I saw the boys from a distance during my evening walk, moving briskly at an adult-like pace even though they were no more than ten or twelve years of age. It was an unusual sight on this forest road where most prefer not to walk alone, especially not children.
Concerned, I approached them to find out where they were headed. Under these days of lockdown, people aren’t supposed to be out. Even I was taking my chances, though these were quiet roads in rural Gujarat. Curfew began early, at noon. They told me they were headed to Auathi, still quite a distance away, having already walked from Fankhulo. By the end of their journey, these young boys would have walked at least 15 km or more, over many mountains.
When I finally asked them where they were going, they replied that they were going to see their grandmother who wasn’t well. Was it COVID-19? I didn’t ask as they wouldn’t know. For the tribal Adivasis, there would be no internet, no phone, no literacy. I walked a little bit further on with them.
The elder of the boys turned to the left at a loud rustle of dry leaves and proclaimed, “that was a huge one!” Seems I missed seeing a very large snake. This was not a safe place to be. They walked quicker than me, and eventually we parted ways when they took a shortcut across the river and went on to their destination.
It was getting dark, and they had at least 4 km more to walk. I’m not even sure they had a flashlight. But I also knew they were already well-adapted to the situation, the most important skill acquired being how to avoid places where there are police checks to implement the COVID-19 lockdown.
Three weeks ago, the Indian administration gave a top-down command to police to manage an active pandemic, rather than working with those who are better placed to do so, like public health officials and grassroots civil society groups. Their approach is more than heavy-handed. For them, lockdown means no movement, instead of a nuanced understanding that allows one or two people to walk together, or enabling vendors to sell basic necessities like vegetables.
Vendors here and across India have been attacked by police, their carts upturned and their vegetables strewn on the ground. Daily-wage-earners, often comprised of those from the Adivasi or poorer Dalit communities, have been stopped from going home, without any arrangements for their food, shelter or other needs being organized beforehand. Any help provided after the lockdown has been wholly insufficient, so they are finding their own way home.
Persecution of the Adivasis is commonplace. They have been persecuted for the way they dress and the way they speak, for their own culture and way of life, their way of thinking and their language - or for not knowing the official state language. But under the current situation this seems even more egregious, because the levels of awareness about the virus are virtually unknown. All they know is that they cannot survive where they had gone in search of work. They have no money for food, no place to stay, and little help forthcoming from the government.
At home, at least they can get by, an advantage in these pandemic days. Normally, these ancient peoples of India are self-sufficient. They live in remote areas and grow their own food for about seven months a year; have homes built out of local, sustainable materials; and can thrive on food from the forests.
During the dry season from February to May, they eat their lentils and beans with rice or millet, all organically grown. In recent years though, many leave their villages during the dry months in search of work, in order to bring in some amount of cash. Perversely, this is when the virus reached India, and now they are being prevented from going home.
Their lack of literacy, not needed until recently, is also a significant disadvantage. How to explain the workings of a virus that passes from one person to another without even being touched, and causes a serious illness that might be fatal to the elderly, like these young people’s grandmother? ‘Social distancing’ would be unheard of.
Their remoteness means there are very few health centres nearby, and virtually no COVID-19 testing. If someone falls sick with Coronavirus symptoms, most will lack the resources to get help. And because they are persecuted under normal circumstances, even if they had the resources such help wouldn’t be equitably available. For the longest of times in tribal communities there was no health infrastructure at all. Because of this, if death comes, there’s an unusual acceptance of it.
Closer to home that same evening, I met a neighbour returning from an afternoon’s work on his farm. He told me that earlier in the day, also after curfew, he’d seen a contingent of people walking through the hills, avoiding roads. They were tired, but still heading further east into the hills. They included young children, women and men.
He talked to young men from our neighbouring village and they confirmed that there was another large contingent of up to twenty people walking the dry riverbed, also heading in the same direction. They looked as if they had walked for many days. They would have been the people who went to cities like Surat, Vadodara and Kheda to work in construction or other labouring jobs, and must have slowly made their way back, avoiding arrest and detention along the way for breaking the lockdown. If they did manage to reach a village safely for the night, it was at least a further seven km away. There they could buy rice and dal from a local shop, if they had money at all, or forage in the forest for whatever else they could find.
As I turn to my own home-made dinner, with fresh vegetables, I can’t help but feel a pang of guilt and worry. Did the two children reach their destination? Did they eat? Did the two contingents of labourers spend the night together somewhere on a riverbed?
How many more days will they walk to get home? In India, these are difficult times for all of us, but even more so for my Adivasi neighbours. How many will we let starve or die in the name of preventing the further spread of the virus?