Maruthi, the young son of Binagunda’s patil (village head) has been working as kotwal with Bhamragad administration for the past few years. A few days back he trekked over 20 kilometers to inform Bhamragad Tehsildar that health team couldn’t find any success in vaccinating Madia tribals of Binagunda and other nearby villages. All villagers had refused to take vaccination from a health team that traveled to these areas recently. The fear of Covid rampaging his village in the next wave was clear in his hushed but concerned tone. The monsoon would also play spoilsport, as these villages would be cut off from the rest of the civilization for four months or so. The administration would lose any opportunity to vaccinate them at that time. The kotwal himself had been vaccinated, but he had not been able to convince many of his village folks. “Sir, please visit the villages, we need to convince our people to take the vaccination…”

On the evening of Buddhapurnima, May 26, the tehsildar called me about the problem at hand. We decided to chart a plan to vaccinate every eligible person of Binagunda and other villages nearby. After much deliberation, we decided to organize four vaccination camps on the line of election booths: one in Kuwakodi (the eastern most Gram Panchayat of Maharashtra), Permilbhatti, Fodewada and Binagunda each. All located in the infamous Abhujmarh, often referred to as the ‘liberated-zone’ by Naxalites, these villages are home to the Madia tribe that is recognized as Particularly vulnerable tribal Groups by the Government of India. Due to primitive nature of their lifestyle (by no means inferior), these tribes continue to live in seclusion from the rest of the world. Our fear lay in the cold hard fact that if the recent strains of Covid 19 make its way to these villages, lack of health facilities and immediate care could potentially lead to much misery and loss of human life. One way to address this problem would be to vaccinate as many persons of this area as possible, on a war footing level.

The vaccination camps were held on the lines of election exercise. It would have three components. First, an intense awareness campaign would take place in each village on Friday, May 28th. The administration team along with all the Patwari, Kotwals, and persons with influence in the area would travel to each village and organize meetings in the Ghotuls, the traditional meeting halls of the Madias. The traveling itself was dicey as our vehicle crossed at least five flowing rivulets, removed heavy stones along the forest trail and was stuck multiple times on a hilly and inaccessible terrain. All the villagers were informed in advance about the meeting and times were communicated by kotwals on foot the previous day. The first meeting was held at Fodewada, a hamlet of around 30 houses. The ‘ice-breaking’ session, as Tehsildar Anmol Kamble liked to refer it to, was done by talking about general issues faced by the villagers. It was key to establishing some rapport with the villagers. This was followed by transitioning to the topic of health and Covid. A video of local leaders and influencers like Prakash Amte ji, who has a very recognizable face in Bhamragad was shown to all. It instantly struck a chord with many of them as all the influencers spoke in their language, explaining Covid and how vaccination could protect them. Afterwards, we took the questions of each villager with much patience. In the classic dialectic method, which is still practiced in this area, both sides presented arguments. One of the village seniors wanted us to visit the nearby water source first and address the water problem as well. She led the way as we trekked almost a kilometer in deep jungle to learn that she had been ferrying water on foot for all her life. It was her chance to have us feel the problems she lived everyday. The meetings went much beyond the Covid as they enabled us to note many problems faced by these inaccessible areas. By the end of the day, the team noticed that it had taveresed over 10 kilometers on foot while walking through these villages. Eventually, home visits and Ghotul meetings ensured that all the villages were convinced to get vaccination by the end of the long but fruitful day.

The next morning, ‘vaccination booths’ was set up in each village. Two health teams traveled with vaccine in the pulse polio cold boxes, now used for storing and transporting Covid vaccine in the nearby areas. The vaccination booth agent was armed with the list of all villagers above 45 years of age. These were extracted from the electoral rolls already available with the administration. The first to get vaccinated was the local Patil, Maruthi’s father. He led by setting an example for all to follow. One by one, as the villagers trickled in the booth, their aadhar card numbers were written down and vaccine shots were administered after testing their blood sugar levels, blood pressure and other vitals. Many were encouraged to come out of their houses and get vaccinated. A little hesitation and concern was still visible on some old, sun-spotted faces, but much of the vaccination team couldn’t hide a huge sign of relief on theirs. 59 out of 68 persons, almost 87% of the entire eligible population were vaccinated. Almost everyone beyond 18 years of age is eagerly awaiting for their chance as well. As the day ended, we knew that with the right awareness campaign, some personal touch from vaccination warriors, and a clear system and process of vaccination, we could defeat vaccine hesitancy and vaccinate one village at a time in the entire area.

I would like to give all the credit of this Operation Vaccinate Binagunda to Tehsildar Anmol Kambde and the team, Sattu, Kotwal-Phodewada, Dinkar Kotwal-Turremarka, Chukku Kotwal-Kuvakodi, Maruti Kotwal-Binagunda, Shankar Kotwal-Laheri, and Akash Kotwal-Malampodur.