As the Deputy Commissioner of Dumka in Jharkhand, I have always been available to the people of my district. This is why many fellow officers in the district remark that I am very active on WhatsApp and Twitter. People call me directly without hesitating. It is this habit of being connected with the people on the ground, social media and over the phone that has given me an upper hand during the coronavirus pandemic.
When the Covid crisis first began, I clearly remember people calling me as late as 1 am in the night just to tell me that someone has come to their village from some other state. At a time when tracking of migrants was proving difficult, this became a novel source of information for me.
People would call to tell me about those not following social distancing norms, the areas where people were not using masks and if they were not getting proper food supply. As a District Commissioner, it was my moral and official duty to be connected with people of my district during this pandemic.
When people are connected with the district administration, they feel safe, Take, for instance, the story of Makku Soren, a lady from the Jarmundi block of our district, who built a fence around her house, saying, “My DC has requested to stay at home.”
The district administration has worked hard to maintain food and medicine supply, ration delivery, and take steps for the wellbeing of people’s physical and mental health, ensuring a strong fight at every step.
Whenever a disaster hits, we switch to relying on systems that can efficiently function on the ground. The role of district administrations across the country has remained crucial at this juncture, in ensuring preparation, precaution, proper recovery, and last-mile delivery.
The aspirational district of Dumka is largely rural (90 per cent according to the 2011 census). Amid its unique set of challenges, from education, infrastructure, accessibility and beyond, the Dumka district administration prepared a multi-pronged approach that focused on awareness-building, end-to-end delivery of essentials, and prioritisation of health.
Dumka is semi-urban and has no big railway junctions or heavy airport activity. This felt like an advantage at the beginning of the outbreak, but the task of receiving a huge number of migrant workers returning from various parts of the country was a challenge in itself.
Housing them in government quarantine centers for a long period of time and ensuring round-the-clock monitoring, nutritious food and sanitation, while ensuring the spread of Covid-19 was nipped in the bud, involved the whole district administrative machinery. Facing the frustration of the people who had traveled thousands of kilometres to be with their families during the crisis, but ended up being held at quarantine centres for a fortnight, was also a herculean task.
Essentials on Wheels
Sometimes the most effective ideas are available locally, waiting to be spotted and strategically acted upon. With the nationwide lockdown, the Dumka district administration took on the challenge of ensuring supplies of essential goods such as food grains, vegetables, medicine and drinking water.
While other administrative roles continued uninterrupted, immediate sanctions were extended to the police for steady transportation of essential goods. These essentials were mostly procured from neighbouring districts and states. After the timely arrival of these goods, the next step was to put an innovative strategy in place for further distribution and door-to-door delivery.
A successful fix for this was a district initiative called ‘Essentials on Wheels’. For this, our team organised shopkeepers and a list of beneficiary families based on proximity and ease of transportation. Divided among the 10 blocks, essential supplies to the chosen shops were ensured, contact details of the identified shopkeepers advertised, and duties assigned to the shopkeepers to record daily requirements of beneficiary families from 8 am to 4 pm. Once they had a record of what these requirements were, vehicles were arranged for movement across set routes, collecting supplies from the identified shops and distributing in the allotted region to the families in need. During the entire lockdown period, we recorded delivery of supplies to over 10,000 families.
Similarly, timely supply of medicines was ensured by identifying suppliers, sharing their contact details with residents of the district and delivering as per the orders received.
Supply of cooked food
A large part of Dumka’s population is dependent on daily employment, and were adversely impacted by the Covid lockdown. The district administration worked round-the-clock to ensure supply of cooked meals to daily wagers across the district, and ensured people do not go to bed hungry.
For freshly cooked food for beneficiary families, initiatives such as Didi Kitchen, Mukhyamantri Daal Bhaat Kendra, and Meals on Wheels were relied upon. The Didi Kitchen initiative comprised women formerly organised as self-help groups (SHGs) under the 206 panchayats of the Dumka district. With complete support from the district administration, these SHGs set up community-level kitchens and fed nearly 10,000 people on a daily basis. This also resulted in the employment of over 1,000 women in the district under MGNREGS.
The district administration leveraged all the Mukhyamantri Daal Bhaat Kendra setups, across the 10 blocks of the district. These distributed freshly cooked meals through a total of 40 centres, and successfully reached over 5,000 community members on a daily basis.
For those residing in less accessible areas of the district, restricted movement posed a big challenge. This is where our Meals on Wheels initiative kicked in. Its success relied on linking up with local vehicles across various blocks, and ensuring safe transportation of meals with the help of Aspirational District Fellows (Ministry of Home Affairs – Tata Trusts Initiative anchored by TRIF), volunteers from civil society groups and non-government organisations (NGOs). The process maintained regular collection of food from the Didi Kitchens, and distribution to residents at their doorsteps. Disabled and elderly residents were identified from the database of the health, pension, Samaj Kalyan departments, and diligently reached out to during this entire period.
Awareness campaigns for physical and mental health
During disasters in the past, or previous high-risk breakouts, timely dissemination of correct information has acted as a strong pillar of society. In the absence of a vaccine for Covid-19, controlling the spread of the virus was of utmost importance. We knew that keeping people inside their homes was not going to be an easy task. So, it was also important to keep them engaged, in order to reduce panic and contain stress levels.
For this purpose, the Dumka administration, with our aspirational district fellow Shubham Singh, ran a creative district-wide campaign called ‘Corona Mein Kuchh Karo Na’. This involved local level competitions of various kinds on a daily basis, and encouraged participation from all age groups.
Recreational activities such as cooking, dancing, singing, acting, painting, sketching, and more, were encouraged and advertised through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp. An enthusiastic, motivating message was floated daily at 9 am, announcing the theme of the day, with entries open till 5pm. A dedicated team looked at the submissions, and finalists were announced the next day. The finalists were then awarded a certificate of appreciation from the district collector of Dumka.
The campaign recorded a daily engagement of over 200 families. It played a significant role in spreading awareness about the pandemic, while also keeping members of the community engaged and entertained.
‘Mission mode’ continues
Currently, the district administration of Dumka is working on mission mode to ensure that people are getting food, ration, and other essentials on time, while staying safe inside their homes. Additionally, the district administration is also working to ensure a comfortable stay to all those lodged in institutional quarantine centres. In order to boost their immunity, special arrangements are being made to provide immunity booster drinks rich in either tulsi (holy basil), haldi (turmeric), or lime. The spread of the virus has so far been under control in the district, but our teams remain prepared to take on the war against coronavirus. This would not have been possible without the unflinching cooperation of Dumka’s residents.
Many officers have stepped up like true leaders.
I remember the case of young girl from Delhi being stuck in the district at the beginning of the lockdown. She was unable to return home due to her medical condition. But our CDPO (Child Development Project Officer) Poonam Kumari stepped in, and took care of the girl as a mother. From her treatment, to dropping her to the railway station, she arranged everything. When the girl called me later to express her gratitude and say thank you, it was a different feeling altogether.
In another instance, one school teacher stepped up to conduct classes with a loudspeaker and microphone, when schools were shut due to Covid. All of this has shown that we are all ready to fight this pandemic 24×7. There is a strong hope that together, Dumka shall conquer this battle.
The author is the Deputy Commissioner of Dumka district, Jharkhand.
This article is part of the series ‘Districts Fight Covid’ that explores how India’s district magistrates and collectors have been fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Read all articles here.