As the second wave of covid rages across the country and engulfs the rural Spaces of India, IMPRI has been organizing state-wise discussion to discuss practitioners experiences in tackling the second wave concerning rural realities. Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, organized a panel discussion on “Rural Realities | Punjab and Haryana Practitioners’ Experiences in Tackling the Second Wave in Indian Villages” on 19 May 2021.
The Team at IMPRI initiated the discussion by contextualizing the condition of Punjab and Haryana. Through an audio-visual presentation, the geographic location, socio-economic indicators, the state of the pandemic and emerging issues of both states were laid out in front of the audience.
Dr Indira Khurana, The Director of the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC) and the Vice-Chair of Tarun Bharat Sangh moderated the session. In her opening remarks, she elaborated upon how these sessions are intended to obtain a more granular picture of the situation on the ground. The need of creating more awareness about rural regions, villages and making it a part of mainstream discourse were also identified as factors driving the vision behind these sessions.
HALT ON SOCIAL SERVICE
Amrita Kaur : The project Coordinator from Mission Deep Educational Trust, Amritsar, shed light on how the organization is working on the education of students hailing from BPL (Below Poverty Line) families. She explained how free education and transport facilities are imparted to about 500 students from 6th to graduation.
Pick and drop facility is being provided by the organization, wherein students from 12 villages are allowed to travel and get educated. Before covid, residential facilities were also available; however, post-pandemic, the school and organization have been compelled to shut down, and some girl students have been left stranded in a hostel.
SECOND WAVE IN RURAL PUNJAB: INFRASTRUCTURE, PANCHAYATS, MIGRATION AND COMMUNITY AWARENESS
Sucha Singh Gill: Professor at CRRID Punjab, at the very outset, mentioned the devastating impact on the rural regions of Punjab. He held both the government and people accountable for not taking adequate precautions despite the fair warning. He attributes the devastating impact to the poor rural healthcare infrastructure.
He mentions that a study conducted showed that while the infrastructure was in place, there was no manpower in terms of doctors and paramedical staff; in some instances, medicines were unavailable. Given the emphasis on privatization of healthcare in the Urban, Prof Gill said that the rural has suffered. The need he emphasized was ramping up testing and alleviating people’s hesitancy.
However, according to Prof Gill, a positive point on the part of the government has been to include the third tier of government, the rural panchayats, to combat the pandemic.
He also appreciated the work of civil society organizations in providing aid and awareness in a situation where the government hasn’t been able to manage the situation.
Additionally, he also focused on the negative impact of the lockdown on the production of commodities in rural areas such as flower growers and farmers.
The massive losses incurred by producers and restrictions on sale have also led to a wastage of produce as most of them have discarded them in public spaces out of frustration. He referred to farmer’s agitation, arguing that only negotiation can help resolve the issue. He also explained the role of urban-rural migration as a primary cause of the outbreak in rural regions.
A significant issue overlooked is the rehabilitation of families who lose their breadwinners; often, it is the civil society organization, NGOs, religious institutions who have taken the mantle from the government.
Prof Gill applauded the effort of people in overcoming bureaucratic incapability and emphasized that in the long run and on a broader scale, we need action by governing authorities such as panchayats. He concluded that it is time for the state to become more relevant, for rural health and rural education to be resurrected and learn from the lessons of last year.
Baljinder Singh Gill: Regional Manager, Tata Trusts elaborated upon the increased virulence of covid and how in rural regions, the real issue is of lack of manpower. He especially emphasized the rural mindset about covid wherein there is fear among the communities and hesitancy to get tested.
He suggested that the government should focus on community awareness.
He further indicated that voluntary organizations coming together is a resource to be tapped into, and their strength in numbers can be utilized to combat the crisis.
Prof Jaglan talked about how through the protests in Punjab and Haryana, people from rural regions of Haryana have learnt from their counterparts in Punjab as how communities can find solutions to their shared struggles. This he emphasized is important to ensure that villages don’t isolate themselves and suffer and instead attempt to use community action as a collective solution to the problem.
