In Jharkhand, a state of eastern India, you might get lost and find yourself in the district of Godda. And in Godda, whilst wandering the dusty tracks and hand-ploughed fields, you might come across a woman called Sister Naveen, who has helped create a response to Covid that is remarkable.
Godda’s rolling hills were covered in forest until the late 1980s, when coal was discovered there. Still rural and remote, the district has coal mines, rice paddies and wheat fields, darted with villages and pockets of ancient forests. The “resource curse” has left more than half of the population behind, illiterate and below the poverty line. This explains the prevalence of human trafficking from the area and the rate of migration to the city, where many are stripped of rights and drawn into exploitative work.
Sr Naveen and the sisters of Bethany Convent have been working in Godda for decades. They have established schools, credit unions, self-help groups and skills-training programs with the help of hundreds of volunteers. With banners and street plays they move between villages, creating awareness about the dark reality of human trafficking. Together with local authorities, the sisters have circulated tens of thousands of surveys and collected a wealth of research on the population of Godda. From this, an entire identification system has been created to curb human trafficking.
When the virus reached India and lockdown began, Naveen realised what was coming. An exodus of migrants from the cities, possibly infected, would reach Godda in May – the hottest month of the year. The migrants would have lost their daily wages and, with public transport suspended, would be walking hundreds of kilometres to get home. “No one would know where anyone was,” Naveen explained. “Which migrants would be returning? Would some fall prey to traffickers and go missing along the way?”
Of course, the plight of migrants during lockdown is not particular to Godda, or even India. Across the world, the socio-economic effects of lockdown have made groups at risk of exploitation more vulnerable than ever. In Naveen’s case, when lockdown was announced, she and a response group of sisters, volunteers and local authorities went door to door, surveying every family to which members of their households might be coming home.
The list is currently 40 000 long and the group is working through it day by day, contacting migrants to determine their whereabouts and to extend financial support.
Meanwhile, two municipal schools, two council blocks and two sisters’ schools have been turned into quarantine centres. Rooms have been demarcated and bedding collected and distributed. Buses have been contracted by the government to transport migrants from the station to the centres, where they are being housed and fed for a minimum of two weeks.
These are just a handful of the interventions undertaken by the group in the last month.
What makes Naveen’s work so powerful is the investment it has enjoyed from the local community. After a successful awareness campaign, villages erected their own barricades and signs to direct returning migrants to the quarantine centres.
To secure food for them, government rations of grain and vegetables are being aggregated and 108 volunteers are cooking for the migrants in quarantine. They cook knowing that they may be feeding their returning sons, daughters, brothers or neighbours. As migrants filter through quarantine and into the villages, the response group plans on assisting them to apply for work through the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act – an Indian social security scheme that provides at least 100 days per year of wage employment to rural households. In forested areas, migrants will help locals to harvest the leaves used to make patravali (leaf plates) and local cigarettes, or the flowers infused in local alcohols.
Asked whether Godda’s returning migrants might stay beyond lockdown, Naveen said that after the rainy season – the three months of July, August and September – the soil and the work would dry up. People, especially the young, would leave Godda for the same reason that they had left before, this time wiser to the ways of traffickers and what was waiting for them in the cities. Naveen is one in a great web of “guardians” that spans India and the globe – people protecting their communities from exploitation. As poverty deepens, the months after lockdown will make that work even harder.