Engaging with the Pandemic: Hope and Despair in five villages of Chhattisgarh

By Swarnima KritionJul. 30, 2021in Health and Hygiene

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

It was a cold December evening when I met Kavita Yadaw of village Mardapoti (Nagri block, Dhamtari district, Chhattisgarh). Kavita struggled with her mask. She adjusted and readjusted it. She remembered that the pandemic was a difficult time for people of her village; difficult not merely economically/financially but in terms of questions of existence or modes-of-being in what could be imperfectly designated as “forest societies”.

Women of Mardapoti discussing the Covid-19 scenario in their village.

Shivbati Yadaw of the same village – Mardapoti – shared her understanding of the situation in a small women’s group meeting. She felt “the pandemic was a way of punishing us for our sins, for the violence we have been perpetuating.” One may wonder if she also referred to how we have unleashed forms of micro-violence on life in the forest, as also on the soil, air and water; in a word, perhaps she was referring to our own violence on nature. What then had the Gods unleashed upon their life-worlds, all of a sudden? No one had clear answers.  No one could make sense of Covid-19; Covid-19 had become synonymous with the fear of the unknown; as also of ‘death’. Covid-19 was, as if, an enemy that changes its face every time one gets to know something about it (scientists call it ‘mutation’). But is covid-19 an enemy; an enemy at all? Or is it a result of our karmas? A rare rage of the Gods like Shivbati would tend to suggest? Do we then need to go through the ritual of prayaschit(atonement) – by rethinking our lives, our mistakes, the violence we have been unleashing upon the planet as also upon Others? The community in Mardapoti – largely Gond adivasis, but also constitutive of Tamrakars, Devdas and Yadaws, had helped me hold a ‘mirror’ on our elite excesses and not just merely project all the blame onto the virus. Bruno Latourin his article “What Protective Measures Can You Think of So We Don’t Go Back to the Pre-crisis Production Model?” in 2020suggested, the pandemic urges us to think and institute a ‘break’ with our own techno-scientific past; a break from how we have been functioning in relation to the same climatic regime against which we were battling until now somewhat in vain(also see S. Healy, M. Scobie  and K. Dombroski, “Grounded! COVID-19 and Recovering Postcapitalist Possibility in Place”, 2020).

Learning to Learn from Below

I hereby map a story of five villages (Mardapoti, Dokal and Jhujhrakasa in Nagri block of Dhamtari district and Koliyari in Antagarh block and Khadka in Bhanupratappur block of Kanker district) of Chhattisgarh with regard to multiple of forms of livelihoods during Covid-19 in 2020. I tried to look at how rural, forest based, agriculture based societies – societies and communities that grow their own food (marked by a degree of seed sovereignty) managed or failed to find possible livelihoods during the pandemic. In the process I focused on three important elements: (a) understanding the extant reality of livelihoods in these villages, (b) thinking of possible means to intervene in such forms of livelihoods and (c) conceptualize transformations in such forms to ensure sustainability. 

The reflections presented in this article are born out of a close interaction with people in the village. One may say they are largely based upon primary data collected through personal communication (one to one conversations, group discussions, participation in livelihoods related activities etc.) making it less of a bird’s eye view. The reflections are not simple around studying the living conditions of ‘subjects’ during Covid but to also understand the multiplicity of their lifeworlds. The perspective was to look at how such lifeworlds and worldviews helped or enabled the rural adivasis to negotiate their way through the pandemic, as also move towards post-Covid futures. I made an effort to reach closer to what Spivak designates “learning to learn from below” in her paper “Righting Wrongs” (2002).

