Harnessing the Transformative Potential of ICT – the Case of Pandemic Resilient Online Agri-Input and Grocery supply unit
This case study is aimed at ASM male and female workers interested in online agricultural input shops as an alternative livelihood opportunity, through their SHGs, male and female peasant-miners, as well as other stakeholders impacted by COVID-19
The purpose was to promote the use of online agricultural input supply as a good agricultural practice and to encourage SHGs and ASM workers to adopt this technique for distributing agri-inputs as an alternative livelihood opportunity individually or in group, so as to ensure better availability for male and female farmers of ASM communities during and after the pandemic time.
This good practice is recorded from the experience acquired by us from one of our ASM Self Help Groups in Kalahandi
During the spread of COVID-19, peasant-miners could not access to critical agriculture inputs which was crucial for them to meet their winter farming needs (Ravi Crop): growing winter vegetables from November to March. Agricultural production was affected by COVID-19 lockdown due to mobility restriction and disruption of supply chain. Farmer-miners and farmers in general were about to miss the winter farming of vegetables (brinjal-aubergine, cauli flower, okra, gourds, cabbage, cucumber, etc) which they were to cultivate from November and were to sell their harvest from January to the end of April.
Farmers were in urgent need for the availability of quality inputs in the right place, at the right time and in small packs and at door steps to cope up with COVID-19 restrictions. To address this problem, the COVID-19 Emergency Response project encouraged two SHGs of female miners to launch agri-input supply unit targeting at least 100 farmers. It was getting late as our project started in November only and there was no financial provision in the project except training on launching online agri-input and grocery unit and a feasibility analysis of the units, which we did in mid-November. Some SHG members showed interest and they were ready to invest in a mini-scale. The project extension staff linked the SHG to a wholesaler of agri-input and used her personal relation with supplier for 75 percent credit supply on weekly repayment basis.
The SHG members had three mobile phones for personal use which they used to pass on messages to potential farmers of ASM communities and others in the vicinity and the surrounding communities about the seeds and other inputs like fertilizer available with them in small packs and extension support of the project for demonstration in the community. Initial response was not good.
Our community facilitators started spreading the message during our awareness building programme to the potential farmers with a clear message that their required seeds and other inputs could be home delivered if they message their requirements to the concerned SHG running input supply unit.
That worked to some extent and the members of the SHG at their home prepared the packs of seeds as per the orders of the farmers and one person was engaged in delivering them at the residence of the farmers by a bi-cycle. Gradually the input supply activity picked up. Seeing the success of SHG, another SHG about two kms away launched a similar unit.
In the mean time, using their online agri-input supply experience and infrastructure like weighing scale, manual packing tool and mobile phones and access to project staffs for spreading information, providing initial training on quality packing, cleaning and grading of items, pricing etc, the SHG started procuring grocery items in small scale and launched a mini-unit of online delivery of grocery items along with agri-inputs.
As agri-input supply was a seasonal activity, the unit thought of supplying off season vegetable seeds and inputs along with extension information to the farmers. The mix of activities kept the SHG members busy in their off time for cleaning, grading, packing and receiving orders in their mobile-handsets. 12 members of the SHG were engaged in this online business.
In the 3 months from mid-November to mid-February, the total volume of their business was INR 3, 50,000 (US$ 4667.00) with an initial investment of INR 30, 000 (US$ 400.00) by the 12 members of the SHG and an in-kind credit of INR 50000 (US$ 667.00) worth of seeds and fertilizers by the input dealer. For online grocery they did not borrow from anybody.
The group is hopeful to scale up their trade and branding their products soon.
The services offered by the input shop:
⦁ Online disseminating information on types of inputs available in the shop, as well as on prices and how to use products and timing;
⦁ Organization of training in methods for using inputs by the project as well as managing online agri-input and grocery store;
⦁ Demonstrations on fertilizer micro-dosing, off-season vegetable growing and introducing new vegetable seeds like broccoli , capsicum, etc
⦁ Credit sell is prohibited, to ensure the protection of working capital and to avoid the risks of non-repayment to protect agri-input unit’s financial viability;
⦁ The availability of introduced agri-inputs through regular restocking and ready and timely delivery to received orders;
⦁ Selling day-to-day agricultural inputs and grocery items on a cash basis (seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, livestock and veterinary products, mini-agricultural tools, grocery items);
⦁ Extension support to male and female farmers on low cost and no cost agricultural techniques, short duration backyard crops (bio-fertilization, soil testing, germination test azolla culture, etc.) and basic veterinary treatments for small ruminants (poultry and small animal vaccination and de-worming);
The needs of farmers were reflected in the products offered by input shops when the local supply chain was completely missed during the spread of COVID-19 and consequent lockdowns. By providing online services, the shop played a critical role in offering access to inputs and diffusing low cost and no cost farming techniques for using them during the pandemic time.
