It takes thick forests, several running streams, abrupt walking trails and, often, an unrepaired road to reach my village farmhouse near Mukteshwar, stationed high amidst the hills of Kumaon. Those familiar with mountain life will know that apart from being calmingly beautiful, the hills are also achingly tough to climb up. The local women, who make a huge contribution as frontline workers in the agricultural economy in the mountains, clamber up and down the hills all day hunched-up carrying water, wood, grass, walking their cattle alongside in areas which lack awareness, rightful healthcare, transportation, proper digital connectivity, and a lot more that’s accessible in distant towns and cities. Now, with the pandemic, life has taken an unforeseen turn for them.
In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic overpowering survival, women in the hills are showing absolute resilience in this period of uncertainty. To take a careful insight as to how Women of Kumaon are fighting tooth and nail to make it through the lockdown, SheThePeople spoke to some women from such areas, and also with Arunima Pande - a SEWA Bharat Uttarakhand representative working at the grassroots level, in mobilising hundreds informal women workers across the region and helping them through this Pandemic.
The plight of women farmers and their escalating strength
Just like the age-old houses, the women here stand strong and tall in any given situation. I’ve been hearing experiences from some members of my extended family, too, who, residing at my family farmhouse, manage the farms and orchards, a medium amounting to a huge percentage of people’s incomes there. Just like the other families, the women at our farm work equally, as a matter of fact, harder, to sustain. In these times, there’s a lot at stake now.
My relative, Nandi Devi, who resides here, shares how the lockdown has gravely affected their work cycle: harvest, planting, procurement, labour, markets. The orchards went unmanaged because of the complete lockdown earlier, crops are getting destroyed faster than they’re growing, and there’s a lack of clean water supply too. Just like others’, they too had to sell their produce at lower prices than expected. Nandi, however, is hopeful in spite of everything.
“Everyone is getting back to working at the orchards and fields now, women are still waking up at four to go about their day. Coronavirus may have brought everything to a standstill but we can’t afford to halt. We’ve been growing our own vegetables, the process is difficult these days but it’s overwhelming to see everyone coming together; it’s easier to help around the needy with our own produce.”
Helping us gain an in-depth understanding, SEWA's Arunima expresses how it’s commendable to see women farmers being the “first to get back to their fields and harvest crops when lockdown eased a little.” Talk about women showing resilience and she adds that with “women banking correspondents actively helping communities access finance during this time, and Yuva mandals (youth girls) taking up the task of teaching their people about digital payments, it’s the women who always come forward in crisis helping the wellbeing of communities altogether.”
Menstrual hygiene and commodities' distribution
Nandi Devi's daughter, Kavita, who studies in the city, returned to the farm when the lockdown eased. She brought several packets of sanitary napkins for herself and the women in the family. "I knew it would be a problem to get access to menstrual hygiene products, it's never been a priority for people in villages, so I brought them from the city. Although the general store in this area keeps stock for the same, you never know in these times."
While free ration is reaching to some, there are several places in remote hills that are out of reach owing to several factors.
Also, it’s not a clear cut chain; while some shops are distributing selectively, some are either hoarding or charging extra, and in some areas, people have no information about what they are entitled to. “It’s not easy going to the main market though, the system is abrupt, it’s several kilometres far and there’s a risk of infection now that the positive cases are increasing. However, neighbours are helping each other and one family can ask another for help,” says Kavita.
Lack of digital connectivity and its perks
While the city dwellers are flooded with online classroom curriculum and webinars, those in the remote corners of the hills are longing for basic connectivity. Deepa Joshi, who is studying at a coaching institute in distant town Haldwani, returned home to her village amidst lockdown relaxation, her village is approximately hundred kilometres from the town.
Her siblings, who study in a local government school here, which they walk to for three kilometres, have no access to education these days. “Digital India still has to reach here. I agree some areas have access to the internet, but what about networks and access to facilities? The local government schools my siblings’ study at are closed, there’s nothing like online classes here, people haven’t heard of such a privilege here.” Deepa, who expresses her wish to return to her village post her studies and open a computer coaching centre for children here, is now teaching her little siblings via youtube on her cell phone.
We’re still far from becoming the ‘Digital India’ we dream of, the deeper you walk into remote areas the more you’ll know why.