Engaging with the Unknown: Sharing Grassroot Experiences

The interactions I witnessed in suggested villages of Chhattisgarh seem to have been juggling three kinds of fear – fear of the disease (Covid-19), fear of the State and fear of monetary crisis. Village Mardapoti, one may say, was worst affected by the pandemic – among the five villages I visited for this research. This may be because of their close proximity to the Dhamtari-Nargi highway. For years a common profession for men in Mardapoti has been driving (trucks, lorries, cars etc.). When the pandemic struck these men were out driving through different cities of the country. Stories of a disease had reached them; a disease spreading and killing like wildfire. This was the time when “India’s “working class”— the large mass of “performers of surplus labor” in both organized and unorganized sectors, in formal and informal units – [were] either waiting outside locked factory and construction premises, workhouses, shops, and warehouses or [had] already been thrown out of jobs, mercilessly, or [were] taking a long walk – exceeding at times 2,000 kilometers – back to their homes” (see A. Chakrabarti and A. Dhar, “The Condition of the Working Class in India”,2020).  The migrants of Mardapoti also packed their bags and planned their return. They started for home, a safe space. However, when they returned, they and their families were locked in their houses for up to fourteen days by the law enforcement agencies of the State. Mardapoti’s proximity to the highway (and by default to modernity and capital) had become a curse for them. The State policing would as if never end. The men who returned to save their lives, ended up putting their own families in extreme difficulty. This was not because they could be potential carriers of Covid-19, but because post their return everyone in the house had to be quarantined (until then public quarantine centres in schools and panchayats had not been created). No one in the family could go out for work; no one could thus earn. Many of them had to face the violence of the patrolling officials because during quarantine they would go to the forest (for mahua or tendu leaf collection).     

In addition to this new form of discipline by the State, the fear of being affected by Covid-19 was high; all the more because seemingly death looked to be its only end. The less they/we knew about the disease, the more they/we feared the consequences of contracting it. To go out of the house meant risking one’s life each moment. But being unemployed was also a curse. If the small amount of savings were used for everyday food how would one manage instances of emergency, say medical emergencies? From January 30, 2020 to May 5, 2020 approximately 45,755 people died of malaria, 56,390 of diabetes, 92,746 of tuberculosis, 1,28,361 of diarrhea and 1,37,017 of cancer in the country (See P. Mohan, et all., “Stronger health system could have averted 500,000 non-Covid deaths in India in early lockdown period”, 19th May 2020). These numbers are much higher than that in the year 2019. This may be because of three reasons: 1) restricted access to medical services, 2) most medical staff and services being diverted to taking care of the Covid-19 situation in the country and 3) the financial difficulty to get even minor illnesses treated. However, the fear of being in a financial crisis remained in a clash with orders and forces of the State especially for the ones who were quarantined. When family members of the migrants went out to make a living they were most times publicly beaten by the policing authorities. The need of the hour i.e. controlling spread of the disease, had turned into a kind of coercive ‘control of the population’. The state had/has as if turned into a panopticon. The pandemic had become a trope to control, a means to expand and extend the gaze of the State. The villagers (especially migrants who had returned and their families) lived in a state of contradicting fears – fear of infection, fear of State forces, fear of loss of livelihoods, fear of ‘neighbours’ in contexts of social distancing, etc.

The Sarpanch of village Koliyari, Antagarh block, shares about the difficulties women’s self-help groups had to face in her village.

The rabi crop suffered in the villages because labouring subjects could not go to the field.The summer produce hit a poor sale (prices were low). This hit the community especially when forest products like harra, behda, tendu, mahua, char etc. could not find their right price. The non-timber forest produce (NTFP) has been a major source of livelihoods in forest societies. As the local haats (markets) closed the local traders (or kochias) came to the village to buy NTFP products, which led to difference of rates. The rates thus differed from one local trader to the other as also from one village to another. However, these are communities that largely grow their own food; hence such communities are cereal sufficient; some in the village who had the facility of irrigation grew vegetables too. This made space for a self-dependent/sustaining village and an interdependent economy. As an extension of State sponsored relief efforts in rural areas the public distribution system (PDS) and the MGNREGA work continued; at the same time an amount of five hundred rupees was credited for each household in accounts of the SHG women.