The presence of an agri-input shop fills strong retail demand for seeds and fertilizer that matched the low budgets of impacted small holder peasant-miner households. This was reflected in the higher rate of consumption of this input, leading to higher yields and agricultural production from January to March, 2021. For example, in the villages of Jaunagarh, an analysis of the contribution of input shops in the villages showed:
⦁ A substantial growth in input consumption by farmers in input supply unit’s area of coverage since that was launched by the project initiative.
⦁ Diversification of input types and other needs: the input shops have enabled many users to discover new inputs, such as bio fertilizer; new varieties of seeds including broccoli, capsicum and offseason vegetable seeds and relevant extension inputs.
⦁ Diversification to meet the home delivery of grocery items during the pandemic and after.
⦁ Improvement in animal health through the sale of livestock and veterinary and indigenously prepared feeds for small ruminants and poultry at low cost. In the village of Kalahandi the input shop offered vaccination of poultry against Fowl Pox being encouraged by the project;
⦁ An impact on yield of crops: for example, average yields of brinjal was 398 kg/ha in villages having no input supply unit, compared with 504 kg/ha in villages with a agri-input supply unit delivering inputs by online orders;
⦁ Greater farmer satisfaction as availability of packaging in small quantities, availability of indigenous and high breed varieties, seasonal and off season seeds, demonstrated quality and reasonable prices of inputs sold in shops.
⦁ Clients consider the inputs sold by input supply unit by online orders to be of better quality, quick delivery, saving of transport cost and over all less expensive than those physically procured from the market, and in the face of hardships of pandemic restrictions (mobility restriction, social distancing, non availability of essential agricultural and food item supply chain disruption);
⦁ Supply to non-members of SHGs owning shops. Non-members supplied by the input shop in Junagarh account for an average of over 90% of the target consumers.
⦁ A number of villages are impacted by agri-input and home delivery of grocery unit. The unit had a range of service delivery of about 8 kms where door to door delivery was feasible.
⦁ The input unit had a positive impact on the livelihoods of ASM beneficiaries by ensuring, through their products and services:
⦁ Demonstrations to promote fertilizer micro-dosing and off season vegetable crops. The input supply unit went extra mile through demonstrations of new inputs and seeds in communities to present a clear understanding of the effect that each input/seed plays in crop production.
The main innovations introduced were:
⦁ An adequate response to the needs of the poorest male and female farmers by offering packs of small quantities of inputs (for example, 1/2 kg packets of fertilizer, 25 grams of seeds for backyard agriculture), enabling them to buy the quantity they could afford with their scarce financial resources.
⦁ Cash sales in the input shops and a ban on credit. This has, on the one hand, enabled farmers to become more responsible and show more reliable behaviour at the time of purchase, and on the other to improve a shop’s prospects of sustainability. Prohibiting credit has also made it possible to attract “supplier” credit. In effect, a wholesaler was confident that an input unit has the reputation of always selling in cash may supply seeds, fertilizer and other inputs for sale without requiring payment until the stock is sold ;
⦁ Better understanding of inputs by male and female farmers and an improvement in the availability of these inputs because of follow up extension and field demonstrations;
⦁ The organization of grouped orders by the input shop for male and female farmers, both members and non-members, who obtain supplies from the shop, as well as for neighboring SHGs who may be members or non-members of the shop ;
⦁ Local services supplied to farmers (extension support on use of inputs, phytosanitary treatment, renting out of small-scale agricultural implements etc.).
Risks & Constraints:
⦁ Short project life period and too much dependence on project staff to motivate and spread the message among buyers about quality, writing promotional messages and sending through mobile phone messaging in the absence of adequate training on application of ICT and literacy level of SHG members.
