Forest Rights groups, researchers and experts write to MoTA to take urgent steps to ensure support for tribal and forest communities affected due to Covid 19 outbreak and the Lockdown.
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.
The 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 livestock1. Also pastoral communities have been affected as the milk economy faces severe crisis as procurement and sale has been disrupted during the lockdown.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 leases.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- The MoTA to set up COVID response cell and issue specific guidelines to address the issues and problems of tribals and forest dwellers.
- The central government should coordinate with the state governments to provide immediate relief to the tribal communities by ensuring information and awareness, providing health care and testing facilities in the tribal areas, support for MFP collection and sale.
- The central government should look into the cases of forest rights violation and eviction due to mining and forest diversions, plantations by forest dept, restrictions on access to forest for livelihoods activities etc.
- MoTA should also ensure that district and sub-district level officers are well informed about all relevant guidelines and orders related to COVID 19 and lock-down issued by the centre and the states from time to time and that these are complied with.
- The MoTA and TRIFED should work with state tribal departments to urgently devise effective institutional mechanisms for the collection, storage, procurement and sale of non timber forest produce during the ongoing collection season. Necessary financial and logistical support should be provided to the Gram Sabhas and forest management committees constituted under FRA together with other PPAsfor direct procurement from the gatherers.
- MoTA should request MoEF to release the huge compensatory afforestation fund to the Gram Sabhas constituted under FRA to support community forest management for generating livelihoods and wage employment for tribals and forest dwellers to deal with the economic crisis.
- Ensuring support to vulnerable communities such as the PVTGs and pastoral communities.
- Effective implementation of FRA so that communities are more secure in the long run.
The report can be read here:Report on COVID Lockdown impact on tribals and forest dwellers_4th May
Cover Image : A check post set up at Bastar by tribal people to prevent virus infected outsiders from entering their villages. Photo Courtesy: The Hindu