COVID-19 Lockdown Pushing Tribals On The Brink Of Vulnerability And Exploitation
The two months long lockdown due to the fears of COVID-19 has amplified the already vulnerable situation of millions of tribals across the country. The tribal people living in remote areas are pushed to the edge with restricted movement, being cut off from the markets and ‘mandis’ and find it difficult to procure food grains from fair price shops. Most of them do not even have ration cards, as they keep moving out in search of work and shelter.
According to a preliminary assessment report by a group of civil society organisations, activists, researchers and experts working with tribal and forest-dwelling communities titled ‘Impact of COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown measures on Tribal and forest dwellers,’ an estimated 100 million forest dwellers depend on Minor Forest Produce(MFP), like seeds and lentils, honey and seasonal fruits for food, shelter, and cash income.
Moreover, this is the peak time of the season for the collection and selling of these MFPs to the ‘mandi’, but the lockdown has severely hit their major source of livelihood. Although the Tribal Affairs Ministry increased the minimum support price for 49 MFPs on May 1, what is more, crucial is the lack of institutional support for the collection and procurement of MFPs.
On normal days, tribal communities could exchange MFP for food from the markets, but now they are rendered helpless due to the restricted movement.
52 year old, Madhumala Debbarma, a Tripuri tribe member in Chandi Thakurpara, a tribal village in Sepahijala district of Tripura, is living alone in her small house, as her children migrated for work to Hyderabad and Chennai long back. They used to send her money for food and other necessities, but now they are themselves stuck there with no work. So now she is somehow sustaining by the donations given by the people.
64-year-old Naresh Debbarma and 51-year-old, Drupati Debbarma also belong to the same tribe but don’t have much land for themselves. They depend on manual labour for daily wages but are now sustaining on fruits and donations given by the people who are coming forward to help these communities. These tribal settlements are far away from the markets to be approached to help. Vimal Debbarma from the same community also relied on the daily wages, his wife passed away and the children live in faraway villages, so the only help that he is getting is from the small donation of ration from the villagers, which he uses carefully so it can be used for a longer duration.
Ajit Debbarma, 45 years old says it’s a really difficult time for him and his family, as they are not getting any rice, and other necessities and he also has injured his leg to walk the long way to get help, he has been using the home remedies to treat the wound.
He was reached out by Khumtia Debbarma, a 21-year-old volunteer from Agartala, who has been trying to reach out to more and more people from the tribal community and provide them, rice, pulses and other essentials that they aren’t able to procure at this time,
During this lockdown, tribal people are also facing more than usual difficulties in reaching out to hospitals for medicine and treatment and emergency services.
The villagers have isolated themselves which has caused a lot of lack of information and miscommunication, which is putting their lives and livelihood at stake.
The preliminary assessment report highlighted, that even as COVID 19 spreads Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) has been clearing forest diversion proposals at this time and has issued news guidelines reform relaxing forest and environmental clearance norms for mining and other industrial activities, at a time when people are in lockdown and cannot resist.
During the lockdown, 32 houses of tribal were reportedly demolished by forest officials in village Sagada, Kalahandi District, Odisha on April 24. And due to lack of discussions and communication, they were rendered helpless.
For fencing the land around the Statue of Unity the tribals from Kevadia, Gujarat are also being brutally displaced from the land they lived in for years, but due to lack of communication among the communities, they have merely any support for resistance and are being forced to vacate the region without proving their rights for the land.
For tribal communities, forests and natural resources hold enormous hope for their survival in tough times. They have continued to preserve and protect the forests surrounding them.
Though a preliminary assessment report was submitted to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) by a group of forest rights activists and tribal organizations that made some suggestions to protect the rights and livelihoods of the tribal communities:
- Central and state governments must devise strategies to engage with forest produce traders to ensure the purchase of MFPs.
- To ensure land and forest security to tribal and forest-dwelling communities, and empower communities to use forest resources, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) must be implemented effectively.
- The Union Environment Ministry must withdraw the forest clearance decisions and other guidelines issued during the lockdown to prevent violations of the rights of tribal communities and potential conflicts in tribal areas.
- The Central government must ensure healthcare facilities in tribal areas, including by deploying mobile health units and setting up COVID Care centres in tribal locations.