⦁ Linkage with dealers for credit supply by project staff who may withdraw soon
⦁ Failure by SHG members of input shops to fulfill commitments to pay contributions towards the setting up and replenishment of working capital;
⦁ Low capacities of management committee of the SHG that are members of a shop;
⦁ Lack of access to good land for female farmers, with the result that they can only benefit at a very low level from products and services offered by the input shop;Innovative Marketing Strategy
Eight ASM workers of Subarnapur were trained on bamboo craft in a 10 day workshop. They had some basic knowledge about making utility items of using bamboo for making bamboo baskets. But they were not doing this as they were busy in ASM activities prior to the spread of COVID-18.
During the prolonged lockdown of seven and half months due to COVID-19, some of them used their time in making baskets but they had no buyers during the pandemic. Due to mobility restrictions they were not able to reach the potential buyers of neighboring communities with their products.
In order to support their subsistence economy, some of them were selected to participate in improved bamboo craft products trainings organized by the project support. Some of them also participated, on request, in trainings on mushroom cultivation, vermin-compost making, backyard poultry, pisci-culture, along with other groups of trainees.
During the training for other trades, the bamboo craft trainees understood that there was a need of bamboo basket in mushroom cultivation. Paddy straw mushroom production needed platforms which could be woven bamboo mats. There was a need of bamboo baskets in vermi-compost units. Woven bamboo baskets were used as night shelters for poultry birds for protection against predators. Bamboo baskets were used to put crop residue of paddy or wheat or dried grasses to provide cushion for the eggs of poultry to be hatched. Woven bamboo tray was used to feed fish under water. There was high potential of the use of bamboo mats to hygienically process dry fish by sun drying.
This provided them an opportunity to sell their stock of bamboo baskets to other trainees as some of them started their activity immediately after the short duration trainings. As most of the activities were designed to generate immediate income during the project life of six months, the demand of their products increased and they also diversified their products looking to the needs of different activities.
Finding new opportunity to sell their products in an intergroup arrangement, the group of ASM youth trainees on bamboo craft liked to scale up bamboo craft as an alternative profession for their livelihood with a range of products which had a demand locally by poultry farmers, fish farmers, organic growers, hatchers, dry fish processors, etc
An innovative pandemic resilient supply chain model
We assisted 100 smallholder peasant-miners of Kalahandi impacted by COVID-19 through piloting a resilient supply chain model for their perishable farm products. We kept in mind the alternative livelihood opportunities identified during the training need assessment and identification of market feasible activities. During the pandemic the peasant miners not only faced closure in their mining activities but also could not sell their agriculture and livestock produce which was expected to provide them supplementary income to meet their needs. The products were vegetables, poultry, indigenous fruits, mushroom, minor forest products etc.
⦁ The model directly connected 100 peasant-miners to consumers during the pandemic and beyond.
⦁ The model included public-private and small holder producers partnership at the local level
⦁ This model used vehicles delivering relief and Public Distribution System materials at the Panchayats and local private vehicles those are idle due to lockdown
⦁ We listed the names and mobile phone numbers of farmers, drivers and the vehicles to be involved in executing the deliveries.
⦁ Permission from local government institutions, Municipal Corporation, district administration and police authority was obtained to remove any bottlenecks in this new supply chain and for these vehicles to deliver the surplus produce to people’s homes directly.
⦁ Permission letters to farmers was obtained to buy diesel from petrol pumps to execute this delivery model.
⦁ Farmers could directly take online orders from consumers and then the vegetables are delivered at their ward or even at their doorstep.
⦁ We asked the peasant-miners to inform us through mobile phones by messaging/Whatsapp what they have.
⦁ The model encouraged local cleaning, grading, primary processing, packing at producer level to increase the shelf life of the produce and easy pick-up and transport
⦁ Surplus produce from farmers were collected at a place in panchayat/village main road and it was transported in vehicles to consumers in their wards. It reduced crowds at vegetable markets and ensured almost door-to-door delivery. The farmers were benefited and the consumers received fresh farm produce at their doorstep.
We could reach 100 small holder peasant-miners who are engaged in cultivating cashew, banana, mango, watermelon, litchi, and vegetable crops. Priority was given to female farmer-miners who had faced more problems than their male counterparts in selling their produce during the pandemic.
⦁ About 100 beneficiaries were organized as farmers producer groups and trained through virtual platforms/telephonic discussion about protocols like maintaining social distance and use of face mask, hand washing practices
⦁ Quick Assessment of farmer-wise availability of types and quantity of fruits and vegetables and their distance from the nearest point of bulk procurement
⦁ Listing of the names and mobile phone numbers of farmers, drivers and the vehicles to be involved in executing the deliveries.
