On the Field, During a Pandemic- Part 2, by Anuja Date

Anuja Date is a PhD student at the Center for Environment and Development, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore, India. She works on forest governance and rights of forest dwellers. In Part 1, Anuja described her experiences of being under a lockdown in the midst of fieldwork. In Part 2 of her blog, Anuja recounts her experience of conducting fieldwork during a pandemic.

How to continue with fieldwork with a raging pandemic? This question was uppermost in my mind in March 2020. After India ended the 21-day lockdown with partial permissions on movement, I considered the possibility of discontinuing my fieldwork. Was my data collection necessary? What about the thousands of people who were losing family members, jobs, and education? I could only collect ecological data on forest produce in a small window of 15 days during the leaf production season just prior to their harvest. Losing this window would cost me a year, and returning to the field later appeared uncertain. On the other hand, traveling and surveying across multiple villages with my field team meant risking exposure to the virus. Fuel restrictions also limited our movements. Securing permissions from local administrative authorities meant pulling strings and calling in favours. Lastly, what about the villages? Would they allow me to work in their forests?

It was a tense time, and I reasoned through the facts available to me. COVID-19 cases in the study districts were absent as of April 2020 and the strict lockdown had reduced the risks. Preliminary testing facilities were available at public health centres. I decided against conducting face-to-face surveys with villagers to focus on ecological data collection. I contacted village decision-making bodies (gram sabhas) to discuss the conditions under which I could carry out my work. The gram sabhas permitted my work after discussing my case with the local health officers and the local administration.

Before restarting fieldwork, I discussed the risks and challenges of the fieldwork with my team (two youth from nearby villages). With fuel restrictions, we found accommodation near the study villages to reduce travel and limit exposure. Our food supply depended on an uncertain arrangement with the owner of a local mess.

I was not myself during this time. I was bogged down by the ever-changing lockdown restrictions and its logistical impact. However, spending time in the forest, counting  the trees and the leaves, and observing the forest provided a sense of normalcy. Despite the pandemic, the sun blazed on, trees shed their leaves, and trees flowered and bore fruit. In such a situation, work became meditative.

My team members told me about a local folklore— ‘Mari goddess’, the goddess of illness comes every few years and takes what belongs to her. Sometimes she comes after cattle, goats, or poultry, and once in few hundred years she may also strike humans. Perhaps, they said, we have angered her in some ways? Perhaps, we have.

As of 30th May 2020, with a lull in COVID-19 cases in my field site, state borders started opening for travel. I completed my ecological data collection by mid-May but felt uncomfortable with the risks of conducting interviews and group discussions. I was increasingly homesick and decided to return home.

On my last day, I had dinner with my neighbours. One of them mentioned that the wheat came from a government food distribution programme in response to the COVID-19 lockdown. While we had shared food several times during the last two years, this time I felt guilty. I remembered another neighbour’s half-broken mud house awaiting the release of funds for bricks and cement from the government’s housing scheme for Scheduled Castes (socially marginalized castes). Although we occupied a shared space, the socio-economic divides among us were stark. Would food and other aid be enough and reach everyone? I was leaving for the comforts of my home but the people at my field site were looking at an endlessly long and difficult time ahead. In my years of work, I confronted for the first time, so viscerally, the security afforded to me by my social position.

As a researcher-activist, I now wonder about how my work would ever address the inequity and injustice that the pandemic made even more visible? While the ethics of working in risky conditions are contextual, conducting fieldwork during a pandemic taught me important lessons. Prior to my fieldwork, I thought that my research would help secure the rights of forest-based communities. Fieldwork during a pandemic opened my eyes to a thousand faces of the problem for which I have few answers. As outsiders, we often begin our work with a myopic, prejudiced understanding of issues and our fieldwork region. I went from a conceptual understanding of privilege to finally seeing myself as the problem— a beneficiary and a reproducer of injustice. Now, I think it is essential to frame questions with the people with whom we work. I learned to continuously engage with people, erase notions of a saviour complex, and be cautious of proposing panaceas. Beyond research, field work gave me a deep and enduring sense of gratitude for the communities with whom I lived. 

In October 2021, a year and a half later, I revisited Gadchiroli to complete my pending fieldwork and share my preliminary findings with the villagers. As I sat sipping tea with my neighbour, each of us had a story to share of living with the pandemic, overcoming reservations about vaccination, and ultimately solidarity in remembering our losses. It was a homecoming, but of a different kind.