“I will not spread corona, I will stay at home,” reads a freshly painted message on the road, with an image of the virus in bright red. At the main chowk in Bhamragad in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, shops are shuttered, and so are the homes around them.
With a population of 12 lakh, Gadchiroli has had no COVID cases so far, but for the district that has always lived in the shadow of Maoist violence, the lockdown to check the spread of the virus hangs heavy.
In Gadchiroli, the lockdown has coincided with the harvesting season of tendu leaves and bamboo. It is also the time of the year when both trading activities and Naxalite movement increase. During this season, each adivasi family stands to earn up to Rs 30,000 within the first 10 days of May, when tendu leaves, used to make beedis, are gathered from the jungles and given to agents who auction it for high returns and pocket the profits.
“It is during harvest days that Naxal movement also increases. This is the time they can extort money from local villagers and contractors,” said a senior police officer.
In March alone, the district’s anti-Naxal squad has had four exchanges of fire with Maoists. There have been two incidents of tractors belonging to road contractors being torched at Kishtapur in Aheri taluka, the most recent one on April 7.
Roma Habka, a widow who lives with her 15-year-old daughter in Koyangunda village, about three km from Bhamragad, is entirely dependent on the jungles, but the lockdown has made it difficult for her to step out. “No one has fever here. But police wanted the village shut. Now we just boil rice and eat on days we are not allowed to go in jungles,” she said, immediately covering her mouth with her sari after an announcement in the local Madia language blares from a vehicle doing the rounds near her home.
These days, Maya Madavi, a 40-year-old widow with two children, rushes to the jungle in the morning to fetch any vegetables or the staple mahua flowers to feed her two children.
“The dried trees have ants which we cook as vegetables are too expensive,” said Maya, who used to work as a conductor on a school bus, earning Rs 3,000 a month, until the lockdown forced her to stay home.
It has been three weeks since the Wednesday market of Bhamragad taluka was last held. The market caters to around 40,000 people who live in 120 tribal hamlets in the heavily forested terrain of Abujhmad, a known Naxal stronghold. The shutting down of this weekly event has led to a spike in vegetable prices and left tribals with no takers for the rice they produce.
While the local administration is conducting awareness drives and medical surveys to tackle COVID-19, they are hobbled by the Maoist presence in the region.
Chief Medical Officer Suraj Jadhav, who was returning to Bhamragad after attending a conference in Gadchiroli, was stuck enroute for two days after a landmine scare on the road near Tadgaon. It later turned out to be a false alert but traffic movement on the Bhamragad-Allapalli route was completely shut.
In recent days, Maoists have even put up hoardings outside villages, warning the district administration against entering. To tackle these challenges, a network of one talathi (a revenue official) for every 10 villages has been set up to alert the administration if any of the villagers face problems due to the lockdown or because of Maoist presence. With many of the villages having no cellular network, the nearest spot where signals are strong are identified to ensure distress situations are notified within an hour.
“Awareness and precaution are the best way out,” said Gadchiroli Collector Deepak Singla, who carried out a health survey of all families across the district.
With the district sharing its borders with four districts of Chhattisgarh and three each of Telangana and Maharashtra, quarantining those coming from other districts has been a challenge.
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