⦁ Farmers those had no documents like ‘Jandhan Accounts’/ NFSA cards/ street vendor registrations availed documents and linked to government provisions
⦁ Permission from Municipal Corporation, district administration and police authority obtained to remove any bottlenecks in this new supply chain and for these vehicles to deliver the surplus produce to people’s homes directly.
⦁ Permission letters to farmers obtained during pandemic to buy diesel from petrol pumps to execute this delivery model.
⦁ A new supply chain model was launched
⦁ Produce of at least 1000 small and marginal farmers will be enabled to be a part of effective and efficient producer-owned and producer managed supply chain
⦁ The supply chain intends to link the targeted small holder farmer-miners digitally and with necessary soft skills and hygiene information and other advisories to deal with their clients without any stigma and barrier
Alternative livelihood: Janaki is now hopeful
Janaki Padhan an ASM worker hails from Subarnapur District and a single mother of three children. She was panning gold from the-bed of the Mahanadi River with other community members and also catch fish which she used to prepare dry fish and she sells dry fish at a local market.
During COVID-19 she could not pursue her ASM activity as they were doing in groups. Social distancing guidelines and local enforcement agencies stopped them from pursuing their activity. She and other members of the community could not do their activity for about 7 months. As there was no ASM activity, no buyer for fish and dry fish during prolonged COVID-19 lockdown, she managed a meal each day for her family by using her personal saving in cash and kind which lasted for about 1 and ½ months. She also borrowed money from a local goldsmith who used to buy her ASM product on weekly basis.
Janaki said that she had lost her income as lock down, social distancing guidelines drastically reduced her ASM activity. “Our livelihood activities was normal although subsistence prior to COVID-19, only to be disrupted by COVID-19,” she said. “Since COVID- 19, our lives have not been the same as before. Under normal circumstances, I make about INR 1500 in a week from ASM and I am regularly paid. This was reduced to zero and my savings in cash, kind (grains and pulses), and poultry birds were exhausted in feeding children a meal per day which lasted for 1 and ½ months. My dry fish business stopped as I could not reach the buyers in the local market (hat) due to complete lockdown”.
In early December, 2020, she was trained by the project on hygienically processing of dry fish and packing it as a stronger alternative livelihood option. Project staff linked her to a local supply chain of dry fish which procured from the door step by placing online/telephonic order. She also showed interest to invest more in hygienically processing and packing dry fish. From December, 2020, she had been doing this although she had resumed her ASM activity, as her primary livelihood option.
Janaki mobilized the other ASM female members of her community who also catch fish to hygienically sundry fish and she procured from them, packed and sold as the local supply chain insisted for a scale of operation to make it profitable for both.
Janaki now feels even there is a pandemic; she can still catch fish as it is an individual activity, sundry it and process it, pack it and deliver but who knows if the local supply chain does not work during a pandemic! The chain manager assured that they would reach consumers by delivering several products like dry fish, dried mushroom, and other products having a longer shelf life without fail. Janaki is hopeful!
Floriculture: an attractive Alternative Livelihood Opportunity
The project support was for 6 months. For alternative livelihood of ASM communities, we focused on short-term income generating activities which should yield result within 90 days following need assessment and follow up training of beneficiaries. The aim was piloting at least some of the activities chosen by the trained beneficiaries. Our support started with floriculture, everybody was unsure about the success of these activities and doubtful about result in short time.
Mukta Majhi a miner of Kalahandi was encouraged to cultivate marigold and gladiola, as she opted it as her choice of alternative livelihood activity. Necessary extension support was arranged by the project in convergence with Government’s Horticulture Office situated in the block head quarter and saplings were purchased from a reliable nursery of Bhubaneswar which had a past record of supplying quality saplings. The floriculture activity was initially planned by Mukta for 1/10 of acres, which she scaled up to about ¼ of an acre putting her family labor and using local inputs.
In a period of 75 days, the field bloomed with flowers with a luxuriant picture. Visitors from the neighborhood communities of miners rushed to see floriculture in their area. A a large field of flowers was never before seen by local peasant-miners.
A florist (Ashok) from Bhawanipatna was brought by Debasish, our project staff, to assess the business potential for regular supply of flower from piloted project by public transport to his shops at Bhawanipatna and Junagarh. The florist, who regularly buys flower from West Bengal, was ready to buy flowers from the local growers. But he raised some issues. He said unless he gets flower round the year as he gets from West Bengal, he cannot procure the flower of these people. He suggested three conditions: cultivation of flower round the year, packing the flowers using Deodar Leaf by the beneficiaries and the flowers need to be stitched as garlands. All these propositions appeared beneficial to the grower and transporter as these were value additions in the supply chain generating income for all intermediaries including garland making was an employment opportunity for aged persons of the household.