Sri Ramesh Kodoppi of village Jhujhrakasa sharing his experinces during the pandemic.

One windy afternoon I sat under a tree with Mr. Ramesh Kodoppi (the siyan or an elderly wise man of the village) and a few men of village Jhujhrakasa. Jhujhrakasa is a village deep into the forests of Nagri, Dhamtari. Ramesh Kodoppi said that the pandemic was not a very difficult time for their village. However, the pandemic did make them anxious, because it was an unknown disease, as also an invisible virus. The anxiety did paralyse their minds for some time, but the village as a collective found its way through this crisis. The men and women of the village had in turn blocked the road that enabled entry to their village. The ‘roads’ had an important meaning for the men and women of Jhujhrakasa. The roads were not travel paths for the villagers, they instead used paths/routes within the forest. The road was in turn the entry point for outsiders, for the rich who had travelled to cities and carried the disease. They were sure the Covid-19 virus could not reach them through the forests but could through the roads only. One may see an interesting contrast between Mardapoti and Jujhrakasa. Jhujhrakasa’s distance from the highway and the blocking of the roads as if enabled them to be saved from both the virus and the everyday surveillance of the State. Similar was the situation in Dokal (Nagri, Dhamtari), Khadka (Bhanupratappur, Kanker) and Koliyari (Antagarh, Kanker); they could manage some autonomy perhaps because of their distance from the highway. This was also possible because Jhujhrakasa, Dokal, Khadka and Koliyari did not have many migrants who were now returning home.

The access to the forest without much State surveillance was a boon for these villages. The forest continues to be their biggest source of food in the form of edible leaves, fruits, tubers, yams, seeds, animals, medicinal herbs etc. When one could not find edibles in the forest, vegetables produced in a few households were shared. Sometimes vegetable cultivators sold vegetables in the nearby villages too. The villages also have ponds from where they procure fish. An old sacred pond in village Dokal has been handed over to the women of the village (to the self-help group members). The women collectively take care of the pond, breed fish, share and sell them. Fish from the pond was an important source of food and money for the households in Dokal. Another practice that has been undertaken for decades now is maintenance of a grain bank in Dokal. The grain bank is collectively maintained by the whole village. Every year post harvest the village collects paddy from each household. The collected paddy is stored in a community owned mud house. The idea of a grain bank was born out of instances of drought in the village. Their hope was to fight conditions of food shortage. During the pandemic the grain bank was an important safety net for the people of Dokal.

A larger part of the relationship these societies share with the forest, land, water bodies etc. focus on need fulfillment through sharing. There were processes where commons were harnessed, processes where collective labouring and collective appropriation of surplus took place that is far removed from the exploitative and profit maximising perspectives. Such processes which are outside the reach of capital in general, or to be more precise, are not integrated into the circuits of global capital seem to have become a space of survival during Covid-19. However, not all their consumption practices were disengaged from the circuits of global capital. Sattu Bai Netam of village Dokal said as a young girl she would go to the market to merely buy salt and oil. Everything else was locally procured. Salt even today is procured through PDS, but in the last thirty years the list of what one buys from the market has become extensive. It has diversified from oil, spices and vegetables to shampoo and soaps to motorbikes and tractors. Earlier even soap and shampoo had a local alternative in a special type of soil. Concoctions with harra, reetha, mehendi and the special soil was made to wash the hair and keep it healthy. Vegetables and spices were grown at home. The engagement of these societies with circuits of global capital has been strengthening over the years which has led to complete dependence on the market for oil, clothes, foot wears, stationary etc. A small market study done at the local haat or market showed most local large scale producers of vegetables and pulses sold their produce in the nearby city i.e. Dhamtari (approximately thirty kilometers away from the local haat). Vendors from around the villages go to Dhamtari and buy vegetables that they then sell in the weekly local haat. Approximately seventy percent of the shops buy products from Dhamtari and sell it in the haat. The villages are thus intensely connected and largely dependent on circuits of global capital, however, that is not to say processes that strengthen the local economy are non-existent.   

