Every morning, Kamla Bai ( 30) makes a round of the hamlets in the Saklal Panchayat in Udaipur district of Rajasthan. Her mission is to bust misinformation and rumours about the coronavirus pandemic among the people of her Panchayat.
“ There are all kinds of rumours about coronavirus in the villages. One rumour is that people with symptoms will be taken by the hospital staff and shot in the head to stop the spread of the virus”, she says. Another rumour doing the rounds, especially among men, is that the disease can be cured by drinking Mahua (traditional home-made liquor), which has led to an increase in domestic violence within households.
In a calm tone, she explains the screening process to people to allay their fears. She visits homes to educate people about the importance of wearing masks and washing their hands regularly.
Apart from this, she has also been collecting complaints from the returnee migrants in the villages about non-payment of wages and harassment by employers. This information is then reported by Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit that works with migrant workers and operates a hotline service in collaboration with the labour department of the Rajasthan government to ensure payment of their rightful wages.
Kamla Bai is a member of Ujala Samooh – a 12000 member collective of Bhil and Meena tribal women in the predominantly tribal districts of Udaipur,Dungarpur, Banswara, and Rajsamand in Southern Rajasthan. Formed in 2011 under the aegis of Aajeevika Bureau’s Family Empowerment Programme, women of the Ujala Samoohs have been organising tribal women in these districts to claim their rights as citizens as well as demand their rightful entitlements of employment, rations and remittances. In the last few years, women of the Ujala Samooh’s have contested local elections and have been able to forge a political identity in their villages.
As India announced a complete lockdown on 25th March 2020 with a four hour notice to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, rural India was beset with another set of problems – of hunger, anxiety and misinformation. Thousands of migrants walked hundreds of kilometres from their urban workplaces to reach their homes in rural India in an atmosphere of panic. Rumours about the virus and stigma around the returnee migrants were adding on to people’s anxieties in the villages.
In times of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ujala Samooh members rapidly collectivised to debunk the spread of fake news, relay the right information as well as to make demands on the corrupt local governance to help poor families with welfare benefits.
Local tribal women’s leadership countering the infodemic in rural Rajasthan
“We are not just fighting a pandemic, we are fighting an infodemic” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) while talking about the spate of misinformation surrounding the Covid-19.
In late March, the infodemic in rural Rajasthan was gaining alarming proportions. Names of returnee migrants from the cities who were showing symptoms of the disease were circulating on WhatsApp, stigmatizing their identities and leading to discriminatory attitudes towards them. In the tribal areas of Southern Rajasthan, Ujala Samoohs emerged as the most credible network of information and assistance in these times. Such is the trust in the Ujala Samooh leaders that people have been knocking at their doors for the right information.
Durga is a Ujala Samooh leader and ASHA sehyogini in Dungarpur district. In the Covid-19 pandemic, she has been making women aware that fasting will minimise immunity and decrease the chances of fighting the virus
Durga (26), a Ujala Samooh leader from Sagot panchayat in Dungarpur district and an Accredited Social Health Activist ( ASHA) Sehyogini is part of the team and has been doing rounds, surveying the returnee migrants and screening of people showing symptoms.
“Women have been observing fasts as they think that the local goddess, Dasha mata is angry. They believe that observing fast for five days will drive the virus away. I have been telling them that the virus is likely to affect those with low immunity and fasting would weaken our immunity ”, said Durga.
Women like Pushpa Devi from Bedawal panchayat of Salumbar block in Udaipur district and Kanka Devi from Lohagarh panchayat in Pratapgarh district have been making door to door visits to make people aware of the seriousness of the epidemic and advising safety measures.
Collecting and verifying information is a meticulous operation in the Ujala Samoohs. The women are in constant touch with the district collector’s office by whatsapp through which every piece of information is verified. They consult a network of other institutions. For health related information, they contact the local Amrit clinics, which are low cost health clinics located in migrant friendly areas of South Rajasthan. Information on the delivery status of the social security schemes announced by the government is collected from the Gram Panchayats ( Village Council). Ujala Samooh leaders have been actively working with the Gram Panchayats to include vulnerable families that were left behind in the government surveys for welfare relief Government of Rajasthan had announced free ration entitlements of 5 kilograms of aata ( wheat flour), half a litre of cooking oil, 1kilograms dal (pulses), 1kilogram rice free of cost to the needy as part of relief measures during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Apart from this, some of the Ujala samooh members are also part of the local Rapid Response Committee (RRC) formed by the Panchayats comprising of Anganwadi workers, School teachers, local youth to screen through the local Covid-19 checklist of asymptomatic people with travel history.
Narni Bai and her efforts at last mile service delivery
Narni Bai (30), the Ujala Samooh leader of Banoda panchayat in Udaipur district was furious when she learnt that widowed women from her hamlet were still going in search of work as there was nothing to eat. The entitlements promised by the government which includes additional rations for single women headed families had not yet reached them. She called the Sachiv ( Secretary of the Gram Panchayat) to demand answers.
“ The Sachiv said that everyone’s names have been included and they would get their rations soon. I made him read each and every name and number. That is when we found out that he had skipped my entire hamlet”, Narni Bai said.
In turn, the Sachiv asked Narni Bai to conduct the survey and send him the names of these families.
“Why should I conduct the survey. It is his job. So, I made him visit the hamlet the next day and take down all the names”, Narni Bai told us.
In instances when the government machinery fails to reach the last person, the women of the Ujala Samooh help people to claim their entitlements.
Although she never went to school, Narni Bai has been tackling National Rural Employment Scheme (NREGS) contractors and the corrupt ration dealers (under Public Distribution Scheme) who deny rights of the citizens since she joined the collective five years ago.
Narni bai also mobilised the young men from her hamlet to join the Covid-19 response.
“We went to the panchayat and got the disinfectants so that we can spray it everywhere in our hamlet. We took out a rally, maintaining the norms of social distancing, urging everyone to not step out of the house ”, said Ramesh Meena, a young boy from Narni Bai’ panchayat. They got the Panchayat to close down the alcohol shop in their hamlet as it was attracting crowds and causing distress to the women.
Many stories of local accountability
Kamla Bai is the Ujala leader from Saklal Panchayat in Udaipur district. She has been using government data to demand for local accountability
For the last 9 years, Ujala Samoohs have been setting an example of using government data and technology for demanding accountability at the local level.
When Kamla Bai’s Ujala Samooh realised that the dealer of their local fair price shop which distributed food items under the Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) was sending false entries to the government website of disbursing rations, she decided to take the issue into her own hands.
Having trained in the access and use of the government’s Management Information System of the PDS website, she along with other other Samooh members printed the ration delivery receipts and confronted the dealer who was forced to admit the deliberate exclusion. The power of information used by the Samooh leaders helped in collective action to demand accountability from a dealer who would have otherwise dismissed these women as illiterate and uninformed.
As part of the village School Monitoring Committee (SMC) in Saklal panchayat of Kherwada, Kamla Bai was instrumental in getting more teachers appointed for the school.
Kamla believes that it is necessary for the women to come together and fight any kind of change in the society.
In times of the Covid-19 pandemic,Ujala samooh members have emerged as a powerful force for not just busting myths and misinformation but also questioning the internalization of gender roles of women such as the practices of fasting. This collectivisation is also proof of the power of decentralisation in empowering communities.
Drishti Agarwal works with Aajeevika Bureau’s Family Empowerment Program. Her twitter handle is @AgrwalDrishti
Manju Rajput leads the Family Empowerment Initiative at Aajeevika Bureau.
Aajeevika is a specialised non-profit initiative that provides services, support and security to rural, seasonal migrant workers.