INNOVATIVE INITIATIVES: MASK LANGARS
Dilpreet Singh Gandhi, An Advocate of High Court and Supreme Court of India, Chandigarh elucidated his social service journey. He began operating Mask langars when he became aware of the inflation in the market, and he recognized that those less fortunate than him would not be able to afford essential commodities such as masks for their families.
With the realization, he employed tailors and workers from his office and provided them with the requisite materials. Then, using his innovative idea and strategy, he began operating Mask Langars and has been able to distribute 27,000 masks in a few months.
AWARENESS: THE RURAL-URBAN GAP IN PUNJAB
In further highlighting issues that have negatively impacted the states, Mr Gandhi identified over-population and illiteracy as significant causes of concern. About the rural regions specifically, he elaborated upon how young male migrate in search of better jobs. However, with the looming lockdown, these migrants were compelled to return to their hometown villages, where ignorance regarding the situation has led to devastating conditions.
Through his personal experiences, he also emphasized that people from more urban areas such as Chandigarh have been more cautious and abide by the rules than rural regions in Amritsar. He also held the media accountable for not presenting an accurate picture of the situation on the ground.
Citing the reliance of the citizens on media, he pointed out the disparity between international and national news reporting.
POOR AND NEGLIGENT MANAGEMENT
He also expressed his concern with regards to increasing fatalities in the second wave.
A glaring sign of mismanagement of the situation, he also attributed the more disastrous situation in the second wave to election rallies being held in the country.
With illiteracy being a significant concern in rural areas, he explained how citizens hailing from these areas place blind faith in their politicians.
He also criticized the decisions of religious institutions which mandate the devotees to remove their masks upon entering. In this respect, he also mentioned writing a letter to the authorities in the Golden Temple reminding them of their responsibility to public welfare. He also highlighted the disparity among the first and the second wave in the ability of the state to provide ration and other essential commodities.
CHALLENGES AND MISMANAGEMENT IN SOCIAL SERVICE
About their work of providing free education to children, both Mrs Kaur and Mr Gandhi emphasized the transactional nature.
The promise of free education in itself is often not enough and has to be complemented with some assurance of basic needs such as free food or accommodation.
Recounting his personal experiences, Mr Gandhi elaborated upon how in many low-income households, an excess of ration had accumulated due to poor resource management. As a result, many non-profit organizations invariably ended up servicing the same area.
ROBUST LEGAL MECHANISMS
Referring to citizen’s callousness towards the rule of law, Mr Gandhi argued for more robust legal mechanisms to resolve the country’s situation today in the wake of the second wave of covid’19.
EMPOWERING ACTION-ORIENTATED ORGANIZATIONS AND AWARENESS
Parvesh Malik: Founder, Mission Jagriti elaborated upon the need to empower organizations and Self Help Groups (SHG) that put theory in practice and impact the grassroots level. He emphasized that volunteers from such organizations can be agents of change that motivate and have a substantial impact. In several rural regions of Haryana Self Help Groups and committees have emerged as a response to the pandemic; however, he emphasized that awareness is still crucial to solving the dire situation. To further elaborate on the need for awareness, he also mentioned varied perspectives that exist regarding vaccines.
He concluded that people hailing from rural areas often are receptive to the knowledge and wishes of those from urban areas.
RURAL EMPLOYMENT IN HARYANA
Prof Jaglan mentioned rural employment in Haryana as a significant cause of concern. He elaborated upon how statistics clearly demonstrate the serious nature of the problem and how covid has further deteriorated the situation, especially for the informal sector. He believes that post covid statistics will show that while post the first wave the situation had improved, the second wave has completely halted improving the employment rate.
