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Coronavirus Lockdown: This NGO Feeds Meals, Provides Essentials To Forest Dwellers In Sundarbans

NGO SOUL distributes cooked foods and sanitary items to tribal people of Sundarbans and daily wage earners in Kolkata who are struggling to survive during the COVID-19 lockdown

Coronavirus Lockdown: This NGO Feeds Meals, Provides Essentials To Forest Dwellers In Sundarbans
  • NGO SOUL is trying to address hunger among tribal during COVID-19 lockdown
  • It is supporting tribal households with items like soaps, face masks
  • It is raising awareness among the tribal people about COVID-19

New Delhi: Since the nation-wide lockdown began on March 24, lives of the 800 people of Savar tribal community in the remote delta of Sundarbans, West Bengal have been in a state of confusion. The community that depends primarily on forests for food and collecting honey, fruits and timber for earning a livelihood was being forced to restrict its movement. With the loss of incomes and depleted savings, they had no option but to depend on the government agencies and NGOs for food and items of daily use. With an aim to provide relief to tribal communities and help them cope with the current crisis, SOUL, a non-profit charitable trust came forward with its ‘LunchBox For Hungers’ programmes. Under this programme, the NGO distributed free cooked foods, dry ration and sanitary items to the tribe. Subhankar Banerjee, one of the founders of SOUL said,

I along with some of my friends, all corporate professionals, established SOUL- Source Of Unconditional Love as non-profit charitable trust in 2015 with an aim to improve the lives of indigenous people of Sundarbans. During the current COVID-19, we have taken up the responsibility of about 800 people from 157 households of Savar community. These communities have lifestyles linked strongly to forests, sustaining themselves primarily through forest produce collection and seasonal employment in farms. The livelihood and life-sustaining activities have come to an abrupt halt due to the lockdown.

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How Has The COVID-19 Lockdown Affected The Savar Community?

Savar community lives in the remotest part of South 24 Parganas in the deltas of Sundarbans. There is no road connectivity and there is just barebone infrastructure like a school, a community healthcare centre, a community toilet and small ‘haat’ (local market). There is not even a single person of the community who is literate or ever employed in some informal or formal jobs. Solely dependent on forest produce, crab catching and farm employment for earning a livelihood, the whole community that has 221 children, 310 men and 225 women has lost its source of income. Jyotsna Bhakat, 30-year-old tribal woman who has a family of seven to feed says,

At this point, we don’t have money to buy even soap for washing hands. We have some rice but no vegetables to cook. We are not able to go into the forest to collect vegetables or fruits and some of us who are dependent on honey collection will have to bear a great loss. We have nothing to sell now. We cannot go to the market.

The tribal people do get monthly ration via the Public Distribution System (PDS) but it comprises only rice and wheat and does not suffice daily food and nutrition needs. According to Mr. Banerjee, malnutrition is a major problem in this community. He says,

We conducted a survey earlier this year and found that about 42 per cent of the children are malnourished. We had recently started a program to focus on improving the condition of the malnourished children and raise awareness among the adults on nutrition and health but due to social distancing norms we had to halt our various activities and focus only on helping the community cope with the current crisis.

There are many men in the community who are suffering from dermatological diseases in their abdomen and legs which they caught while crab catching in the muddy and saline waters of the delta but because of the lockdown they are unable to get any medical attention. Mr. Banerjee says,

There is a community health centre in the village but specialists like a dermatologist rarely pays a visit. Also, a lot of the times, the community itself doesn’t like to go to the hospital as they believe in the healing power of nature and practice herbal medicine and naturopathy.

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The village gets visited by ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers and ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwifery) who are assigned by the district officials but since the lockdown has begun, there have been no visits from them either.

According to Mr. Banerjee, the charitable trust has established an ‘Ashram’ in Sattyadaspur village in South 24 Parganas where Sundarbans is located. About 150 children of Savar tribal community from this village are being mentored in the ‘Ashram’. While there are schools in the area, the indigenous people do not utilise these facilities as they believe that formal education does not teach hunting, gathering and farming. Therefore, SOUL’s ‘Ashram’ acts as a learning centre for these children. With a teaching staff of three members, two cleaning staff and a gardener, the ‘Ashram’ operates on the principles of Swami Vivekananda and the curriculum is designed in line with that followed in schools run by the Ramkrishna Mission and tribal learnings of nature. However, due to the lockdown, the ‘Ashram’ is closed and so is learning of the children. Mr. Banerjee said,

We at SOUL are primarily focussing on the children of tribal communities. This is because the adults are used to live in the way that they have been living since many generations. So they are absolutely not interested in connecting with the civilised world or learning their ways. Children, however, are more flexible and quick learners. We are trying to inculcate habits like handwashing and using toilets. They go back home and insist their parents and other family members also follow the same. Only a few households have a ‘pucca’ toilet at home while others have insanitary latrines.

Pallavi Sena, a teacher at SOUL’s ‘Ashram’ shared that the kitchen of the building is being used to cook food for the community and is being distributed with the help of the local volunteers. She shares,

Children in the community are like free birds and do not like to follow rules and regulations. I face difficulty in keeping them in control but we have to work hard to help these kids have a better future. I wish they can learn and join a real school and earn a better living. From the time the Ashram started, we have been mentoring about 150 children and out of these one of our female students has been accepted in a government school in Class 9 which is a great achievement for us. We are hoping to fill the learning gap for others as well. I wish that the COVID-19 pandemic gets over soon and we can get back to our normal routine so that the kids can continue their studies.

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SOUL is also raising awareness among the tribals on COVID-19 and various government guidelines on protecting oneself from catching the coronavirus. Mr. Banerjee said,

Indigenous people need medical attention especially the elderlies as they are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. There has been no COVID-19 case as of now. Illiteracy, language barrier and lack of access to technology cause restrictions in relief measures.

Dr. P Ulaganathan, District Magistrate of South 24 Parganas told NDTV that the district administration has set up a relief camp for those in need but it is difficult to reach out to the remote areas and so they appreciate NGOs coming forward to help the administration in the relief work. He said,

We are ensuring that each person who is above the age of 60 years is getting their pensions in advance. We are also trying to conduct their medical check-up. The government is providing ration to them. But I would like to mention that tribals are difficult lot to reach out to considering the remoteness of their villages and the aloofness that they are used to. In this scenario, handholding by NGOs plays an extremely important role since they build trust by being with them as their own. We have been supporting SOUL in its work and we appreciate that they are at the forefront and taking care of the tribals in the Sundaban areas.

The relief efforts of the NGO are being financially supported by West Bengal Police, Panchayati Raj Department and Tally Solutions Private Limited, an Indian multinational company. The NGO is also feeding migrant labourers and daily wagers in Kolkata and outskirts and has distributed more than 6,000 meals since the beginning of the lockdown.

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