Ashok continued his visit every day. He pays the beneficiaries in time, encourages local vegetable vendors and office goers to carry flower to his stall and gives them a margin. Apart from public transport, remote communities found the bikers and vegetable vendors as alternatives to supply flowers to the local town and religious establishments for sale of flwers. Regular sell of flower and income has encouraged about 4 bikers and vegetable vendors to have their own orchard, which are now managed by their aged parents. Some of them although not direct beneficiaries of the emergency response project but they liked to grow flowers as a beneficial income generation activity. The pilot demonstration created knowledge about market including flower products in demand, pricing at different destinations, transport idea by bikers, public transport, vegetable vendors who daily commute to towns and procure vegetables and a pandemic resilient supply chain tried by the project. Most of the groups and members have started growing flower. Ashok says that he purchases flower from Midnapur of West Bengal, which he can as well manage locally if he is helped during the rainy season. Ashok now pursues to motivate local beneficiaries to supply him flower during monsoon and heavy rainfall when their area is mostly cut-off from the towns.
User-friendly Skills and Technology for Self-Employment
Female members of small holder peasant-miner households of the project Village of Kalahandi were neither involved full time in mining nor in farming activities. During COVID-19 spread for 7 and ½ months they stayed at home without any alternative sources of income.
During the need assessment survey, it was found that a majority of the female miners had some farming skills and for family consumption they were doing backyard farming including growing indigenous vegetables and poultry but during the lockdown period they did nothing. Many were lacking awareness about preventive care measures like maintaining social distance, using face mask and maintaining frequent hand hygiene. They understood that individually adopting these practices, even during COVID-19 type pandemic, they can work in their backyard farm. “But what is about selling our products?”Raibari Majhi, one of the beneficiaries raised this question. Others said at least they can consume at home when they face real food stress as during pandemic lockdown period. The project personnel thought for a pandemic resilient supply chain and also agreed to design one to overcome the problems faced by peasant-miners during the complete disruption of supply chain as happened during COVID-19.
In this background, keeping the various issues in mind, the project for the first time introduced organic garden concept for growing seasonal and off season vegetable crops, mushroom cultivation and back yard poultry of rearing improved variety of birds like Vanraj and Kadaknath variety. These activities were chosen by a dozen female miners during the need assessment survey and they also participated in the follow up trainings. Apart from skill training on specific farming practices, the project oriented the female miners on seed treatment, soil testing, compost and bio-fertilizer making, growing of off-season vegetables and rearing of all types of small ruminants.
Keeping in mind to get result in a short time, the project encouraged male and female beneficiaries to go for mushroom cultivation on a pilot basis as well. A demonstration was organized in one of the beneficiary’s house. The yield was good about 2 and ½ kg per bag. It inspired the other beneficiaries and about 20 peasant-miner males and female cultivated mushrooms (Dhingri) as the season was right.
Mushroom cultivation was done indoors and did not require arable land or mobility during the spread of COVID-19. Chitra Majhi, a female miner said that mushroom cultivation yielded result faster and it contributed income and they also consumed at home. Mushroom cultivation was a labor intensive process – labor cost comprised more than 25 percent of the recurring cost, and they had to spend little on buying any costly input.
The demonstration of mushroom cultivation increased the number of jobless miners opting this as an alternative livelihood opportunity as they were trained on Oyster and Paddy Straw mushroom production by the project. The pilot demonstration further motivated them.
Three ASM SHGs formed a group fund encouraged by the project to reduce the risk of availing finance for their small business activity. They were normally borrowing from local traders and moneylenders at an interest of 6 percent per month for meeting their business needs.
Chanchala Majhi, a female miner said that her income from vegetables from 1/2 acre land was Rs.10, 000 from sale proceeds of brinjal, gourd and cauliflower. A dozen other female and male miners from her community were ready to adopt the same practice.
Being trained and encouraged by the project 2 other SHGs of ASM males and females started mushroom cultivation, agri-input packing and online selling and delivering packed vegetables, agri-inputs and packed mushroom at the door step of consumers. There was a practical demonstration during the training about the application of IT and possible uses of their mobile phones in marketing their products
The table below shows income generated by one of the SHGs of the project Village of Kalahandi from short term and quick income generating activities after training programs conducted in the month of December, 2020.
