Trees placed across the entry to the village.
Perched at the very top of a hill, with no farm activity at all except during the monsoon, the sandswept village of Kuturvihir depends largely on daily wages for making a living at this time of the year, much of it earned in brick kilns, on farms and at employment guarantee scheme job sites outside the village.
And yet, since Tuesday morning, residents have cloistered themselves, a mango tree trunk placed across the road firmly blocking outsiders’ vehicles and their disease. “We’re not letting in anyone without a reason to be here, and locals are not stepping out,” said Zilla Parishad school teacher Anant Raut, a resident of neighbouring Ganeshnagar.
The school is closed, but Raut comes in everyday for a “survey”, and draws up a list of everyone who has even a common cold or cough. Assisting him is Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker Leela Jadhav, whose home is fortuitously located just beyond the tree-trunk barricade.
She takes a brisk walk around the village of 118 homes, all belonging to tribals of Katkari, Warli and Kokana communities, and also sizes up newcomers and local residents returning home for the lockdown. “Sometimes people from nearby brick kilns come in looking for a place to stay for a while, nobody is allowed in right now,” she said. “Some of our villagers who migrated for work are returning, and I check their temperature, keep an eye on whether they show any influenza symptoms and refer some for a check-up at the rural hospital.”
On Wednesday, the village prevented seven residents employed as sanitation workers with the Jawhar Municipal Council from going to work, until the taluka administration intervened and threatened action.
Kuturvihir’s circumspect assessment of outsiders is not currently unusual in the backward, tribal-dominated Jawhar taluka of Palghar district.With many receiving forwarded messages on WhatsApp about COVID-19 in early March, they saw the administration’s seriousness as early as March 15, when the Maharashtra government first applied Section 144 to prevent gatherings and crowds in public places, a week before the Janata Curfew.
That day, the local police slapped cases against those operating the ubiquitous Bolero taxis, a key mode of transport for remote villages. The utility vehicles usually ply with three times their capacity, and are unauthorised. The taluka administration had by then also begun to identify those with travel history, and at least three were home-quarantined in subsequent days, two having returned from Dubai and one from Philippines.
By the time local schools closed down on Monday and Tuesday, teachers, ASHA workers, Anganwadi sevikas, sarpanches, panchayat samiti members and others were already sensitised by the taluka administration on COVID-19, its impact on other countries, and the need for social distancing. So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his speech on Tuesday, villages such as Kuturvihir were well prepared.
Kuturvihir, like other nearby villages, does not produce any vegetables, so women usually made the 4-km trek to Jawhar town for daily purchases. Now, a local resident who runs a vegetable stall in Jawhar brings his tempo loaded with produce from Nashik, about 70 km away, straight to the village, his business limited to his home village these days.
Jawhar Sub-Divisional Officer Prajit Nair said the supply chain to the region is now re-secured, with nearly 250 vehicles obtaining vehicle passes issued by the administration for essential commodities. Based on his instructions, anganwadis in the region also continued to supply food until two weeks ago to schoolchildren living in the jurisdiction of the Jawhar Municipal Council, but that had to be suspended following the imposition of the nationwide lockdown. He said the administration is trying to provide meals or rations at least to the Katkaripadas, the hamlets of the Katkaris, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).
For the children of Kuturvihir’s families, that missed meal counts. “Especially a few weeks later, when families’ savings have run out and if work is still not available if the lockdown is extended, every household will be dependent entirely on public distribution system rations, with nothing to supplement it with in the face of no fresh earnings,” said Jadhav.
Seven women in Kuturvihir are pregnant, and have had to forego the state’s nutrition scheme, the Amrut Aahar Yojana. Other key schemes that stand suspended include a supply of additional foodgrain for pregnant women, midday meals for school students and daily nutrition in the now-shut residential ashram schools for tribal children. At least 14,000 children of Ashramshalas in Jawhar, Mokhada, Wada and Vikramgad are currently making do with whatever is available at home.
Employment i n Kuturvihir is available only at two brick kilns, owned by Police Patil and sarpanch, both now closed. Most work at brick kilns dotting the Jawhar-Kasa-Charoti belt, and they’re back home or headed in that direction, mostly debt-bondage labourers returning with meagre earnings. For now, there is ample water in the borewells and dug wells nearby, but the wait for monsoon has begun in Kuturvihir. Because it looks like the onset of a devastating summer.