MISTRUST IN THE GOVERNMENT CITIZEN RELATIONSHIP
Mahabir Jaglan: Professor from Kurukshetra University, Haryana, elaborated on how in the second wave, compared to the first, the rural regions in Haryana are now bearing the brunt of the pandemic. He also referred to farmer’s agitation as an example of the mistrust developed among the citizens towards the state machinery and their dismissal of covid as a government strategy for disempowering them. In the second wave, he mentions that the NCR region was more adversely affected and that a crisis for Oxygen has also happened.
The government’s focus on urban areas and neglect for the rural has further compounded the problem. Multiple big villages have fallen victim to the pandemic, and a significant reason has also been the lack of testing. He also mentioned that the government’s measures have primarily been symbolic.
The healthcare infrastructure for rural areas exists but has not been utilized while new isolation centers with no proper facilities are being set up. There is a huge gap between government action and actual change at the grassroots level.
He concluded with the suggestion that unless healthcare sectors are activated, the situation will not change.
Both Professor Jaglan and Mr Malik emphasized the lack of political will in Haryana as a probable cause for the worsening situation.
TRANSITION FROM PREVENTION TO TREATMENT: LACK OF AWARENESS AND ACCESS
Anjali Makhija talked about how the concern was with prevention in the first phase, but now the transition has been into treating the disease. The lack of testing in the rural regions is a significant cause of concern, along with the inability of the people to distinguish between the symptoms of covid and that of the common flu. Furthermore, Ms Makhija talked about the lack of infrastructure and how there is a need to focus on medical staff and the lack of proper equipment.
She also mentioned the role of community radio in alleviating myths and concerns about covid and vaccines. Significantly women have been worst affected in the second wave, wherein they have specific responsibilities to shoulder and a severe lack of access to healthcare despite sickness.
She pointed out the various efforts that can be undertaken, such as call-in facilities to boost awareness in rural areas.
She concluded by saying that awareness and access to medical supplies need to go hand in hand for rural Haryana to survive.
THE WAY FORWARD
In talking about the way forward, Ms Makhija highlighted a neglected concern of how smaller organizations don’t often have the necessary permissions and compliances to procure materials from abroad, resulting in them getting in legal troubles. In this regard, Prof Gill also highlighted the state’s need not to be intolerant towards foreign funding and to implement the policy that disregards FCRA compliance requirements until the time of crisis.
Prof Jaglan also echoed Prof Gill’s views and talked about eliminating the mistrust between the government and non-profit organizations, given that they are an integral part of civil society and work towards the betterment of society. He also emphasized the need to rejuvenate the public healthcare infrastructure in rural regions through adequate manpower and provisions of medicines.
The need for accurate data to better understand the situation was also a suggestion put forth.
The need to focus and revitalize public education systems was also highlighted.
Prof Jaglan suggested that instead of NEP 2020, the government should work towards strengthening existing systems. Mr Parvesh Malik emphasized the need to empower, appreciate, and provide a platform to voluntary organizations and individuals working in rural areas. Mr Baljinder Gill stressed diverting our efforts at certain aspects such as testing and village screenings to be strategically prepared to manage the third wave. He also mentioned that the efficiency of systems depends upon many factors.
Especially in the vaccination process, the system has to be prepared to accept foreign vaccines and ensure that the maximum population gets vaccinated. Additionally, he implored that governments should take maximum efforts to censure prominent personalities spreading superstitions or information not backed by science.
Robust legal measures should also be undertaken to ensure that the crisis for the country is averted.
Mr Gandhi emphasized that we should undertake efforts to educate and assist those around us at the very least. He said that while not everyone can create an impact on the macro scale, people should make an effort to create immediate change around them.
His sentiment was encapsulated in the saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Ms Khurana brought the session to an end by emphasizing the need to unite and discard our differences in the face of a common enemy. The need for the state to resurrect itself and not depend on the private sector. For there to be recognition of the devastating impact the second wave has had on various sectors and also to recognize the spirit of solidarity inspired by the farmer’s protest.