A mini-truck carrying goods stops at a traffic signal in Kolkata. The driver pops his head out and spits a mouthful on the relatively empty road. Under normal circumstances, such misdemeanours on Indian roads would have gone unnoticed. But not in times of Covid-19.
Kolkata deputy commissioner of police (traffic) Rupesh Kumar immediately took note of the incident last week and warned denizens against spitting in public. He said the police are taking strong legal action against violators by identifying them through CCTV footage.
Although the West Bengal Prohibition of Smoking and Spitting and Protection of Health of Non-Smokers and Minors Act has been in existence for almost 19 years now, hardly anyone in the state was aware of it. The police too never bothered to enforce the prohibitory Act.
M for missing in action
Similar laws existed in other states too, but their enforcement remained lackadaisical.
For instance, Tamil Nadu enacted the Prohibition of Smoking and Spitting Act in 2002. The Karnataka Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Act, 2013 empowers corporations to fine offenders ₹100 the first time and ₹200 subsequently.
But only after the novel coronavirus deepened its grip across India, law enforcers seem to have been jolted out of their slumber to take notice of transgressions they conveniently ignored all these years.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) collected over ₹1,67,000 in fines from 163 offenders within a day of announcing in mid-March that people who spit in the open would be penalised.
The ‘public spitters’ are not the only ones to discover that ‘times they are a-changin’.
It took a pandemic to rouse the West Bengal administration to unearth an illegal practice prevailing in far-flung villages in Purulia district, one of the most backward regions of the state. For years, poor villagers in the district have been mortgaging their ration cards with local money lenders as they had no other collateral to deposit.
Officials stumbled upon the district’s well-kept secret early last month when they went to Sarjumatur village in Purulia’s Jhalda-I block, around 310 km from Kolkata, to disburse free ration announced by the state government in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.
After the matter came to the light, the district administration ensured the villagers got their ration cards back. Even the villagers were awestruck by the administration’s prompt action.
“I never expected the babus to bring back my card so soon,” Radhika Kalindi told local reporters after officials of the civil supply department recovered her card from a money lender.
She had borrowed ₹10,000 from one Guna Kuyiri for her daughter’s marriage two months ago depositing two rations cards, including that of her husband, as guarantee.
The lenders were let off after they gave in writing not to commit the same offence again.
She has a reason to be surprised. In these back of the beyond regions, there is hardly any presence of the government machinery apart from the local panchayats.
On April 25, more than a month after the first Covid-19 positive case was detected in Bengal, officials of the district administration were flummoxed to find that residents of Borgora, another remote village in Purulia district, had not even heard about the disease, which has brought the world to its knees.
To create awareness about the disease among the 16 families residing there, a team led by district magistrate Rahul Majumdar trekked through jungles for about two kilometres to reach the village, nestled in Ayodhya hills some 65 kilometres from the district headquarters. This was the first time in decades that a senior official had set foot in the village — once a Maoist hotbed — to enquire about their well-being.
The families mostly survive by selling wood in the nearby village market. Left to fend for themselves, the villagers struggled with civic woes such as lack of water and healthcare facilities, absence of an approach road to the village, and so on and so forth.
Following the DM’s unprecedented visit, a health camp was organised there and the villagers for the first time got free ration at their doorstep.
The fear infused by Covid-19 also prompted an otherwise-invisible administration to make similar sorties recently to Chandini Biharpur sub-tehsil, under Odgi block of Chhattisgarh, around 450 kilometres from state capital Raipur.
The area is inhabited by one of the most primitive tribes of India. The inhabitants are incidentally also called the ‘dattak putrao‘ (adopted sons) of the president of India.
The first president of independent India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, had visited the area now under Surajpur district on November 22, 1952, and ‘adopted’ the Pando tribe. That’s how the community has come to be known as the adopted children of the president. But the Indian welfare state’s attitude towards the community remained step-motherly, depriving them of basic amenities such as electricity and roads in about 35 small forest villages scattered in the area.
It was only after the Covid-19 outbreak that the district administration ensured for the first time that rations reached the villages.
Mohar Sai Pando, sarpanch of Khohir village panchayat, said, “The distance from these villages to the nearest PDS centre ranges from 15-30 kilometres. Earlier, the villagers used to lug their rations. But now, the district administration has arranged tractors to transport essentials to the villages.”
Pando fails to understand why a similar arrangement couldn’t be worked out in normal times. “How is it fair that villagers were made to walk for 20-30 km with sack loads on their back just because the government couldn’t build roads or bring the PDS centre nearer to them?”
Even in urban areas, the pandemic has brought the administration nearer to the people to a large extent. In containment zones, it’s the civic bodies and the police who are delivering essentials to the confined residents.
The health ministry on April 21 launched a Covid India Seva, a new digital platform, to provide real time solutions to people’s queries related to the pandemic. The interactive platform aims at establishing a direct channel of communication with millions of citizens.
During this pandemic period, e-governance has also got a major push with states using apps to screen masses for coronavirus-like symptoms, providing financial aids to stranded migrants or to disseminate information about the disease.
The West Bengal health department launched a mobile app named ‘Sandhane’ (Search) for tracking Covid-19 through ASHA health workers. From April 7 till the first week of this month, 60,000 accredited social health activists (ASHA) screened over 5.5 crore people by going door-to-door with the help of the app.
ASHA workers immediately send the data to the state government if they detect anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, thus expediting the process of identifying a suspect.
During the screening exercise, they found 91,515 people suffering from influenza-like illness and 872 others having acute respiratory infection.
Another mobile app “Sneher Paras” has been launched to transfer a grant of ₹1,000 to stranded workers. The app also came handy in facilitating the return of the migrant workers.
Assam government has also stepped up its community health surveillance programme, deciding to screen 25,000 villages to detect any possible community transmission of Covid-19.
Blip on the radar?
Although both Assam and West Bengal periodically face onslaught of malaria and dengue fevers, never in the past has any such large-scale surveillance been carried out, particularly in remote areas.
Inaccessibility is the common refrain of the administrators for their inability to reach out to these far-flung areas before. Both Surajpur district collector Deepak Soni and Purulia DM Mazumdar cited “distance and difficult terrain” as a big challenge to reach out to the remote villages.
But social activists working among these tribal communities say the lack of will, particularly among the middle- and lower-level government administrators, is responsible for the isolation.
“Even if projects are sanctioned by a state government, they do not reach the villages because of the local leaders who are more interested in their own development than the progress of the area,” alleged Ratanlal Hansda of the Bharat Jakat Majhi Paragana Mahal, a socio-political organisation of the Santhal community of Purulia.
He said the lack of awareness about their rights among villagers also provide an opportunity to the self-seeking leaders and administrators to exploit these poor people by siphoning off development fund.
During this crisis, Hansda added, the remote villages got some attention as far as ration distribution and health check-up are concerned.
But will this never-seen-before zeal shown by administrators keep the wheels of governance moving long after Covid-19 is gone? Or will it disappear behind a mist of excuses as quickly as the new Coronavirus is spreading? Well, only time will tell.