Afroj Alam works alongside the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and farmers in Bihar to improve the quality of pulse crops and increase the incomes of farmers. In ths interview, he explains how this work has been disrupted by the pandemic and how he and his partners are adapting to support farmers in the region.
When did you first hear about COVID-19? What did you think or feel at that time?
I first heard about COVID-19 at the time of Holi celebrations in the village. That was when the news channels began covering the virus extensively. Initially I was not really concerned about it as there were no positive cases in our area, but my eldest brother, who works as a skilled labourer in Mauritius, called me to talk about the virus and asked me to take precautions. I still never imagined that it would become such a big issue and things would change so much because of it.
On 21 March, my office called a meeting about COVID-19. All the people in my office were asked to stop all official and field work and stay at home. All of us were very shocked to get this information as we have never experienced such a tragic situation before. Though I work primarily under the Pulses Project, we also work extensively during disasters such as severe floods, earthquakes, or fires, and I have personally done relief work during floods in Bihar in the past. We are used to working in emergencies, but this time we were cautioned to stay at home and take safety measures. This changed my entire mindset and routine, as I am not used to sitting at home.
As the son of a small-holder farmer, I know the challenges these farmers are facing. Farming knows no barriers of time — once a field is ready for harvest it needs to be harvested, and once it is harvested, it needs to reach the markets otherwise there will be issues of storage or wastage. I made up my mind to help the farmers at all cost. I wanted to do something to be able to support them.
How has COVID-19 had an impact on you and your community?
Everyone in the village is very scared. Due to social distancing, as well as the strict government regulations, communicating with the farmers has become very difficult. In-person communication has almost completely come to a halt. We are following the guidance strictly to keep our families and community safe.
Police patrolling is going on in my village as well as other villages in the vicinity. There is a feeling of fear here due to the outbreak. I recently became a father and have a newborn at home. As small children are vulnerable, we at our home take all preventive measures and special care. I sometimes go out for work so when I come back, I feel scared to even touch my newborn. My family has also advised me to not touch her or play with her especially when I come from outside.
Some people who had come back from the cities were immediately sent to quarantine centres for fourteen days. They were not allowed to enter the village directly after returning. Instead, they had to live in a school on the outskirts of the village which was operating as a quarantine centre. Only after they lived there for two weeks without any symptoms, could they enter the village. Many village families depend on the livelihoods of members who had migrated to big cities, but they are now struggling as people can no longer work. Due to the complete shutdown, some people have not received their salaries for the last two months. In some cases where the husband lives in the city, he is having to live out of his savings and is not able to send any money back to his family.
Seasonal and daily wage labourers also have no work, which makes their families vulnerable. Only approved vehicles are allowed on the roads, so all the people who depend on transport-related businesses have no work. In many cases, vegetables grown by farmers are going unused and rotting because of the lack of transport facilities. Farmers are not able to get their products to the market. Perishable items like milk and milk products, or vegetables do not have enough customers at the village level — many such items can be seen thrown on the roadside as farmers do not have any cold storage to retain it.
To make matters worse, many farmers cannot harvest their crops, as the usual agricultural labourers are unable to go to the fields. All activities have come to a standstill because of the virus. Due to this labour shortage in the villages, the lentil crop could not be threshed in the first week of April when it should have been. To add to this, there was heavy rain with hailstorms in early April, which led to significant damage of wheat produce in the village.
How are you contributing to the fight against this pandemic? Why are you taking action?
I have been working extensively on raising awareness about COVID-19 in the community and ensuring that all villagers take the necessary precautions. Some of my colleagues and I have distributed banners and posters in our villages depicting the safety measures people need to follow. These have also been communicated to farmers associated with us through texts on their mobile phones, which are sent to the farmers at regular intervals, or when there are updates.
Farmers are constantly advised to maintain social distancing and use masks when they are in the fields. They are also being advised that when they come back home from the fields, they should wash their hands with soap and shower and sanitise all their tools to ensure protection of other family members. Two masks and soaps have also been given to every farmer who is associated with the Pulses Project in Nautan and Bairiya blocks, left at their doorsteps so as to maintain the social distancing measures.
In cases where the farmer has perishable produce, we are trying to coordinate with them by phone to get vehicles to take the produce to the nearest market so that it is not wasted. For farmers who have already harvested their lentils, we are communicating the market price to them daily so that they can make their choice and sell at suitable time.
To date through this initiative, we have bought three tons of lentils from our farmers. This has proven very helpful for farmers in the village. I am also contacting big buyers to purchase the wheat crop and linking them to farmers, resulting in the farmers getting a fair price. Our farmers are very happy that they are still able to get good opportunities at this time of distress.
As a member of the community, I feel that I have some duties towards making our society better. If the community is happy and prosperous, I feel happy and satisfied too. I have been working in the village for some time now and, with all the love and respect that the villagers have given me in the past, I feel that this is the right time to give it back and do everything that I can do for them. I have been in touch with our farmers for the last four years and I also have very good relations with the family members of the farmers. I am very happy to be extending my help wherever they need it in these tough times.
What is an object you use every day that helps you in the fight against COVID-19? Why or how does it help you?
What is one thing you would like to say to the rest of the world, about this global challenge we are all facing together?
I would like to say that there is no need to be scared or panic. Stay in solidarity, help everyone and provide food and other essential things to underprivileged and others who are in need. Follow the rules and safety measures announced periodically by your government.
Any other details or comments to share?
Apart from the awareness campaign, and the sale and purchase of seeds and produce, I am also trying to help the poorest families who do not have ration cards for whatever reason. I have identified and facilitated the application for temporary ration cards for approximately 287 very poor families. I have also contacted the local authorities to inform them about the present situation of struggling people in the village. Food materials received from the local MP fund have then been distributed to these very poor families, as identified by me.
Above all I am trying my best to convey all the information that I am receiving from authorities to the people in the village. Whosoever is willing to donate or contribute to help our community is being guided properly and being provided with correct information about the current situation of the families of the marginalised communities so that they can come forward and help the ones who are in dire need of support.