A cult leader in Meghalaya, who had earlier convinced his followers to reject government schemes for the poor, has come in the way of the COVID-19 vaccination drive with his followers rejecting the need for taking Covid jabs, senior district officials said.
There are reports of low Covid vaccination in remote villages of Khasi Jaintia Hills region, comprising seven districts, where the cult leader has influence in some pockets, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
The cult leader, Pastor Phawa or Phawa to his followers, in the Christian-dominated state, has gone into hiding since 2018 as he was under the radar of the state government during the 2018 assembly elections as many people reportedly abstained from voting because of his influence, they said.
"I am not going to get myself vaccinated. Jesus will cure and protect us from all sickness," Juliana (name changed), one of his followers at Jongksha Wahshnong village, told PTI.
"There is no way I am going to take the vaccine," she said. When asked, a senior law officer said, "We have the Disaster Management Act in place and Epidemic Diseases Act which empowers the state to take direct action against any campaign that may hamper public health." Juliana and her family of five, including her 80- year-old grandmother, had not availed of any government support scheme for the poor housing, foodgrains, toilets and all three adults in the family have not exercised their franchise.
Principal secretary, Health, Sampath Kumar said, to encourage people to take the vaccine, the district administrations are using the nudge approach to effect behaviorual change among people. "This is being done through the issuance of notifications, advisories, counselling in the interest of the masses, with the greater interest of saving their lives and those of their near and dear ones," Kumar said.
Meanwhile, the Khasi Jaintia Presbyterian Assembly has denied the presence of such a "Pastor-turned rogue" in their fold. We have never heard of such a man leading such a cult. We are not aware. If there is any such man, he should be arrested," an official of the Khasi Jaintia Presbyterian Assembly told PTI.
A doctor at the Public Health Centre of the village told PTI, none of the 30 plus families in the locality has taken polio drops and even refrain from taking medicines for their ailments. During last months COVID-19 outbreak at Jongksha village for which it was declared a containment zone, only about 400 of the 2,000 residents came forward to get themselves tested for the viral infection, the doctor said.
Phawa has managed to convince residents of Jongksha to break away from the Presbyterian Church sometime during 2010- 12, according to the concerned elders in the village. Phawa goes around asking parents to stop sending their children to schools, reject MGNERA jobs, reject foodgrains available to BPL/APL ration cardholders and abstain from Aadhaar enrolment as the unique identification number is akin to being marked by the devil in Christianity, the officials said.
In the last assembly polls, low voters' turnout was recorded as many of the members of the cult abstained from exercising their franchise. "Some had used sticks while some covered their fingers with plastics to press the button in the EVMs as to avoid direct contact with the voting machine while casting their votes in 2018 and many others simply did not vote," K Sangriang, a journalist in South West Khasi Hills district said.
The identity of this man is yet to be officially verified by the police while some say he was a former truck driver who went around the villages claiming himself to be a "true leader of the Church". A senior police official said he too is aware of the rumours doing the rounds since 2018 but the police are yet to ascertain the identity of the cult leader.
So far, the state has completed vaccination of 5.77 lakh people of the 3.5 million population and only a fraction of the target group has received their second dose (about 75,000 only), according to Health Minister AL Hek. When asked about the cult leader, Hek said he was informed of the same during his tour to interior villages and legal actions are being considered against Phawa.