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With social boycott and fines, Covid-19 is the new ‘untouchability’ in Maharashtra villages

In several villages across Maharashtra, gram panchayats have ‘warned residents’ with a social boycott if they let relatives from cities into the precincts. 

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Mumbai: The coronavirus pandemic seems to be giving rise to a new form of untouchability in Maharashtra’s village, and not even the owners of fancy farmhouses in the state’s breathtaking Konkan belt are exempt. 

According to multiple residents of villages in different districts, no one from cities — including migrant natives — is being allowed in. Gram panchayats in several villages, they said, have also warned residents with social boycott if they let their relatives from cities into the precincts. 

The social boycott will bar violators from entry into the common areas of the village, using common wells, borewells and taps, and buying provisions from local shops, the residents said. 

They will not be allowed to attend any social events in the village and others won’t attend their events either. Priests, too, will not be allowed to perform ceremonies and rituals at their homes, the residents added. 

Even if there is a death in the family, the violators have been threatened, they will be barred access to services required to conduct funerals. “Those who help the people facing such boycott, too, have been warned with a boycott,” said one resident who did not want to be named.

These “gaon bandhi (village closure)” directives, villagers have been told, will be in place until the Maharashtra government announces the state free of Covid-19. 

Maharashtra is the state worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with three deaths so far and 124 cases

The state administration has taken note of the boycott threats. According to a source in the Chief Minister’s Office, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has tasked the guardian ministers of different districts to ensure that “overzealousness” of village panchayats does not translate into an unsurmountable social issue. Maharashtra also has a law in place against those who enforce social boycotts. 

The Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016, disallows social boycott in the name of caste, community, religion, rituals or custom, and lays down a jail term of up to three years or a fine of Rs 1 lakh, or both, as punishment. 

Also Read: Spreading fake news, rumours on Covid-19 can land you in jail for a year

‘A bid to keep infection out’

Another resident said the directives were inspired by the fact that Maharashtra’s reported Covid-19 cases so far have been in cities, and not villages. 

The return of city residents to their ancestral homes and farmhouses, villagers fear, could bring the infection to them too. 

The areas where the “gaon bandhi” is in force include parts of the Konkan region, like the scenic Alibaug and Mahabaleshwar, which are popular summer destinations for domestic tourists, and also favoured locations for farmhouses. Other areas affected include the twin hill stations of Matheran and Panchgani.

Residents told ThePrint that many villages have put up banners asking people — natives living away as well as outsiders — to keep out until the lockdown is in place.

The Modi government Tuesday announced a 21-day lockdown, which kicked in at midnight, to break the chain of infection and thus, hopefully, control the pandemic.    

Villagers, the residents said, have also been asked to maintain a tight vigil and report the presence of non-residents and unknown people to the gram panchayat. 

The gram panchayats are also said to have resolved to keep out those who own farmhouses in the Konkan region. 

Villagers found in violation of the order don’t just face social boycott but also a Rs 2,500 fine, the residents said. 

To enforce the order, residents said, the villagers take turns to go around the village announcing the restrictions. “We go around banging plates and making the announcements. We don’t want the urban diseases in our villages,” said Mahesh Kulkarni of Shelu in Parbhani district.    

Meanwhile, as the state battles to control the pandemic, two more positive cases were reported Thursday morning in Mumbai and Thane, taking the state’s case total to 124, according to the state health department. 

The Public Works Department has handed over all its rest-houses and buildings for use as hospitals and isolation centres for patients. This has equipped the state’s healthcare system with 22,118 rooms and a bed capacity of 55,000. 

Also Read: Social media trends #MakeChinaPay as Covid-19 forces people into indefinite quarantine


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