I enjoyed my college days to the fullest. I used to bunk a few lectures and sit in the canteen for hours on end. However, those days are behind me. Now, I cannot engage in frivolous things as I have a huge responsibility on my shoulders, 21-year-old Antroli sarpanch Komal Karpe, who was hailed by Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray for making her village COVID-free, told The Free Press Journal.
Antroli, a small village in Solpaur district, has a population of 2,298. During the first wave of COVID-19, the village saw only two cases and the patients recovered quickly. However, the second wave was catastrophic. The village was rocked with 80 cases and 15 deaths in March and April, leaving the villagers and the administration in complete disarray. And this was when the young, newly-elected sarpanch Komal Karpe took on the mantle and made her village free from the deadly infection.
In an exclusive interview, Karpe said she was really worried about controlling the viral infection when the second wave hit the village. She added that the villagers had panicked and were even refusing to get tested. "We formed two teams Gram Suraksha Dal and Gram Dakshata Committee. Gram Suraksha Dal comprised of youngsters and elders from the village. Gram panchayat members, self-help groups, administrative officers were included in the Gram Dakshata Committee. These teams then started spreading awareness regarding COVID-19 and the importance of vaccination," said Karpe.
Karpe said the villagers used to talk back when the teams began spreading awareness. "How do you know the vaccine is safe? Have you taken it? You are going to kill us," the villagers used to reply defiantly, said the 21-year-old. After realising that these misconceptions were proving to be a major hurdle to the vaccination drive, the sarpanch got her father and grandmother vaccinated. All other gram panchayat members also got their family members inoculated, setting an example before the villagers.
Speaking about the efforts taken to get rid of the virus, the sarpanch said the entire village was disinfected twice. Face masks and hand sanitizers were distributed. 'Janata Curfew' was imposed for two weeks and fines were levied on those not wearing masks or keeping their shops open during the period. "Rs 100 fine was imposed on those not wearing face masks, Rs 200 on those roaming unnecessarily and Rs 500 on the shopkeepers for keeping their shops open. We used to collect Rs 8000-9000 daily," said Karpe. After understanding the severity of the situation, the villagers then began following the guidelines, she said.
The administration used the provisions of the Disaster Management Act and turned Zilla Parishad schools into quarantine centres. Those coming from outside the village were quarantined for 14 days. The asymptomatic patients were isolated in a large hall and doctors used to treat them there. "The villagers have a fear in their mind about big hospitals in the cities. They think once admitted to the big hospitals, they won't come back. So, we began treating them in the village itself. This has also become possible due to the cooperation of the villagers and the administration's teamwork," Karpe said. With experts predicting that the possible third COVID-19 wave could severely affect children, the sarpanch said the administration has done all the preparations and is ready to combat it.
Karpe, who has pursued B.Sc Botany from Solapur's Dayanand college, said she always wanted to become a politician. "I completed my graduation last year. And then lockdown was imposed. There were elections in December and I thought I should contest as there were no facilities in the village (mind you, Antroli does not even have a chemist shop)," she said. The sarpanch said it was because of her family's support that she has achieved the impossible. "For the elections, I campaigned with my father as nobody in the village knew me. I was hesitant at first, but then it all went smoothly," she added.
When asked if she was elated after Uddhav Thackeray's praise, the humble sarpanch said she was working during the Chief Minister's address. "People started congratulating me via message and calls. I was shocked. When I came home, I watched the address and felt really proud. It was more empowering as the deputy sarpanch and I (both women) came together and took decisions for the village and it proved to be beneficial," Karpe said.
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