At a distance of about 1,570 km from Delhi, Bisnu Mech, a member of the Mech tribe at Birpara, in West Bengal’s Alipurduar district, says, “Handia will keep our insides clean and protect us” from the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Handia is a local variety of rice beer prepared by fermenting tablets, made of herbs, in boiled rice for a week.
They want to limit physical interaction. The sudden lockdown has disrupted the supply of tomatoes from town. As a result, the tribe consumes over-fermented curd (the mildewy kind that is tossed out in well-heeled households) to stock up on vitamins.
In western India, in Nandurbar, Maharashtra, Bhil boys have started disinfecting mud and bamboo huts. They use sprinklers to kill bacteria with TCL powder – a commercial form of chlorine. These people couldn’t be more far removed from the dire realities of the Coronavirus, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call of March 24 that summoned the country into a three-week-long Janta curfew. These people live far off from apologies.
Ethnic groups account for most of India’s forest population and ‘cheap’ labour. While the nation battles an unprecedented pandemic, these groups have been left to rely on insufficient information, their meagre savings, and the promise of word of mouth for protection.
While the city-bred gentry panic-buys, hoards, and sanitises hands, feet and ready-to-cook packets, our indigenous communities seem quite at sea, awaiting more government attention — that only looks tough given how the situation has been panning out. One saving grace is, they don’t need to adapt to any “less is more” code of conduct.
Toeing the line
For generations, they were sidelined as “born criminals”. Classified as a criminal tribe during the British Raj, under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, the Sabars are resigned to fate. “Years of stigma have left them with little resolve to think independently. They carefully follow instructions,” says Swarnabha Dey, an activist who, along with other young advocates of equal rights, runs a school for tribal children in Sindri, a village close to the Purulia-Jharkhand border.
“Given the circumstances, the school is shut for now. The tribe is scattered across 200 villages in the district. We have tried to spread awareness about the extent of this contagion. They stick to guidelines, maintain hygiene and use masks,” Dey adds.
Sabars barely interact with the outside world. They survive on subsistence farming and forest produce. On being told about distancing, families have stopped bartering yields from their lands. Wicker craftsman Sumai Sabar shares that basic familiarity with isolation made locals commit one mistake. “They formed a human chain to not let any member step out of the hamlet; we were then told about self-quarantine and social distancing,” he explains.
Keep safe distance
Lakkhan Oraon feels fortunate to have made it back home from Kerala two days prior to the announcement of janta curfew. The Kurukhs in his hometown Sriboi, Dakshin Dinajpur, West Bengal are not too anxious. His sister Pampa tells us that administrative authorities have done nothing to rouse consciousness. “There’s no mic-ing about safety measures. Villagers, thus, do not realise the magnitude of the scare,” she says.
On being asked if he fears being a carrier, Lakkhan says, “Will see when it happens”. However, folks have hung slates and placards at the entrance. The message reads, “Humniker gharnai aaba”, which translates to “do not visit our home”.
To the north, in Jalpaiguri and Moynaguri, tea estate labourers include Santhals, Oraons, Hill Kharias and Mundas.
Song of Caution
No other language addresses with the honesty of one’s mother tongue. 67-year-old Banu Bai Vasave’s belief in the power of her language pushed her to write and compose the song of caution.
Her catchy words on cleanliness are easily picked by both children and adults.
“The Bhil people are bound by a sense of belongingness,” says Pratibha Shinde, an activist and member of Lok Sangharsh Morcha. She adds that in Vaijapur, her fellow comrades – Ramesh Naik, Ashok Vasave, and Devi Singh Valve – have sought permit cards from the tehsildar and are escorting migrant workers (the ones who return home on foot) to a hospital. “The workers are quarantined for a few days and if they do not show symptoms, they are allowed to go,” she states.
Resorting to faith, and little else
With inadequate data at their disposal and convoluted procedures to apply for federally subsidised relief, tribal communities located in remote hamlets of Bankura and Midnapore (WB), have resorted to faith. As Benjamin Franklin had once said, “To see by faith is to shut the eye of reason”.
Adivasis here collect water from seven domestic units and drink it with Tulsi leaves. According to them, the anti-bacterial properties of the Tulsi plant will cure the curse of any calamity. Some others are digging up a hole in the ground next to the entrance; they rub pieces of coal and wood in the dug up area and apply the resultant ash on their foreheads. The practice is seen as a blessing of Mother Earth to protect mankind against diseases.
(Lead Pic by Tanmoy Rajak; Video Pics: Swapner Karkhana, Pratibha Shinde)
(Sammohinee Ghosh is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist, who is always dreaming about food, films, and fiction.)