When asked about the feelings of female miners, Chitra Majhi said, “we were desperate of engaging ourselves in backyard and home based income generating activities during COVID-19 type scenario when we were confined at home and everybody was to be fed in a situation when our earning was virtually nil. The project created new aspiration among us”.
At the outset, there was some resistance by male members against female focused group activities encouraged by the project. But it was not so and both males and females were equally encouraged while it was found more number of females came forward as males took time. That attitude of the male members banished once they realized the benefit in terms of income to family and when females used their income for the household.
“We have now a feeling of identity as skilled persons and a feeling of empowerment to overcome pandemic like situation in future. The project facilitated our access to government extension staffs of agriculture, horticulture and pisci-culture officers at the block level. Previously we never consulted them for our small needs of business”, so said Raning Majhi, the member of a SHG of female miners.
The effort of the emergency response project focused on vegetable cultivation in the off-season using improved practices. The project not only imparted trade specific skills but also oriented the beneficiaries on market linkage, pricing the product, basic accounting, rules of correct weights and measures and de-linked the money lenders from small holder producers by strengthening the SHGs. Most of the trained female miners were convinced that their chosen alternative livelihood opportunity and the low cost and no cost skill and technology intervention could bring change in their earning capacity.
Female miners were found handling most of the agricultural operation and marketing activities in the target village. The female members were enabled to determine the quality of the produce, they could grade the items, fixed the price according to grades, could bargain with traders, could correctly weigh the produce, count the money, sold the items to consumers/traders to maximise benefit.
⦁ Increased recognition of the out-put of the female miners
⦁ Increased nutritional status of female miners and children
⦁ Increased participation in household decision making
⦁ Increased income and saving
⦁ The female miners learned and adopted 6 to 8 innovative low cost skills for productive purposes
⦁ None of the female miners borrowed from the moneylenders after the formation of SHGs.
⦁ Savings in terms of interest on INR 5000 per beneficiary in a quarter when borrowed from SHG instead from the moneylender was around INR 900.
⦁ Group enterprises through SHG generated income to the female miners and reduced their perceived risks
Reasons for Success
⦁ Skill formation among female miners by the project
⦁ Entry point activity like indoor cultivation of oyster and paddy straw mushroom and back yard poultry was compatible to traditional activities of the female miners; it became household enterprise and supplemented the income of the female miners
⦁ Low cost technologies were adopted easily by the female miners because those needed investment within their reach
⦁ Group Enterprises were low cost and female friendly.They had no idea of COVID-19
The ASM community of a village in Kalahandi consisted of 45 households of Kondh tribe. When we reached the village in early November, 2020, villagers were found having normal life. They were procuring forest products, female were cooking meals, poultry birds moving around. Each hut of the tribal household was located in a distance of at least 10-20 meters away from each other. Children after their marriage make a separate hut and stay independently in this community.
The inmates of the community became curious on sudden arrival of a mask clad group from somewhere with liquid bottles (hand sanitizer) in hand.
Tulsa one of the female members of the community asked in the local tribal language why we had mask in our face and the purpose of carrying a bottle of liquid in hand and about its content. She appeared a little threatened but boldly appealed to remove our masks and explain her the purpose of our coming to their community.
We sat in a place maintaining our protocol of 2 meter social distance. Reena, one of our colleagues, removed her mask and smiled at Tulsa and wished how she was? Tulsa flashed a reluctant smile and asked the purpose of our presence in their community, once again.
Baring the suspicion about the presence of 5 unknown outsiders, her behaviour was normal. Unlike communities in the plain where masks are available for sale, we did neither see anybody wearing face mask in the community nor any mask available/displayed in the only paan shop for sale.
Nobody had television nor does radio frequency reach neither the hill top, nor any mobile handset with anybody except the miners doing usual ASM activity deep in the forest. Neither any law enforcement agency had reached them during the last seven months nor any health worker communicated them about maintaining social distance. For the first time they saw mask wearing people reached their hamlet for a reason they are yet to understand.
We opened up and asked Tulsa about her knowledge about COVID-19. She expressed her ignorance about the terminology.
