Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Business Line
Tribals and other forest-dwelling communities have been adversely affected by COVID-19 and lockdown measures, according to a joint preliminary assessment report by Community Forest Rights - Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), All India Forum of Forest Movements (AIFFM) and other rights groups. Earlier this week, the report was sent to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
The report, titled ‘Impact of COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown measures on tribal and other forest dwellers’, comprises concerns shared by tribal communities. It has been compiled from information gathered by activists working on the ground and tribal rights networks from across the country.
Tushar Dash, an independent researcher who has worked on the report told NewsClick about some of the concerns addressed in the report. “There is a lack of healthcare facilities in tribal areas and the lack of an institutional mechanism to address the loss of livelihood from minor forest produces (MFP) by tribals and forest dwellers,” he said.
Dash added that the restrictions on movement of tribal and pastoral communities and “recent changes in environmental policies affecting tribals rights are among the major concerns discussed in the report,” he added. Dash said that among tribals, the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) are even more vulnerable as they are located in areas that have poor administrative and infrastructural facilities.
Lack of access to health facilities
Citing government data, the report noted that “high levels of social deprivation and exclusion” has led to a prevalence of diseases and conditions like malnutrition, malaria, leprosy, tuberculosis (TB) and other diseases. “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. As is well known by now, COVID-19 impacts people with compromised health conditions and low immunity,” the researchers noted
Loss of livelihood from Minor Forest Produce (MFP)
Almost 60% of annual collection of minor forest produce (MFP) or Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) takes place between April and June. However, since the period has coincided with the lockdown this year, the report pointed out how the move was affecting the livelihoods of the communities.
Furthermore, the report highlighted problems being faced by PVTGs, issues faced by nomadic and pastoral communities, those arising due to forest land diversions, restrictions on the movement of tribes and problems related to non recognition of forest rights and tenurial insecurity.
The report noted that the lockdown has had an impact on the conduct of Gram Sabhas in violation of the Forest Rights Act, with instances of forest land diversion being reported. “The local tribes have been resisting such diversion of forests as it would cause destruction of their ancestral forests, displacement and loss of livelihoods. It is a matter of concern that the union environmental ministry 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,” the report noted.
Dash said that the Centre and the tribal affairs ministry had not come up with a response plan for members of the community whose population is about 300 million. “If the government does not come up with a special plan to address the tribals’ issues amid the pandemic, the problems they face will only increase and persist,” he added.
The report mentioned that responses by the ministry and the state governments have been ineffective, and recommended a set of actions to be taken.
The Forest rights’ groups demanded the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to constitute a COVID Response Cell for tribal communities; to ensure and issue necessary guidelines or advisories to the states on measures to be taken for tribals and forest dwellers to deal with COVID-19 and the lockdown. It mentioned that the ministry needed to ensure healthcare, food security, wage employment, strengthen MFP productivity, review forest diversions and ensure proper implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) among others.