Under the scorching mid-day sun, with just a small cloth hat for respite, 45-year old Padma (name changed) has been visiting houses among the local residents of Moodabidr, a taluk in Dakshina Kannada. She goes door to door, asking questions and educating people on ways to prevent and contain vector-borne disease carried by mosquitoes in the nearby areas.
However, unlike earlier, when the residents warmly welcomed her with a glass of freshly churned butter-milk or tender coconut water, she notices that this time around, she is met with cold stares. “Everything was fine till few weeks ago. In over 10 years as an enumerator, I have familiarised myself with the local families with the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) survey. But now, suddenly, people have started questioning my motive behind the 'survey' work,” says Padma.
So, what changed? The answer lies in the fears around Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is purported to a precursor and basis for the CAA across the country. While the CAA came into effect some days ago, the rules and requirements for one to prove their citizenship have not been notified yet. Amid these apprehensions some residents incorrectly assumed the ASHA health workers on enumeration drive to be government agents, surreptitiously collecting data to establish ancestry and citizenship.
Padma explains that it is a routine mandate for ASHA workers to go from house to house and collect details of the families and create awareness about issues – be it vector-borne diseases, child care or inquiring about the health of the pregnant women. “We visit houses and collect the needed details. Since November 2019, we were asked to collect details under the Health Department’s 'Nagarikarige Ondu Savalu' (a challenge to citizens) program. Under this, if a house and its surroundings are free from mosquito larvae and mosquito breeding, we give them a certificate acknowledging the same as an encouragement.”
Nagarikarige Ondu Savalu is a three-year-old program under which ASHA workers and Auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) are given a form with 13 questions, which they ask the residents, and fill in their responses in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ format. These questions pertain to cleanliness, whether the homes are materials like unused tyres, coconut shells, cement tanks etc. where water could stagnate and mosquitoes could breed; and awareness about diseases like dengue, and its symptoms. Every form also requires the name and mobile number of resident to be filled to establish authenticity.
Suspicion against government drives
The programme under which the ASHA workers do these door-to-door interactions and surveys are not new. But this time around, much to their surprise, ASHA workers noticed how some local citizen groups became irate when they start talking to them. It is not just Padma – she says she has also heard one of her colleagues recount being scolded by a resident, who then showed her the door, and asked her never to enter their house again. “Some of us have even been told to erase the data that we have already collected in our enumerator forms,” Padma says.
According to the ASHA workers, in many places such as Belthangady, Ullal, Moodabidri and Bantaal, some groups have started objecting to the door to door campaign.
It’s not just the enumeration drive that’s is suffering. In Belthangady Taluk, on last Tuesday, Machina Gram Panchayat President Harshalatha and three others who were appointed to collect data for National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) were shouted down by a group of local residents who allegedly also tried to forcefully destroy the data. The matter was resolved after the local police intervened and filed an FIR against nine individuals.
A Dakshina Kannada Health Department official explains that the root of this misinformation seem to be a few messages being forwarded in the areas that the government is using ASHA workers to gather data for NPR, NRC and CAA.
“Those sharing the message have also told nearby residents that ASHA workers are being used by the agencies to stealthily collect the data and hand it over to the government. They have been told that they, along with their families, might lose their citizenship. That is why there is a suspicion and resentment about sharing details with the ASHA workers," the official said.
The image below is one such message being circulated. It says, “Please tell all your family members: ASHA workers, anganwadi workers, or any other workers, if they come to your house and ask for documents please don't give it to them. Don't sign anything they give you. Don't accept any notices, any posters or pamphlets. Don’t give your number. Missed call also don't give. Don't let them take photos. Don't get cheated. NRC CAB CAA NPR let us oppose these strongly. (sic)”
Not everyone misinformed
While the assumption that ASHA workers, who are spreading awareness about vector-borne diseases, are collecting citizenship data is concerning, not everyone seems to believe so.
Another ASHA worker, Varija, says that not all residents are against the health workers. “Around 80% residents truly understand our work. But then there are 20% who do not agree. They want us to postpone the drive, and tell us to come some other time, after the confusion related to NRC and NPR is solved," she says.
Meanwhile, the district administration has decided to send a strong message to the people as well, asking them not to fear.
"It is really sad that they are suspecting our service. I would like to assure that there is no hidden agenda here. It is purely a Health Department-related survey. The details being inquired have nothing to do with anything (NRC or NPR) else," District Health Officer Dr M Ramakrishna Rao says.
"We have asked all our workers to clearly tell the people about the program and educate them. Once they understand they will agree. The Deputy Commissioner too will make a statement to the media stating that the program is only related to Health Department," he adds.