It’s not news that COVID-19 has disrupted every part of the world but it has particularly been worse for the marginalized section of the society to survive the pandemic. This global pandemic has of all things, highlighted the ever-existing divide between the privileged and the marginalized of the society.
In the month of May, demanding an urgent action regarding the socio-economic distress situation in tribal areas due to COVID-19, a group of civil society organizations, activists, researchers and experts working with tribals and forest dwelling communities had submitted a report to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA).
As stated in the report, information across many states revealed that during the lockdown the tribals and the forest dwellers had very less access to Public Distribution System. Not only that, they are also unable to get cash benefits because they either don’t have any bank accounts or the banks are far way from their villages.
With an estimate of 100 million forest dwellers depending on Minor Forest Produce (MFP) for food, shelter, medicine and cash income, the lockdown has greatly affected its collection, use and sale. Their major income that comes from collection season from April to June, also had to bear the brunt of lockdown in those particular months.
75 listed Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) live in remote locations in India. Over the years, due to loss of their customary rights to cultivation and use of forest for livelihoods, has led to hunger, starvation, malnutrition among the PVTG members. With the added misery of lockdown, their survival has been at stake. Many groups have reported a situation of distress due to the restrictions of movement or no access to PDS.
Before the lockdown, the local tribals had been protesting against the diversion of forest land without the consent of Gram Sabha, in violation of Forest Rights Act (FRA). The locals believe that the diversion of forest will result into the destruction of their ancestral land and loss of livelihood. “It is a matter of concern that MoEF has been clearing forest diversion proposals at this time and has issued new guidelines relaxing forest and environmental clearance norms for mining by new lessees, when people are in lockdown and cannot come out even to resist.”
Despite the country being rapidly affected by the increasing COVID-19 cases and drastic effect on economy due to lockdown, actions leading to direct violation of the rights of tribals and forest dwellers have been continuously taking place. “There are reports of Compensatory Afforestation plantations being carried out b on forest land used by tribals and traditional forest dwellers”. The report further adds, “the MoHA has issued an order allowing forest department to carry out forestry and plantation operations. This order can be misused by the forest department to carry out plantation in cultivations land and community forest resources of tribals and forest dwellers which can lead to further violation of their land and forest rights.”
To understand the deep rooted issues of the tribal community, let’s look at the critical findings of the National Health Systems Resource Centre’s report on Tribal Health and Census 2011, concerning the community.
Graphical Analysis of Tribal Community
The ST population of india increased from 8.2% in 2001 to 8.6% in 2011.
Tribal population in the states of Arunachal Pradesh (1032), Mizoram (1007) and Meghalaya (1013) show a sex ratio above thousand, while at 960, Sikkim has the lowest tribal sex ratio amongst the north-eastern states.
Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) data shows that while 81.8% ST women had received at least one ANC, only 15% had received full ANC, the lowest among all social groups.
National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 3, shows that 65% tribal women in the 15-49 years age group suffer from anaemia as against 46.9% other (non SC, ST) women.
- According to the Census 2011, the population of Scheduled Tribes at 104 million constitutes 8.6% of the total population of the country. Madhya Pradesh accounts for the highest Schedule tribe population of 15 million, making up for 14.7% of the total population of the community in the country. The state is followed by Maharashtra at number 2 with over 10 million populations.
- The report also highlights that the concentration of tribal population is highest among the north-eastern states.
- Almost 90% of the tribal population lives in rural area. The sex ratio of tribal population was found to be better than that of all India, at 990 per 1000 male.
- In Lancet 2016, an estimates show that the life expectancy at birth for ST population in India is 63.9 years against 67 years for general population.
- Census 2011 also highlighted that the access to tap water, sanitation facilities, drainage facilities and clean cooking fuels is much lower among the tribal population. Only 10% of ST households in rural areas had the access to sanitary facilities.
- The rapid survey on children 2013-14 reveals that, more than 30% ST Women in the 20-24 years age group are married before they turn 18. Alarmingly, almost 50% adolescent ST girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years are underweight or have a BMI of less than 18.5, the NHSRC report stressed.
- NFHS 3 shows that 65% tribal women in the 15-49 years age group suffer from anaemia as against 46.9% other (non ST) women.
- Moving to the tribal child’s health, the reports shows,Despite the high rates of infant and child mortality in tribal areas and the heavy burden of diseases, full immunization coverage remains consistently low among the ST population across states.
- Discussing the different illness groups in ST population, the data by NSSO shows that the tribal people report high proportion of respiratory (18%), mental/neurological (5%) and musculo-skeletal (10%) conditions.
The community that was already suffering because of extreme shortage of healthcare professionals and services is now going through a worse situation because of the lack of access to health facility, testing kits or even a general information on the ongoing pandemic.
In the report submitted by the activists and civil society orgaisations, they have suggested some actions as COVID-19 response strategies for tribals and forest dwellers to the Ministry of tribal affairs.
- Setting up a COVID-19 response cell in MoTA.
- Ensuring appropriate guidelines and instructions.
- Raising awareness and ensuring healthcare.
- Ensuring food security, survival incomes and protecting livelihoods.
- Strengthening NTFP based livelihoods.
- Ensuring support to PVTGs and pastoral communities.
- Ensuring support to communities living in protected areas.
- Ensuring wage employment combined with basic income for ensuring food security.
- Compensatory afforestation, forest diversion and displacement.
- Ensuring effective implementation of Forest Rights Act.
Credit for the article and the graphical representation goes to Rafey Khan, Swati Rathore, Harshit Gupta, Abhishek Gureja, Shruti Kashyap and Ashvin Batija.