Plight of tribal communities during COVID-19

By Faheem Muhammed M.P

As the world is facing the most dreadful pandemic of modern times, the indigenous population across the globe are exposed to severe health hazards. The conditions of indigenous people in India are no different from the global scenario. Relatively restricted access to health care is already pointed out as a major setback to tribal communities. Most of the tribal population are residing in the remote areas of the country, with poor health facilities.

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Amid this crisis, COVID-19 response systems in India have been blind to the tribal plights. The government has recognised 4500 INR as the standard fee for COVID testing, which is a huge amount for most tribal families. It is to be acknowledged that many tribal communities are yet not completely shifted into the cash economy. Likewise, there are limits for the rural tribal population to reach the COVID testing centres located in the cities and towns.

Disruption of supply chains of tribal products and markets, closure of artisans’ workplaces, struggle for livelihood due to reverse migration, and travel restrictions are further problems faced by the tribal population in the pandemic times.

The tribal economy has been devastated due to the lockdown and restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Tribal populations are largely dependent on the Non-Timber Forest Produces (NTFPs) and Minor Forest Produces (MFP). With current restrictions, it is hard for the tribals to collect MFPs. Many tribal products had good demand in the market before the pandemic crisis. However, with the lockdown, traders are not willing to buy these products. They also face problems with access to transportation often to get essential commodities and to trade their products. COVID-19 has triggered a historical reverse migration, as the hundreds of thousands of tribal population temporarily living in urban areas in pursuit of better livelihood opportunities, are returning home. The reverse migrants may be virus carriers and can have a devastating impact on indigenous communities along with socio-economic concerns. It can be fatal to the endangered indigenous communities of India and further, lastingly damage the survival of tribal communities.

An assessment report submitted to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) has recognised several challenges to the indigenous population in India during the pandemic and lockdown measures. Inadequate health facilities, livelihood insecurity, the distress of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), complications in seasonal migration and livestock managing for pastoral and nomadic communities, tenurial insecurity and restrictions in movements in national parks and sanctuaries are key problems highlighted in the report. The report points out that the diversion of forest lands for non-forestry projects is continuing during the crisis. It also exposes the ongoing evictions of forest-dwellers and land grabbing for huge projects. These ground realities validate the negligence of the government towards the most marginalised and victimised population of the Indian subcontinent. Centre must declare a comprehensive plan to support these vulnerable social groups during the crisis.

Tribal communities are also subjected to stigma from mainstream Indian society. Tribals from Northeastern states working in various cities have been facing discrimination on racial grounds. Van Gujjars, a pastoral, nomadic Muslim tribe in Uttarkhand and Uttar Pradesh have been facing similar stigma. People were alleging Tablighi Jamaat links to Van Gujjars; consequently, dealers stopped buying milk from them, causing severe damage to their livelihood. In another incident, on June 16 and 17, a few Van Gujjars living in the Asharodi range of Rajaji National Park (RNP), Dehradun were allegedly evicted and assaulted (including women) by the Forest department and the Police.  The Forest Department alleged the community members as encroachers in the government land, disparaging the historical context of Van Gujjars with the forest land and environment even before the proposal of RNP. The Supreme Court order in February 2019, to stay forced eviction of forest-dwellers from their traditional habitat should be read in this context. Forced evictions during the COVID-19 crisis place the tribal communities in a destitute position with nowhere to go. The Van Gujjars are already facing problems with their annual seasonal migration to the upper Himalayas. Previously imposed restrictions for seasonal movement by the Forest Department has further reinforced during the lockdown, which disrupts their traditional cultural practices.

The land is a crucial factor determining the survival of indigenous communities today. Recent reports in DownToEarth have found that indigenous communities living in their lands have better chances of surviving the COVID-19 as they have resources for self-quarantine and sufficient livelihood means. On the other hand, communities who are evicted from their lands have limited resources and opportunities for self-quarantine and livelihood. The indigenous population around the state has been demanding their customary forest rights since the colonial invasion. The parliament enacted The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) to protect the marginalised forest-dwellers and to rectify the historical injustice done to them. FRA recognises and vests the forest rights and occupation within the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) who have been inhabiting the forests for generations, but whose rights could not be recorded. However, the failure in its implementation has led the tribal people into further distress. The forest-dwellers are forcefully evicted and thrown out of their customary homes amidst the constitutional rights. The state’s enumeration exercise has stated that over 5 lakh tribals and OTFDs whose claims are rejected under the FRA could face eviction. The number is likely to increase after the completion of enumeration by all states.

Plights of the indigenous people during the COVID-19 crisis have been emphasising decades-long demands of the tribal communities. Their concerns have been often unheard and undermined by the state authorities. They range from access to decent health care and education to traditional forest rights and control over their habitat. Though the FRA recognises the community forest rights over the forest lands, a Citizens’ Report as part of Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy, finds that only 3 per cent of the minimum potential of CFR rights could be achieved. The matter stresses the need for immediate and robust intervention of the state bodies to ensure the rights and survival of the forest-dependent communities. India’s most marginalised and victimised population are in dire need of attention to ensure their survival. The issues like tribal land alienation, unemployment among the population, malnutrition and further health concerns and discrimination from the mainstream society and the authorities need to be immediately answered. Apart from the common strategies to tackle COVID-19, precise approaches, and collective endeavours must be made to support the vulnerable tribal population in distress.

Faheem Muhammed M.P is at Dept. of Electronic Media and Mass Communication, Pondicherry University