On Monday May 4, a group of civil society organisations, activists, researchers and experts working with tribals and forest dwelling communities has submitted a report to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) about the socio-economic distress situation in tribal areas arising out of Covid19 outbreak and lockdown measures. The groups have demanded for urgent action by the ministry to ensure adequate awareness and healthcare and to protect the rights and livelihoods of the tribal communities.
This report is part of an ongoing assessment of COVID lockdown impact on tribal communities which was initiated after the announcement of the lockdown was made on March 24. It is based on primary information collected from civil society organisations working with tribals and forest dwellers and on secondary information from media reports.
Some of the key findings of the preliminary assessment report are as listed below:
1. Health: Tribal areas already suffer from a severe shortage of basic healthcare facilities, shortage of healthcare professionals, lack of information and awareness etc leading to prevalence of diseases such as malnutrition, malaria, leprosy, tuberculosis (TB) and others. Absence of healthcare facilities can severely limit the capacities to deal with any major COVID 19 outbreak in tribal areas posing a serious threat to the tribal population. COVID 19 impacts people with compromised health conditions and low immunity. This increases risks of infection to the tribal and forest communities living in deprivation. Testing and monitoring of the disease is inadequate and is mostly limited to urban areas. Providing testing facilities in tribal areas is a major challenge.
2. Livelihood: The lock down has affected collection, use and sale of minor forest produces (MFP) by tribals and forest dwellers. As per government’s own data, an estimated 100 million forest dwellers depend on MFP for food, shelter, medicines and cash income. The MFP collection season from April to June provides major income support to tribals (almost 60 percent of annual collection takes place during this period) and, most unfortunately, it coincides exactly with the lockdown impacting the communities right now, which may have a drastic and long term impact on their livelihood and survival. The major MFP schemes announced by the central govt- the Van Dhan Vikas and Minimum Support Price- are inadequate to address the MFP issues due to absence of institutional support in the tribal areas. The trading and value chain of non timber forest produce (NTFP)s has been completely disrupted under the lockdown as traders are not willing to buy NTFPs in the current situation.
3. Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) in severe distress: The lockdown measures are reported to have affected access to forests and livelihood activities of the PVTGs. Baigas in MP have reported problems due to restrictions on their movement. There are distress situations being reported from PVTG areas due to lack of access to PDS and other entitlement.
4. Pastoral and Nomadic communities: The migration and seasonal access of pastoralists have been restricted due to the lockdown. Many pastoral communities are reported to be stuck in other states/districts without access to rations and fodder for the livestock. Also pastoral communities have been affected as the milk economy faces severe crisis as procurement and sale has been disrupted during the lockdown
5. Tenurial insecurity: Though the Forest Rights Act (FRA) recognises the injustices faced by communities and provides for Community Forest Rights (CFRs) and Individual Forest Rights (IFRs), the lack of due recording of existing forest rights and resultant tenurial insecurity is likely to increase vulnerability and more adversely impact livelihoods and food security of forest dwellers in the lockdown period and after.
6. Restriction of movement in National Parks/ Sanctuaries: MoEFCC on April 6, 2020, instructed all states and union territories to ensure reduction in human wildlife interface through restriction of movement of people to National Parks/Sanctuaries/ Tiger Reserves. This advisory would immediately impact about 3 to 4 million people living in and around protected areas. These are mostly tribal communities including PVTGs, nomadic and pastoralist communities, fish workers, among others and are most dependent on the natural resources within and around the protected areas for their livelihoods. There is great danger of this advisory being misunderstood and misused to further alienate and restrict access of these communities to the natural resources that they are dependent on for their lives and livelihoods.
7. Forest Land diversion: Diversion of forest land without the consent of Gram Sabha in violation of the FRA continues even during the lock down. It is a matter of concern that the 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 leases7.
8. Compensatory afforestation: There are reports of Compensatory Afforestation (CA) plantations being carried out on forest land used by tribals and other traditional forest dwellers, including by fencing of such areas accessed for community rights. These actions are not only in direct violation of their rights under the FRA, but also are causing severe distress to the tribals and forest dwellers in the present situation by impacting their livelihoods and destroying agro biodiversity
9. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) amendments: On March 28, 2020, the environment ministry amended the rules for Environment Impact Assessment 2006, exempting several categories of projects from the requirement of environment clearance without considering the short and long term impacts of such decisions on the livelihood security of the forest dwelling communities. The EIA amendment has also diluted the provision to obtain written consent of Gram Sabha under FRA. Moreover, attempts at pushing for post facto environment clearance for projects that already started defying environmental norms are also being made during this period.
