RT-PCR test results along with the stigma attached with Covid-positive patients exacerbated the pandemic situation in the region. Talking about the donation drives generated by his foundation Vik Run as well as his alma matter, he said that innovation was one of the key learnings that emerged for the panellist on setting up a community care centre. He said:
The need to emphasise on wholesome healthcare — physical as well as mental — is a key ingredient to help patients recover.
For Vikram, the collaboration between all stakeholders — government, private medical practitioners and civil society organisations — was necessary to combat stigma around the virus and help people recover better.
Shri Rajen Sundas, Trinamool Congress MLA candidate, Matigara Naxalbari, Darjeeling. Talking about his experience with tea gardens and tea workers in the State, he spoke about the hesitation among the rural poor to seek treatment for the virus.
He said that the second wave had affected more poor workers compared to the previous wave:
There was a need for the government to collaborate with all the relevant stakeholders to battle the pandemic.
Mr Chandan Kumar Maiti, General Secretary, Advanced Society for Headmasters and Headmistresses, West Bengal, spoke about the effects of the pandemic in the Sundarbans areas. Among several notable effects were joblessness, rise in child marriages as well as trafficking, especially of the girl child.
Speaking on the divide that the pandemic has created, he stated that only 15% of the children can log into online classes. As a result of the digital divide, poor children were suffering from an inferiority complex. Dropouts had increased, and if the government fails to form a task force on this issue, then the plight of education in the country would only worsen.
High prices of treatment along with issues of social boycott prevented the rural dwellers from seeking treatment. On the issue of rise in child marriages, Mr Maiti stated:
Headmasters from across the state, along with local child protection committees undertook counselling sessions.
As for the trafficking of girl children, psychological troubles, family troubles and lack of education opportunities resulted in girls getting lured by strangers into trafficking.
Dr Samir Kumar Das, Professor Political Science; Director Institute of Foreign Policy Studies, University of Calcutta, spoke about rural Bengal, Dr Samir pointed out the two things that were given about the rural areas:
In a situation characterised by poor infrastructure and vaccine hesitancy in rural Bengal, it is imperative to ensure that the government controls the spread of the virus to prevent the villagers from hospitalisation.
Highlighting the experience of the previous wave, Dr Samir provided four ideas through which the pandemic could be controlled in rural areas.
Regarding questions on how best to tackle an apparent third wave, Dr Samir answered:
Many more rural and grassroots level initiatives have to come up to compensate for an inadequate public health infrastructure.
There was a need to be proactive to catch up with the virus and stem its spread.
Dr Binayak Sundas, Assistant Professor, Centre for Himalayan Studies, University of North Bengal, Siliguri, Darjeeling, presented a case study of Matigara, Naxalbari. He argued for the need to adopt a decentralized approach to contain the pandemic. He said:
A bottom-up approach initiated by local clubs had to be the basis around tackling the virus in the tea garden/Bagan areas.
Highlighting a four-stage program to handle the pandemic, Dr Binayak focused on the need to create Village Action Committees (VACs).
Mr Maiti concluded his remarks by stating that collaboration was the only means through which the pandemic woes could be reduced. Engaging the armed forces, creating national and state-level policies was imperative to tackle the pandemic.
Some of the suggestions put forth by Mr Tanmoy Bhaduri were a decentralised approach, state-level Covid management practices, regulation of fees charged by private hospitals, creating a database of district-level hospitals and private nursing homes. Mr Vikram Rai said:
A humane approach was required to fight the battle rather a technical one
On a question on education and awareness about Covid, Mr Vikram spoke about the need to localize the instructions on Covid-related protocols. He said:
Accessibility, especially in simple and easy to understand language were the necessary tools to fight the pandemic.
Citing the example of Nadia district, Mr Tanmoy Bhaduri stated that several counsellors were in constant touch with the parents of girl children susceptible to child marriages.
On a question about trafficking, Mr Bhaduri remarked that girls often fell prey to online miscreants. Adding to the topic of trafficking, Mr Rai highlighted that the pandemic had turned the entire hills’ economy upside down. This would only fuel displacement and add to further miseries.
Regarding a question on Anganwadis and their role in the pandemic, Mr Bhaduri answered that their role had been extremely limited, especially in the south Bengal region. While the ASHA workers were actively engaged in fighting the pandemic, the same was not true of Anganwadi workers.
Answering a question on a comparison between the two waves of the pandemic, Mr Vikram remarked that the second wave had generated more scare than last year. The number of deaths had considerably increased compared to last year. Due to the visibility that the virus had acquired this year, people had become aware and conscious.
Answering a question on the role of political parties during election campaigns, Dr Binayak Sundas stated that elections did contribute to the spread in West Bengal. However, it was not the only reason.
On vaccination plans for vulnerable communities in the rural areas, Mr Bhaduri answered that vaccine hesitancy was widely prevalent. Apart from vaccine hesitancy, vaccine shortages accompanied by distribution glitches resulted in preventing peoples’ access to the public good. Mr Vikram further remarked that tea workers had to be listed as a priority group for vaccination.
On the need to constantly monitor Covid-positive patients with co-morbidities, Mr Bhaduri remarked that the entire episode exposed the inefficiency of the government to adequately provide public health. Mr. Vikram Rai spoke on the need to establish post-Covid care centres to address the needs of post-virus complications.
Dr Binayak Sundas concluded the session by summarising the ground reality of the spread in rural areas. Also, the need to constantly innovate and collaborate were the two most potent tools to emerge out of the discussions to effectively tackle the second wave.