Arunima recalled the initial challenges the organisation faced to reach out to women in the distant hills. “The very first challenge was being able to connect with our members to understand the impact of the lockdown. Forget smartphones, many women, especially older members, do not own regular phones or operate them on a regular basis. Also since our work involves so much physical connect, it took a while for the team also to get used to the phone calls routine.” She adds how their “Agewans (community leaders) and mobilisers have been our biggest strength during this time as they are based out of the community and were able to move around within that space to help around.”
“Without disregarding the need for digital connectivity, we've observed that a physical presence is always going to be essential.” - Arunima Pande
Surviving through climate change
Vidya Devi’ house in the hills of Pangot, in Nainital district, is difficult to navigate. A mother to five children, Vidya, has been independently shouldering the helms of the family and their farming regime. Like the overburdening responsibility wasn’t enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unexpected stir in her life. With this pandemic, it’s become challenging for her to manage considering the lack of facilities, shutdown and less reach owing to almost regular turbulent weather conditions.
Like the pandemic wasn’t enough, the locals are facing the wrath of climate change this time around, which is disrupting their farming regime. The sun, which has been so strong this summer, is adversely affecting seasonal, which would otherwise thrive, with its harsh rays.” So, what keeps them spirited in these hard days? “We listen to folk music on television and my kids dance around playfully. That soothes me. And for the most part, when there’s no electricity, my mother-in-law sings aloud, that keeps our spirits high.”
Fighting for their Livestock
Women in these hilly villages show us a different shade of motherhood, a kind of love which enables them to nurture the other living beings around. As rural hilly areas stare at a larger crisis, the residents here are also hustling for the survival of their livestock.
With a growing lack of clean water supply, lockdown restrictions and climate change, their livestock is now under threat. Sheetla Mehra, a woman from my neighbouring farm, who lives in a huge 18-member joint family, sounds concerned, “The entire routine is getting affected and the animals are starting to suffer. Imagine the needs, and barely any access to markets and forests. Recently, my mother-in-law, who got treated for a medical condition in the city last year, suffered a health scare recently. With no decent transportation, no able healthcare service and the fear of infection, we went through a traumatic time. Thankfully, we managed with some assistance later.”
“Our livestock and fields are a part of our family, we are trying to save them all, by all means”
While measures from State governments show a great relief on paper, it’s only proper and honest execution that’ll determine the help the vulnerable people receive.
Arunima gives her perspective over this larger concern saying, “While women in the hills, especially in rural Uttarakhand, are the backbone of the economy, their involvement, even today, is largely in labour-intensive activities and not fully complemented by decision making for the fruits of their labour. As a result, they continue to be less connected to the outside world and this pandemic did away with even their most basic, local connections that served as a source of income.”
Effect on women depending upon tourism
Shanti Bhatt, a resident of Jageshwar Dham near Almora, is a vendor selling items for prayer rituals. The place, which is famous for its centuries-old temple sites and thrives on tourism and devotees, has been completely shut down ever since the pandemic kicked in. Shanti, whose sole earning was dependent on her stall outside the temple, is hoping the tourism can soon be operational. “I was distraught but I couldn’t sit idle really, so I used to stitch masks from cloth and distribute them to fellow natives, at least I could be useful. I have been living on whatever little savings I had, with some help from the temple authorities,” she tells us.
Measures required to help women workers and livelihoods
With the risk of spread in these regions being heightened, there need to be proactive measures taken so authorities and people can come together in helping people revive damages and thrive through these uncertain times. With a majority of the construction workers not registered and clueless about work, and home-based sitting idle with no access to raw materials or end market, it becomes essential, says Arunima, that the government better understand how a stressful event like this impacts the grassroots.
She tells us that SEWA has voiced their support for universal PDS and higher and unconditional monetary compensations to workers across categories. "We've also written to the State and Central governments. This is the bare minimum that should be done. Instead, going ahead with the suspension of labour laws is akin to dehumanising and disrespecting our essential workforce. These suspensions should be retracted immediately,” she proposes. Recommending that work under MGNREGA needs to roll out consistently and agri-based opportunities like fencing, water storage, etc. are explored under it, it is imperative, she states that the government must recognise the contribution and importance of women workers and ensure it works upon all its policies of livelihood revival with that lens.
“Civil societies and organisations like SEWA can play a huge role in connecting the authorities with the grassroots. Organising is our strength. Although I believe it always is, right now especially is the time for collaboration over competition, and it's been heartening to see organisations break out of the silos and work together.”
With cases surging, what we really hope is that the state government, responsible authorities and the public goes above and beyond to support our communities residing in distant hills - now and long after we’re past this pandemic.