Loss and Recovery of Sustainable Practices in Adivasi Worlds

In a conversation with women of Koliyari village, Antagarh block, Chhattisgarh.

An old woman Soni Bai (who could hardly speak Hindi or Chhattisgarhi and would largely communicate in Gondi) shared that the village had difficulties buying edible oil (i.e. sunflower or peanut oil sold by multinational companies) and some spices. She was a resident of Koliyari village, Antagarh block in Kanker district of Chhattisgarh. The local haats were closed as also they barely had any earnings for household expenses. This was perhaps an important moment when a return to a self-dependent past was initiated; perhaps there was both a loss and a recovery of self during the pandemic (see A. Nandy, 2001). Few in the village realised that the pandemic seemed to have no ‘expiry date’. They perhaps needed to choose other ways to engage with the pandemic than simply wait for it to end. Few families as a risk management strategy started collecting seeds of Sarai, Mahua, Kusum, Karanj etc. such that they could extract oil from them. Sarai and Mahua were most important among them, for their oil could be used for cooking. Many families also started using recipes that did not require usage of oil. They started using water as the medium of cooking. Thus, techniques as also tools (utensils) of cooking had started to take a turn to the past. Basic spices like turmeric, chilli and coriander were easy to produce locally. The memory of local techniques of oil extraction helped Koliyari take a turn to its self-dependent past. One may also say Koliyari was only one among the five villages that not only remembered the road to a self-dependent past but also agreed to tread such a path. The others seemed to have found certain comfort in waiting for the pandemic to end, of restricting themselves to their dependence on the outside world.

The story of locally produced sarai or tori (mahua) oil, used for cooking, remains important because they help us walk out of the TINA (there is no alternative) syndrome. It helps us register that there are alternatives, alternative ways of living. It exemplifies that the economic breakdown in urban, modern and industrialised spaces during Covid-19 is not apparent in rural and forest societies. The forest societies that have remembered or learned mechanisms to sustain themselves largely because they can value gifts of nature have engaged with the pandemic in a different way. These instances could be a window of hope, from where exploitative practices within the circuits of capitalist economy could be questioned and search for a pluriverse of survival practices be initiated. The increasingly inhabitable inside of the circuits of global capital had left these stories quilted and thus, the windows of hope were sealed with what one can call, ‘hegemony’ of capitalism (see Chakrabarti, Dhar and Cullenberg, “World of the Third and Global Capitalism”, 2016 for a discussion on ‘capitalism’ as a ‘hegemonic formation’). In my belief the outsidedness that indigenous know-how offers in terms of living and livelihoods could be the ground for a pluriverse of habitable futures. An uncovering of stories from the adivasi/indigenous worlds can become possible ground for a recovery of the post-covid economy; such a path of recovery puts to question the extant break of our life-worlds with the past. A more decentralised exchange system honouring need-based processes over exploitative appropriation could open up paths to such a recovery.

It may be extremely difficult to then conclude if the adivasi world faced a situation of food crisis during Covid. The answer is complex. A peep at life from the vantage point of a ‘subject position’ tied to the circuits of global capital will perhaps agree to a condition of food crisis. The village in turn could hardly get access to lentils, vegetables (like cauliflower, tomatoes, cabbage etc), edible oil (made from sunflower or rice bran sold in packets by multinational companies) etc. that were not locally produced. But a disaggregated view of the village economy that includes practices of gathering (different kinds of tubers, edible leaves, fruits, roots, mushrooms etc.) from the forest, sharing one’s produce, gifting the excess, extracting oil for self-consumption etc. will make one think if there was a food crisis in these five villages. One may create a co-relation based on my interactions that the food crisis was largely felt in spaces closely tied to the circuits of global capital (Mardapoti for example). The other four villages which were a little removed from the circuits of global capital and had the local know-how to recover past practices of food gathering and food production were saved by grace of memory.  

