The COVID-19 pandemic has affected millions of lives in India in diverse ways. In particular, it has exacerbated pre-existing social-disparities, especially for the marginalized and tribal communities, who are further deprived of healthcare, employment, gender equality and basic services.
“Tribal youth have been experiencing the highest degree of socio-economic marginalization,” said Laxmidhar Singh, Bhubaneswar-based Ho Adivasi activist and educationist. According to tribal migrants in Rayagada and Koraput districts, in several instances, their legal status and language barriers limit access to publicly available preventative materials, health care and pro-poor welfare schemes.
At a time when 1 in 5 people in India is a youth under the age of 30, empowering youths could pave way for addressing crisis like COVID-19. “Youth possess tremendous transformative potential,” said Kadey Soren, Bhubaneswar-based educationist. “Concerted efforts should be made for the inclusion of tribal youth to fight the pandemic.”
Joy Daniel Pradhan, development specialist and Union Ministry of Minority Affairs, said, “It is a pressing time for government, civil societies, researchers and media agencies to advocate specific needs of tribal people in policies, strategies and overall discourse during and after the pandemic.”
It is in this context, Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), Bhubaneswar-based not-for-profit organization, in collaboration with the US Consulate in Hyderabad, enhanced capacity of 100 tribal youth volunteers on varied aspects of COVID-19. The youth were equipped with relevant information, so that they could share the same with their community.
Navigating initial challenges
The target area under the initiative includes Koraput, Malkangiri, Rayagada, Nabarangpur and Kandhamal districts of Odisha. Tribes are the predominant inhabitants of these districts.
“It has been a tough time,” said Haraparasad Hepruka, the sarpanch of Kuli panchayat in Bissamcuttack administrative block of Rayagada district. “People were scared to even utter the word corona.”
According to Madan Jani, sarpanch of Machra panchayat in Koraput district, there were a lot of myths earlier. “Some people even said that they would not be affected by the virus because they are Adivasi people,” he said.
To navigate such operational challenges, KISS identified and trained 100 local tribal youths to carry out awareness programs.
Training the youth
The youth had to fulfil some criteria to be trained as volunteers. Youth in the age group of 22 to 35 years, with a passion for community development were chosen. Only tribal youth, fluent in the local dialect were selected. Of the 100 volunteers, 30 were young women.
Local civil society organizations (CSOs) were roped in for the initiative. KISS partnered with five CSOs in Rayagada district and five different CSOs in Koraput district, organizing virtual capacity building and skill development programs for the CSOs and the youth.
The youth underwent two virtual trainings, learning accurate information about COVID-19 and about organizing awareness camps in the villages. In the final on-site training, they learnt about reaching out to the community using awareness posters, etc.
“We saw TV programs about COVID-19, but there was no scope for getting our doubts cleared,” said Ghasiram Mahji, a youth volunteer of Guddari panchayat in Rayagada district. “But in these trainings, the trainers clarified our doubts so that we could provide the villagers with accurate information.”
The youth volunteers disseminated information on proper handwashing, mask wearing, social distancing, myths and realities related to COVID-19 among villagers using social media platforms. They painted relevant information on village walls, panchayat office, bus stops, etc. for better visibility.
With the support of CSOs and district coordinators of KISS, the youth facilitated the program in their operational areas. The volunteers reached out to farmer groups and members of self-help groups, encouraging them to spread awareness among their family, thus having a cascading effect on the community.
“Youth volunteers have played a critical role in debunking myth at the community level,” said Manas Mohanty, Koraput district’s coordinator of KISS. “They have been helping tribal people to learn the facts and adverse impacts of social stigma related to COVID-19.”
Awareness in local dialect
“Distribution of posters, pamphlets and leaflets in local dialects helped disseminate key information on COVID-19 in tribal areas,” said Debendra Kumar Swain, project officer, United Nations Volunteers, United Nations Development Program, Bhubaneswar.
Swain crafted interactive slogans in local dialect on the importance of maintaining social distance, hand washing and proper ways of wearing facial mask. These slogans in Odia, Deshia and Kui dialects were used by KISS in posters and leaflets to sensitize the local communities.
Jagarao Bidika, community leader of Ramnaguda block under Rayagada, said that the youth volunteers helped the community get the right information. In Halwa panchayat under Rayagada district, many villagers said that they were attending an awareness campaign on prevention of coronavirus in their native areas for the first time.
In addition, KISS developed animated videos on COVID-19. These videos were developed considering the tribal culture, tradition and value systems.
“We saw a video for the first time in our village,” said Dinja Jakasika, a Dongria Kondh tribe and sarpanch of Kurli panchayat in Bissamcuttack block. “Earlier, we had just heard the word corona. But the youth told us how to contain the virus. When you see something visually, it is easier to understand.”
Tribal youth volunteers acted as a support system to government health workers at the local, block and district level in the five target districts. They worked in more than 100 villages in each district, reaching out to a population of 10,000-odd tribes across a total of 640 villages.
“Our youth volunteers have been supporting local health authorities in their community-based sensitization program. They are reducing the burden of frontline health workers during this difficult time,” said Suraj Roy, deputy director, KISS.
“We have sensitized community people to follow proper sanitization and hygiene practices,” said, Purna Chandra Sabar, youth volunteer in Ramnaguda. “Now people are following proper handwashing before entering their house.”
Prabha Jani, the sarpanch of Podagad panchayat under Dasmantpur administrative block in Koraput, said, “Villagers have been sensitized on the gravity of pandemic. Earlier, people hardly used to follow social distancing, but now they are practicing basic sanitization and hygiene practices.”
“The battle is not over,” said Reena Nachika, youth volunteer of Narayanpatna block under Koraput. “Many people need to understand that taking vaccine is important to prevent the spread of virus.” To this effect, the volunteers educated the villagers about the need to follow the norms, even when the lockdown regulations were eased.
“Youth are catalysts of inclusive and resilient societies” said Dwiti Chandra Vikramaditya, KISS, Bhubaneswar. “We have empowered tribal youths to mitigate the pandemic crisis. The initiative has strengthened resilience among the most marginalized and indigenous communities.”
“Covid-19 has had a devastating global impact,” said Joel Reifman, U.S. Consul General, Hyderabad. “We need to find new ways to conduct business, engage in diplomacy and collaborate with different organizations to find solutions to the pandemic.”
The pandemic presents both a gigantic challenge and tremendous opportunities for reaching the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs and the COVID-19 pandemic response are firmly interlinked and thus cannot be navigated by a piecemeal approach.
Adiroopa Mukherjee, project officer, KISS, Bhubaneswar, said, “Covid-19 has certainly posed unique challenges, but through timely intervention, we can prevent these from becoming developmental roadblocks in the long-run.”
Abhijit Mohanty is a Delhi-based development professional. He has worked extensively with the indigenous communities in India and Cameroon. Views are personal.