It was a sunny morning in March. Rohini Meshram, 42, boarded a bus, heading from her village of Kasaari in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district to Gadchiroli town.
The previous day, Rohini had been barely able to scrape together Rs 100 to buy vegetables. But she borrowed Rs 400 from a neighbour to buy a round-trip bus ticket, determined to visit the collector’s office at Gadchiroli.
Rohini’s journey had one goal, and one goal only – to secure the compensation of Rs 50,000 promised by the Maharashtra government to families who had lost their sole earning members to Covid.
In August last year, of her struggles after the death of her husband, Roshan.
“My daughter is mentally challenged and I need to take care of her as well. I need money for her medicines,” she had said. “If something happens to me, I don’t know who will take care of her. We do have grains as I did farming last year but we need money to buy basic necessities.”
So, she had submitted the requisite forms on the for Covid relief, and followed up multiple times with the collector’s office and her bank in Gadchiroli.
In March, she set off for the fifth time to Gadchiroli town, hoping that this would finally be the effort to bear fruit. But her hopes were crushed.
“They told me the amount had already been disbursed into my account,” Rohini said. “I was surprised and showed them my passbook and asked them to show me the entry. They couldn’t and just told me to come back again.”
The only outcome of her trip was an additional debt of Rs 400 for her bus ticket – in addition to the Rs 25,000 she borrowed from a private moneylender a week before to run her household. Rohini runs a tea stall, earning around Rs 50-70 per day.
“I don’t even have money to buy rations,” Rohini said. “I can’t keep borrowing Rs 400 every time just for the visits to get the compensation...If they didn’t want to give compensation, then why did they announce it?”
Rohini is one of an estimated 20,000 women in Maharashtra who lost their husbands to Covid, according to the Covid Ekal Mahila Punarvasan Manch, an organisation that works with Covid widows. In October 2021, said the immediate kin of Covid victims must be paid Rs 50,000 “over and above the amounts paid by centre and state under various benevolent schemes”.
But several Covid widows in Maharashtra told Newslaundry they’re still waiting to receive any amount at all. For instance, Rohini said she also qualifies for another government scheme – an insurance payment of Rs 50 lakh for government employees who died of Covid, since her husband had worked as a peon in the gram panchayat.
When asked about it, she said, “They have not even given five rupees to us.”
In Dhamangaon village in Ahmednagar, Geeta Aware, 26, lost her father-in-law and husband to Covid a year ago. She now lives with her four-year-old daughter and mother-in-law.
“My husband used to run a mobile shop and my father-in-law did farming,” she said. “After their deaths, we don’t have any earning members in our house. My father-in-law’s agricultural land is also not in his name, it’s owned by his brothers, so we cannot rely on it for our livelihood.”
Geeta applied for compensation, she said, but her form was rejected since she filled in “incorrectly”.
“My husband died in Aurangabad but I entered Ahmednagar by mistake,” she said desperately. “I have been trying to update the form for the last four months but it’s not getting updated. I have tried more than 50 times.”
Geeta is now studying for the Maharashtra Public Service Commission civil services examination, hoping to then be able to get a job and provide for her family.
“If I could get the compensation, it would help in my studies and in my daughter’s schooling,” she said. “MPSC books keep getting updated so I need money to buy them, and my daughter will start school this year...We are already in debt as we borrowed Rs 3.2 lakh for my husband’s treatment [for Covid]. Rs 2.5 lakh was paid by relatives but the remaining amount needs to be paid by us.”
In the neighbouring village of Akole, Anita Kute had a similar story to tell. She applied for compensation in October 2021 after her husband died of Covid that May. A year after her husband’s death, she still hasn’t received it.
“After my husband’s death, life is not easy,” said Anita, 28. “My husband was the sole earner of the family so after his death, I have to manage everything. I also have to repay the loan of Rs 3.5 lakh which we took for his treatment. My daughter is four and a half years old and I have to manage her school fees. A little bit of help makes a difference for us.”
Anita’s husband worked as an agent with a Pune-based insurance company. After his death, Anita got a job as a clerk with a private company in Ahmednagar, earning Rs 6,000 per month.
“I was not even able to arrange for food initially,” she said. “It’s not easy to live when you are suddenly thrown into poverty. The Maharashtra government made such big claims but did nothing. They asked us to submit documents, did a lot of scrutiny – but didn’t give us anything. Why did they make us run here and there when they had no intention to compensate? They will never understand what we are going through.”
Heramb Kulkarni, a writer, social activist, and convener of the Covid Ekal Mahila Punarvasan Manch, told Newslaundry the Supreme Court had directed state governments to disburse this compensation within a month of family members filing applications.
“In Maharashtra, around 2.5 lakh families applied for the compensation, as per official records,” he said. But more than 70 percent of them have not received it.”
He pointed out another discrepancy – 2.5 lakh applications as against the state government’s Covid deaths. “These applications are well-scrutinised and a lot of documentation is required,” he said, “so changes of duplication or double applications is minimal.”
The application process also throws up challenges, since it’s online while many of the Covid widows do not have access to the internet.
“They don’t even have phones with them,” Kulkarni pointed out. “Even if they manage to apply somehow, they are not able to identify the status of their applications. There are cases where applications were rejected without them even realising. But the most important thing affecting the process is the lackadaisical attitude of state officials and district officials. They often indulge in blame games and do not fulfil their responsibilities.”
Activist Girish Kulkarni, who works on issues related to human trafficking, told Newslaundry the sorry state of Maharashtra’s Covid widows may have “indirectly given rise to child marriage and trafficking of girls”, since the widows could not support their families.
“All this is happening because of their weak financial condition,” he said. “Any relief from the government will help them.”
However, there is no specific data available on correlations between the Covid pandemic and deaths, and the and trafficking.
Newslaundry sent a questionnaire to Vijay Wadettiwar, Maharashtra’s state minister for disaster management, relief and rehabilitation. He did not respond; this report will be updated if he does.
However, Wadettiwar’s personal assistant, Raju Santoshwar, got indignant while speaking to this reporter on the phone.
“We wanted to give money for the benefit of these people and have given compensation to many,” Santoshwar said. “But some people try to take extra benefit and want to take advantage of the situation. A widow applied for compensation and mentioned the names of three different men as her husband in the form. Only such cases have been kept pending.”
Santoshwar then disconnected the call.
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