We met members of about 10 households at random to observe their life and awareness level about COVID-19. They were all unaware about it and a few more people gathered to stop our further entry to the community and wanted us to leave. But before we left our volunteers talked to a local community health workers and roped her to our training program for front line community health worker. Our group offered them to play a street show in their language using popular lyrics with a condition that they stand keeping distance from each other. After their response, the play began. The next 45 minutes created and strengthened our bond with them. Arati, the lone front line health worker of the community attended our training program and she shares her experience daily with us and one of our colleagues provided a used mobile handset to Arati as she had not one to download the Arogya Setu App. Our sole motto was to initiate our other activities to prevent COVID-19 to infect anyone of this ASM community.
Super Mum’ Campaign: Behaviour change through “Super Mums”
Through front line health workers ASHAs, ANMs and AWWs and local volunteers the emergency response project motivated 102 mothers to act as “emotional drivers” for behaviour change for adopting government and WHO advisories on prevention of COVID-19 infection in their families. The emotions triggered among mothers are inculcating the desire for a happy and healthy child during COVID-19, a happy school going daughter after the pandemic and the desire to break the chain of infection to their families and prevent the spread of virus by encouraging family members to wash their hands with soap before eating and cooking and after using the toilet or cleaning a child or coming home from work or market.
The project promoted the concept of “Super mums” and encouraged them to communicate COVID-19 preventive care messages to their children, adults in families and neighborhoods, to pregnant and lactating female. They promoted hand washing, judicious use of water by tippy tap use, maintaining of social distance and use of face mask while family members interact with others at home and outside home. Super mums innovation of tippy-taps to save scarce water resource spread in the communities and super mums’ efforts were recognized to protect them and their family members.
In the first 3 months, the project reached 100 mothers and 102 pregnant and lactating mothers and promoted them as motivators on preventive care for COVID-19. A rise in the hand washing practices, maintaining social distance and use of face mask observed particularly among children through this effort. An analysis of adoption of COVID-19 preventing practices through Super Mums showed that use of emotional motivation indicators resulted in significant, long-lasting improvements in children’s quick adoption of COVID-19 preventive behavioral practices and that in turn was an opportunity to reduce the risk of other infectious diseases as well.
As part of the Super Mum intervention, SRADHA is thinking to organize annual competitions among mothers and to encourage them to share their innovative ideas of preventive care on COVID-19 spread.COVID-19 Emergency Response: Roping New Opportunities
Above 90% of the inhabitants of the target Gram Panchayat in Kalahandi were tribal. For health problems they receive services from quacks & traditional healers. The families had hardly any access to any information on their illnesses which includes COVID-19, TB, diarrhea, gastroenteritis, typhoid, skin diseases, etc.
They never received any service from the public health facilities existing 35 kms away from their hamlet. In November 2020, we initiated awareness activities on COVID-19 in the villages. We helped the beneficiaries having mobile phone (limited number in the communities had Android mobile phone) to download Arogya Setu App, a COVID-19 tracker
We trained two front line community health workers of the local ASM communities on preventive health care information for protection against COVID-19 including maintaining social distance, using face mask, maintaining hand hygiene by frequently washing hands in soap and water and such other cares like preventing rising incidences of unwanted pregnancy, domestic violence, sexual harassment, human trafficking and child marriages in the ASM communities during the prolonged lockdown period of COVID-19.
The trained frontline community health workers provided information, education and communication materials and tools. It did not take much time for people to become aware about their health and the health services available at different level for them during COVID-19 and after.
The nearby Panchayats were found inspired to take the services of the frontline community health workers in their communities to cope with and protect them from the spread of COVID-19.
Mangal – Became a COVID-19 Prevention Ambassador
Mangal Murmu, aged 45 years is a small holder peasant-miner of Subarnapur. He lives with his wife & four children. He and his wife do gold panning from the river and Mangal also cultivates his own 1 hectare land. Seasonally they also collect minor forest produce for livelihood.
Mangal takes country liquor on a regular basis. In January 2021 he suffered from fever and running nose. Mangal approached the local gunia (traditional healer), offered puja and used herbal medicine supplied by the healer to protect him from suspected COVID-19 infection. The ASHA (a front line health worker) of the community suggested him to get him and his family tested for COVID-19. Mangalu had a false notion of conquering COVID-19 by his daily pegs of country liquor and if needed the traditional healer can cure him. His condition deteriorated day by day and his wife and two children also started showing the symptoms of COVID-19 infection.
