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The indigenous people are used to sharing, not distancing: Santa Khurai

The indigenous people are used to sharing, not distancing: Santa Khurai

Santa Khurai


Santa Khurai

(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series on the Coronavirus pandemic)

Santa Khurai

Santa Khurai
Photo credit: Sonia Nepram

Round Table India: Thanks for taking time, Santa. Could you share what is the situation in Imphal right now around the COVID-19 crisis?

Santa Khurai: The situation has become much worse. The government acted too soon in declaring it as a green zone but now, with the return of many stranded people from different parts of India, the numbers are rising again. Earlier there were these two cases who recovered and the government declared it to be a green zone. Also, the government does not seem to be following International protocols around quarantine. For example, in a recent government order, people who tested negative are being allowed to return to their home within three days and this is risky and not good.

However, they have set up quarantine centres etc. which are functioning well but according to me there is a big loophole in all this and that is of healthcare. They are not doing enough for this, as in I think the state should increase budget for health services.

And here I also mean Mental Health. Fear is a big thing associated with the Corona virus and the state should ensure mental health services etc. for the people but they are not. And here I mean not just for transgender people, this is about everyone because this fear affects everyone’s mental health.

RTI: You mean to say the situation around food provisions and other supplies etc. is sufficiently tackled? Because in several places in mainland India that also seems to be a in a bad state.

Santa Khurai: The government is not well equipped to provide for the people. But I am trying to say that food and all is very important of course, but mental health is also very important and the government is not able to do enough to manage that. I only see negative remarks and reactions to the government efforts and according to my analysis this is frustration born out of disorganized and improper management. This frustration has now become a common mental health issue which the government should be accountable to deal with. Otherwise, this can lead to different forms of conflicts in the long run.

See, the elections are due here so the leaders are busy giving free rations etc. as part of their election campaigning, it has nothing to do with COVID-19 as such. There is in fact a race among the different parties- one gives 5 kg, the other ready to give more rice, 1 litre of edible oil and others 250 grams oil.
etc. But this give and take with the people is not fair, during the crisis it is not fair at all. If they lose the election, they will then blame people and say we helped you during crisis and you did not vote for us. If they want to help, they should genuinely help without all these political favors in mind.

But at the same time, the situation is not as severe as in mainland India, when it comes to food. We are self-sufficient in that sense. We always had kitchen gardens and we cultivated paddy and there is no shortage of food. We manage with sharing. Take as an example, there were several times where hill people offered hill grown vegetables to the valley people and valley people presented Ngari and other food items that are difficult to find in hill areas.

RTI: The quarantine centres are housing people returning from different parts of India. How has the process of their return been, since media is full of reports of very inhuman conditions for most people having to walk hundreds and thousands of miles back to their homes?

Santa Khurai: The government has managed to bring people back here. I have not come across horrible stories of people having to walk thousands of miles or selling their phones etc. to return. But there are stories of not getting food from the railway authorities, forget food they didn’t even get water during the train journey.

RTI: You have been actively working to ensure support to the transgender community, especially during this crisis.

Santa Khurai: It was not easy to get the government to agree to give us separate quarantine centres for transgenders. I got a call from a community member who was put in a quarantine centre with everyone else, with other cisgender people, and she called saying she is feeling very uncomfortable. There are many returning from Delhi, Bangalore etc.

I then tried to reach the social welfare department and others but they all sai,d during this time of crisis you are asking for separate centres. They did not even understand what I am trying to say. So it was very difficult. I know the DC- Rangita Bali Waikhom- in Imphal East where I live. She is a nice person, as in she helps not just transgender people but also does other humanitarian work and she put me in touch with the Principal Secretary, Health and Social Welfare Department, and I tried to explain to him and requested the separate quarantine centre. In the first place he was not convinced, but the intense follow-up from my end eventually got him to agree. Later, the proposal was directed to the Director, Social Welfare Department, who ordered to convene an emergency meeting, which was held at the department in presence of health department representatives. Even they were not understanding. But in the end, after much effort they agreed to set separate quarantine centres for transgenders, one for those coming from green and orange zones, and other for red zones. They also said they will be able to proide Rs. 200 per person per day for food. 

Having this in mind, I contacted Fr. Thomas from the National Council Churches of India (NCCI) for food support, as Rs. 200 for two meals a day and breakfast is considerably low, because in this situation the inmates definitely require good nutritious food. NCCI agreed to my request and when I shared the information with Mala Lisham of Social Welfare Department, in charge of the quarantine centre, she spoke with the authority and successfully managed the food. Then the proposal to NCCI was withdrawn. Anyway, the centres were clean and fine when I went there for inspection the other day.

Also, I noticed on FB that the DC of Bishnupur had distributed Rs.1500 to trans people from the district. I tracked the development through friends and came to know that it comes from NISD (National Institude of Social Defense). This update was again shared with DC Imphal East and Thoubal. Meanwhile, I also followed up with MSJE (Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment) and the trans consultant working at NISD informed me that it was only Bishnupur DC who responded to the MSJE email and thus they received the money. The information was updated to Thoubal and Imphal East DC with a request to respond back to the MSJE email. The two DCs had assured me that they will do the needful but there has been no update from their end about the MSJE monetary relief support.

The thing is that even the local authorities have a lot to do. I was seeing the Chief Medical Officer here, she is working very hard and has little time. There is a lot of burden on them too and little resources from the centre.

Also, in Manipur, the community people help each other. Not always and not all, but we manage enough. But a big issue is that we as a community, and I mean not just transgenders, but people here are not used to social distancing. Because the long tradition of sharing space that is rooted among the indigenous community in the state find the sudden regulation of lockdown difficult to accommodate in their original world.

We are used to sharing and being together so this is going to be a big challenge in the coming time.

RTI: And amidst all this there is always news of racism against people from the North East in Indian cities.

Santa Khurai: See, that Racism is always there. Such crisis lets them exercise it more. I have been following the news of such racist attacks. They used this international propaganda of the ‘Chinese virus’ and started racist attacks against people from the north east. That is just an excuse for their acts. Of course, they know we are not Chinese, we do not look Chinese but this is just another way to bring their racism out. Even without the pandemic they are racist. It is not about whether they are ignorant or not.



Santa Khurai is a gender rights activist, artist and writer belonging to the meitei indigenous community from Manipur. She works in a state level transgender apex body All Manipur Nupi Maanbi association (AMANA) as well as a consultant under SAATHII.

The interview was transcribed by Akshay Pathak.