10. Other issues: Evictions have taken place in states such as Gujarat and Odisha. Mining activities have continued creating conflicts in many areas. There are also reports of deforestation taking place in many areas.
Urgent steps recommended
Despite the lockdowm being in force since March 24, the Central government is yet to come up with a comprehensive COVID response plan for tribals and forest dwelling communities. Apart from several other recommendations mentioned in the report, these are few steps that immediately need to be taken by the government/s
List of endorsements
1. Madhu Sarin, Campaign for Survival & Dignity, Chandigarh
2. Shomona Khanna, Advocate, Supreme Court of India, Delhi
3. C R Bijoy, Campaign for Survival & Dignity, Tamil Nadu
4. Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Campaign for Survival & Dignity, Dehradun
5. Y Giri Rao, Vasundhara, Bhubaneswar
6. Pravin Mote, Devjit Nandi, All India Forum of Forest Movements
7. Ashish Kothari, Neema Pathak, Shruti Ajit, Kalpavriksh, Pune
8. Trupti Parikh Mehta, Ambrish Mehta, Arch Vahini, Gujarat
9. Ashok Chowdhury All India Union of Forest Working People, AIUFWP
10. Sanjay Basu Mullick, Jharkhand Jangal Bachao Andolan (JJBA) & All India Front for Forest Rights Struggles (AIFFRS)
11. Amitabh Bachchan Hyder, Kerala hornbill foundation
12. Kamayani Bali Mahabal , Health and Human Rights Activist Mumbai
13. Sumi Krishnan, Researcher
14. Madhuri Krishnaswamy Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, Madhya Pradesh
15. Viren lobo, Akhil Bharatiya Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti.
16. Dilip Gode, Vidharbha Nature Conservation Society, Nagpur
17. Kishor Mahadev, Gramin Samassya Mukti Trust, Yavatmal, Maharashtra
18. Shweta Tripathy, Satyam Srivastava, SRUTI, Delhi
19. Geetanjoy Sahu, Associate Professor, TISS, Mumbai
20. Dr Palla Trinadh Rao, Andhra Pradesh
21. Ramesh Bhatti, Sahjeevan, Gujarat
22. Rahul Srivastava, Advocate and Activist, MP
23. Akshay Jasrotia, Himachal GhumantuPashupalakMahasaba (Himachal Pradesh)
24. Tarun Joshi, Van PanchayatSangharshMorcha, Uttarakhand
25. Prasant Mohanty, NIRMAN,Bhubaneswar
26. Ranjan Panda, Convenor, Combat Climate Change Network, India
27. Dilnavaz Variava, Managing Trustee, The Sahayak Trust
28. Aruna Rodrigues, Lead Petitioner: Supreme Court PIL for a Moratorium on GMOs
29. Sharanya, Cultural activist, Koraput, Odisha
30. Prof Ritu Dewan, former Director & Professor, Department of Economics, (Autonomous), University of Mumbai
31. Alok Shukla, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan
32. Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, Convenor, Vrikshamitra, Gadchiroli-Chandrapur
33. Indu Netam, Adiwasi Jan Van Adhikar Manch-AJVAM, Chhattisgarh
34. Himdhara Collective, Himachal Pradesh
35. Sharmistha Bose-Oxfam India
36. Adv. Sonal Tiwari, Environmental Lawyer-Ranchi High Court
37. Fr. George Monippally, Jharkhand
38. Sushmita, Independent Researcher, Mumbai
39. Dr. V Rukmini Rao, Director, Gramya Resource Centre for Women
40. Ms. Yogini Dolke, Director, SRUJAN
41. Tarak Kate, Chairman, Dharamitra, Wardha, Maharashtra.
42. Sanghamitra Dubey, Independent Researcher, Bhubaneswar
43. Puja Priyadarshini, Legal Researcher, Delhi
44. Aditi Pinto, Independent Researcher and Writer
45. Archana Soren, Researcher, Vasundhara, Bhubaneswar
46. Pranav Menon, Legal Researcher, Delhi
47. Kashtkari Sanghathana, Maharashtra
48. Ankush V, Adivasi Lives Matter
49. Vaishnavi Rathore, environmental journalist
50. Pallavi Sobti Rajpal, Utthan, Gujarat