Due to ignorance he never thought of visiting the local COVID-19 testing centre for testing his infection though ASHA of his community advised him several times to undergo testing. Mangal had the impression that huge money is involved for testing & treatment in hospitals. He also ignored thinking his illness was due to common cold. His neighbours were also not strictly following the COVID-19 advisories.
SRADHA and the local Community Health Workers took the initiative to quickly contact local health facility which took Mangals family to COVID hospital in Sonepur by sending an ambulace. When tested all of them found COVID-19 positive.
When knew about Mangal’s infection, his neighbor Ramesh mobilized his community members not only to get them tested about possible infection but took active role in creating awareness on various government advisories on COVID-19. Ramesh was one of the 6 persons having a mobile phone who was assisted to down load Arogyasety App. Thereafter, Ramesh took the lead as a community facilitator to download the App in the handsets of 5 other persons having mobile hand-sets.
After spending 14 days in hospital, Mangal and his family were released from the COVID-19 hospital. Managl was too weak to respond to questions.
Mangal, after a couple of days found in his community tea stall with a face mask and he started telling people to maintain social distance while taking tea and told to the tea stall owner to put a warning “no mask no tea” and advised not to approach traditional healers during pandemic time.
In the meantime 2 months have passed. Mangal is completely cured. Being counseled by community health worker Mangal is also maintaining distance from country liquor and realizes that COVID-19 cannot be prevented by country liquor. Mangal and the local community health worker met the traditional healer and invited him to a community awareness program on COVID-19 preventive care. After orientation for a day, the healer was requested to deliver a talk to other participants on government advisories on protection from COVID-19 infection. He obliged with a sense of identity and recognition by 15 other participants present.
Mangal and the traditional healer are seen actively involved in the community level awareness events and the two are now great motivators for others in the community. Both counsel others to maintain social distance, use of mask, avoidance of crowded places and get tested if anyone suspects the symptom of COVID-19 in health facility. When anybody approaches the healer with symptoms of COVID-19, he promptly advises them to get it tested in health facility and does not shy to tell others that he is not competent to cure COVID-19.
Mangal is seen asking Ramesh for new information on COVID-19 from the Arogya Sety App and asked Ramesh if he can procure a used mobile for him from any source. Mangal persuaded Gura Singh of Purnachandrapur Village to go for a COVID test as Gura Singh was suffering from cough & fever for a couple of days.
Community Health Worker Preventing Child Marriages
In December 2020, a vehicle in Odisha’s Kalahandi district was stopped by a group of community COVID activists including a couple of community health workers for violating protocols. They traced a 16-year-old girl and some adult males and females inside the vehicle without mask leaving their community. Enquiries revealed the minor girl was a child bride who was being taken by her parents and relatives to her supposed in-laws’ house in a village in Subarnapur district for marriage. As the local police did not arrive after information due to their preoccupation in COVID-19 duty of mask checking, the vehicle was about to leave. The activists finally caught hold of them and brought them to the police station.
In another instance in Subarnapur, a ASM worker fixed his 15-year-old daughter’s marriage with a 36-year-old local trader. The girl informed the community frontline health worker by borrowing the mobile phone of her neighbor. After knowing about the incident, the FCHW promptly informed the branch of local Child line about the incident. After counseling, the father of the girl signed an undertaking saying he would not get his daughter married before she turned 18—the official minimum age of marriage for female in India.
During the spread of COVID-19, child marriages appear to be on the rise in tribal areas of Odisha in general but its occurrence in marginalized ASM communities of KBK region is no less. Although Odisha state had done well to bring down the numbers of child marriages in the past two decades, in many poverty trapped communities including the ASM communities it re-emerged during the spread of COVID-19 lock down and post lock down phases.
The months-long lockdown starting March 25 during the spread of the COVID-18 led to devastating impact on the livelihoods and income of the poor. The economy has not recovered to the pre-pandemic levels even after the lockdown was lifted in phased manner till March 2021. Besides economic hardship, the poor have been left feeling socially and psychologically isolated and vulnerable. In many marginalized ASM families, the poverty trap of COVID-19 triggered a situation when they could not feed their children adequately and rushed to get their girl children below 18 married.
The closure of schools because of Covid-19 also contributed to the rise of child marriages in the communities.
Mira, one of the trained front line community health workers of the emergency response project, could prevent at least 3 cases of child marriages in her local community by risking her own safety but she did not forget to inform each incident to the local police, Childline and local government institutions online and when there was no response from enforcement agencies she also physically approached at all level to prevent incidences of child marriages without fail.