A freelance contributor based in Delhi. Also, a journalism student at Jamia Millia Islamia. I write and report on areas that remain untouched to deliver worthwhile contribution.
While the pandemic has created unprecedented and deepened social inequalities, the tribal population of India remains one of the worst-hit, as per a report published by the Indian Labour Organisation (ILO). To compound the problem, the COVID induced lockdown has disturbed the life of tribals (which constitutes 8.6% of the country's total population) and forest dwellers by destroying their health and livelihood.
The panoply of issues started with the first sudden lockdown announcement as Vandana Dhoop, an independent forest rights research officer highlights that the population had very limited news about the imposed lockdown and its intricacies that heightened their worry to stock up on food and other necessary supplies. Moreover, the lockdown announcement came at a time when Adivasis and other forest dwellers were just beginning to start the collection of minor forest produce (MFP)/non-timber forest produce (NTFP) from the forests; which is their primary source of livelihood.
As India put in place the world's harshest restrictions; it, unfortunately, coincides exactly with the MFP/NTFP collection season - from April to June. According to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an estimated 100 million forest dwellers depend on MFP for their food, medicines and cash income as it accounts for almost 60 percent of their annual collection. However, the population has to face decline in collection and sale of these MFPs due to movement restrictions and physical distancing norms.
The closing of local 'haats' (local bazaars/shops) to avoid crowding has also completely disrupted the trading and value chain of NTFP. That further according to some estimates states that it could result in wasting about 1.2 trillion forest produce. Lack of mechanism for the collective storage and proper linkages with the organised market led to the decline in the prices of MFPs.
"The subsequent lockdown have not only stalled most aid efforts that were to reach the community but also may have a drastic and long term impact on their livelihood and survival," says Dayamani Barla, a tribal community activist from Jharkhand.
In response to emergencies in the tribal areas, the government of India had announced several schemes and relief measures itself. The major MFP schemes announced by the central government were -- the Van Dhan Vikas and Minimum Support Price. However, the schemes haven't been successful in achieving their objectives due to the absence of institutional support in tribal areas.
Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India (TRIFED) under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs has highlighted the need for procurement of MFPs through government, private trade, and payments related to tribals. It supports the Van Dhan Vikas Kendras (VDVKs) in order to assist tribals with model business plans, processing plans, and a tentative list of equipment to carry out the value-added work of MFPs.
Despite the establishment of 1,205 VDVKs to provide employment opportunities to 3.60 lakh tribal gatherers and 18,000 self-help groups, the creation of VDVKs remains sluggish and lags behind the targeted 50,000 VDVKs.
TRIFED is also working on strengthening the existing e-commerce portal "Tribes India" to encourage corporate houses in purchasing tribal products alongside building its ongoing partnerships with Government e-Marketplace (GeM) and private e-commerce players. This linkage of local artisans to online markets for sale can result in an excellent initiative by promoting products across the country so that they receive enough orders for their subsistence and growth.
Apart from that, employment creation for tribals has also been promoted through a 6,000 crore fund provided by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). The gram sabhas made a decision to cope with fund disbursement and utilisation to address the pandemic challenges rooted in local needs.
While the progress is slow yet encouraging, an area that continues to struggle is the poorly designed healthcare facilities. In 2018, The Tribal Health Report of an expert committee of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (Mota) has highlighted the concern of severely understaffed health institutes and lack of information communication among the population.
The Global Hunger Index (GHI), 2019 report ranked India 102 among 117 countries and falls under the serious hunger category. Even before the pandemic hit, India was among the world's most malnourished countries. Hence, shrinking income and loss of livelihood during the pandemic would lead to a further threat to their existing food insecurity.
A report by Hunger Watch in October 2020 indicates 53% of respondents were eating less after the pandemic hit. Similarly, another report by Action Aid (a non-profit organisation) found that 35% of surveyed informal, mainly migrant workers were eating fewer than two meals a day in May 2020.
Another report by the Forest rights act organisation highlights poor access of tribal migrants to the Public distribution system due to the isolated rural hamlets, transport restrictions, lack of ration card, and inadequate ration.
"There is definitely a drop in nutritional quality among the tribal population because of the lack of adequate infrastructure. The temporary restriction on cultivation and use of forests for livelihood has led to hunger, starvation, malnutrition etc. Also, the supplemented food is not very freely available in these areas because of various geographical constraints," says Dr J A Jayalal, National President, Indian Medical Association (IMA).
One of the major challenges in tribal areas is the absence of advanced hospitals. The problem also lies in their infrastructural facilities, the local availability of para-medical people, and self-training from their own people. The population often tend to distrust government policies due to nutritional and health discrepancies among their communities, and this, in turn, could hamper the vaccination drive as well.
Dr Jayala shares that the government is focusing on the tribal population by creating schemes in association with various NGOs to boost the vaccination awareness drive. "Vaccination may take more time but as our target time is December 2020, we'll be able to cover at least the majority of the accessible tribal population. It is a difficult job but the government of India is determined to do it," he adds.
Data from the Cowin dashboard shows low vaccine coverage in some tribal-dominated districts in comparison with other districts. Notably, Madhya Pradesh (MP) witnessed vaccination below the state average of 22.4%. In MP, several non-fifth schedule districts like Alirajpur and Anuppur also fall behind the state average with 19.1% and 18.4% of their population, respectively. However, few fully fifth schedule districts of MP like Mandla, Jhabua and Barwani, and the partly fifth schedule area districts of Chhindwara, Siddhi and Khargone all lag the state average. Moreover, 10 districts in Chattisgarh also witnessed slower inoculation i.e 35% coverage of the state with at least one dose for their 20-plus population.
With an aim to recapture faith in the vaccination, Maharashtra's Melghat forest (the country's first to witness a sharp second wave) is a prime example of how language played a significant role in reversing the longstanding skepticism. The area predominantly has korku tribals with only 25% of the non-tribal population. Considering the fact that human behaviour and governance vary enormously across different regions of the country and among different communities, the state Integrated Tribal Development Project's (ITDP) Dharni project office--reinforced vaccine advocacy by using the local Korku language.
"As administrators, we must stay aware of our biases and try to look at the issues through the population's lens that practically works through language," says Mittali Sethi, sub-divisional magistrate and project officer at ITDP-Dharni, highlighting the innovative and effective communication plan and how the administrative move was to fit into the cultural context of the local community.
The Melghat playbook adopted a sustainable communication system named 'Corona haartiwa, Melghat jitauva'. The idea was to pass platforms to the local leaders and start a serial where both the casts and viewers had to belong to the Korku community, educating and disseminating the information to the local community. The project also focuses on keeping camps in an open space in accordance with their routine alongside keeping an arrangement of water and snacks in order to attract and motivate more individuals. The idea of making it culturally relatable and trust-inspiring helped allay long-standing mistrust of public health systems among tribals in remote areas. Overall, ensuring that tribal communities are not missed out in the COVID relief measures, the public health system of our nation needs to be robust and also made accessible to the tribal population for the larger good.
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