Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an economic package of Rs. 20 lakh crores for a “self-reliant” India on Tuesday with no mention of Adivasis, aggrieving the community that is already suffering the ills of the unplanned lockdown.
“The government is making all efforts to ensure that the tribals get true value for their products,” Union Minister for Tribal Affairs (MoTA), Arjun Munda had said in a video conference earlier before the PM’s big announcement. The conference included heads of around 20 states and state-tribal ministers where the Centre disclosed no plan of action, in fact, went on talking ambiguously about relief measures.
Adivasis or tribals, about 300 million in number, making the country’s quarter population have been the worst hit with COVID19 lockdown resulting in loss of livelihoods and economic distress for a large population among the tribal communities. Mostly, forest dwellers, they are reported to have incurred a 60 per cent loss in their annual income with no visible government support. With the pandemic outbreak crossing the 40,000 marks in the first week of May, 20 tribal districts were identified as hotspots by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. To raise concerns for the same, independent researchers and experts working with tribals had submitted a report to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) on May 4 detailing the prevailing conditions of the vulnerable to seek government help (https://www.fra.org.in/
Some of the major issues highlighted in the report were lack of healthcare facilities, tribal migrants stranded in cities, lack of institutional mechanisms, access for procurement, distribution of minor forest produce, and more. The same report was also forwarded to Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR), Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), NCST, Prime Minister’s Office and Niti Ayog, and to National Disaster Mitigation Authority.
However, PM’S “self-reliance” scheme following just a week later spelt no respite for the Adivasis, inviting huge social media uproar from tribal leaders and tribal rights workers. On May 11, minutes after the speech ended, a Twitter storm with hashtag #CovidAndForestRights
Hansraj Meena, a renowned tribal rights activists urged the PM to “pay attention” to Adivasis, while others reminded the government to “Save Aravali”, “Let India Breathe”, “Adivasi Lives Matter” and so on. About 8000 messages were recorded within the hashtag with international rights network Amnesty International, Survival International and others joining in soon. Stephen Corry of Survival International accused the Centre of robbing indigenous people’s rights while National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM), a coalition of civil society and rights organisations across the country, tweeted that “100 million forest dwellers depend on minor forest produces for food, shelter, medicines and income. Still, they suffer ignominy, displacement and impoverishment, State has betrayed them. #CovidAndForestRights.”
The enraged activists expressed that despite the prior submission of report to Ministries, no responsive measures have been taken, holding the Centre accountable for inappropriately addressing the plight of stranded migrant labourers, many of whom are from tribal, nomadic and de-notified communities. Jharkhand Janadhikar Andolan, a state-based platform of civil rights organisations tweeted, “150 Santhali and Pahariya workers stranded in Kargil, Ladakh. Not paid for two months. Being overcharged for groceries and essentials. Where is the plan to get them back & support lakhs of Adivasis like them? The silence of the central govt continues. #CovidAndForestRights”
Historian Ramachandra Guha on behalf of tribal community has accused Union Minister Arjun Munda of “aggravating the sufferings of the already disadvantaged tribal and forest communities.” Several others questioned why a proper implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 was not done despite the fact that it could have helped in making the communities more secure and self-reliant. National Vice President of Adivasi Congress, Shyam Sundar Hansdah resonated that “in many areas Gram Sabhas were defunct, which was a complete disregard of the FRA, impeding in the growth and development of the scheduled areas.”
Some tribal rights workers even demanded that the sum of 50000 crores collected under Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAMPA) should be disbursed among the Gram Sabhas so that they could use the money to appropriately address the challenges posed due to the lockdown depending on their local needs.
While the Twitterati outlined significant legislations and regulations, tribal rights activists demanded the Central Government and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to come up with a COVID Response Plan for tribal communities and issue comprehensive guidelines to State govt’s to address issues and concerns of tribal communities. This would be in addition to providing these communities with adequate testing and healthcare facilities through the deployment of Mobile Health Units and setting up of COVID Care Centres in the tribal locations.
Environmentalists through their Twitter handles also favoured the effective implementation of FRA to ensure economic security, generate employment and build community resilience in the long term and that the MoEF should withdraw the forest clearance decisions and other guidelines issued during the lockdown period to prevent violations of rights of tribal communities and potential conflicts in tribal areas.