Thinking of Possible Means to Intervene in Adivasi Economic Reality

The close study in these villages gave the research an interesting turn. Their engagement with the pandemic makes us realise that the forest based villages – even to this day – carry the ability to be self-dependent as also locally inter-dependent; such villages enjoy relative “immunity” to at least the nutritional vagaries Covid precipitates. They have over the years found context driven ways to keep themselves safe and less affected by deadly innovations in the outside world; they also enjoy a degree of food sufficiency. A post-Covid recovery route is perhaps in the strengthening of the existing and the extant self-dependence of these villages.

These villages entail a complex conglomeration of approaches to and processes of livelihoods. Where some are exploitative others are not; where some are tied to circuits of global capital others are not. This study also questions the difference between two kinds of local, for example, Mardapoti and Jhujhrakasa. It has been explained earlier that Mardapoti had to face greater difficulty perhaps because of its proximity to the highway. The above analysis also brings to critical view an unthought acceptance or rejection of the ‘local’. The local too is a disaggregated set; parts of this set may be accepted whereas others may become fecund spaces for transformative work, for example, the local’s relationship with circuits of global capital. Chinhari:The Young India(www.chinhari.co.in), a youth organization working in rural Chhattisgarh, made a modest effort to initiate such work. This transformative work is a collaborative work largely motivated by the community. The work hopes to motivate community’s self-work; one may call it community reconstruction or what Tagore called punarnirmaan. For Tagore “the community co-operatives were to take charge of literacy for all; development of local industries; community health care and recreation; safe drinking water; model farming; collective paddy stores; domestic industry-based work for women; campaigns against drinking of liquor; developing fellow-feeling and solidarity among the villagers; and the collection of demographic, economic and social statistics for every village” (see A. Rahman, “Roots of action research and self-reliance thinking in Rabindranath Tagore”, 2006) as part of the reconstructive work. Gandhi too worked towards creating self-sufficient villages. Gandhi believed, “India lives in villages. Naturally the development of the country depends on the development of villages. All the goods and services necessary for the village members should be grown within the village. In a word, every village should be a self-contained republic” (See A. Bhuimali, “Relevance of M. K. Gandhi’s ideals of self-sufficient village economy in the 21st century”, 2004). The work of community reconstruction anchored in villages was not only an infrastructural one, but also about working through the psychic contours of inner strength of the community; about working through memory, rekindling faith in one’s inner ability, in one’s life world. In a word, marking difference from looking at oneself as the lacking other of cities (modern and developed urban spaces). The reversal of this lack is not an easy road to take. The study structuring this article (as a sub-set of Chinhari’s work) is thus an ongoing work. Praxis based work (as also action research) may be seen as a continuous process – without a certain beginning and a sure end – and this work of (action) research, work of getting to know the adivasi life-world in all its complexity and heterogeneity seems to demand time and consistent effort.

The creation of a sustainable post-Covid scenario will perhaps need some support from the State too. It urges for a few policy changes – a) the adivasi world and its ethos is deeply related to the forests. Alienating adivasis from the forest can harm their ability to create self-sufficient spaces (as also our chance to learn from them), thus, community’s rights over the forest must be given importance, b) indigenous ways of life like growing one’s own food are central to self-sufficient economies; it is thus important to bring back indigenous seeds, and c) an ‘academia’ of adivasi know-how is perhaps a way to bring back the faith of indigenous people in their world. Such a rethinking may help the Indian rural youth find faith in its world than choosing options of migration. It mayhelp us to learn from the living know-how of indigenous worlds. A timid possibility may be that it helps us strengthen the villages. Such support from the State may work as a catalyst in reconstructing post covid futures that is intertwined with the post-capitalist perspective.

Acknowledgement

This article has been written under the aegis of the Smitu Kothari Fellowship. I would like to thank Centre for Financial Accountability for this Fellowship and senior journalist Rakesh Dewan, Editor of Sarvodaya Press Service to guide me through the process.

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