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COVID-19 and Forest Rights: Impact of Coronavirus and Lockdown on Tribal & Forest Dwelling Communities

Dr. Lakshmi Unnithan
Dr. Lakshmi Unnithan

Activists working on the ground and tribal rights networks and MAKAAM members and its volunteers have taken the twitter by storm in demanding the ministry of Tribal affairs to constitute a COVID Response Plan for Adivasi and tribal Communities. The Outbreak of the COVID-19 and the Lockdown has severely affected the Adivasi and Forest Communities. This response plan is to ensure guidance and advisories to the states on the measures to be taken for the tribals and forest dwellers to deal with COVID-19 and its associated lockdown. The Key issues in which they wanted more clarity is on Minor forest Produce, Health and Food Security, Stranded Migrant Labour, Mining and Environment Impact, Compensatory afforestation, Restrictions in Protected areas, Pastoralists and Nomadic Communities and Status of Forest Rights act claims. 

The Covid-19 lockdown announced since March 24 has had a drastic impact on forest dwelling communities, causing severe distress to their livelihoods and tenurial security. Instead of taking urgent measures to support the tribal communities who already suffer from deprivation and poor healthcare, the Central government has taken several policy actions during the lockdown allowing mining and forest land diversions that are violative of legal rights of forest communities and could cause environmental destruction. This not only puts communities at risk, but also endangers the environment and forests- something that the government should start taking seriously in the light of spread of Covid19. 

Many reports have been come across to identify the problems at a larger level. A Report on Impact of COVID-19 on Adivasi and Forest Dwelling Communities request to allocate CAMPA Fund to the Gram Sabha under FRA 2006.”MoTA should request MoEF to release the huge compensatory afforestation fund to the Gramsabhas 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”. The report also goes to explain about the Mental Health of Tribal Migrants and COVID-19. It goes on to explain that those who are stuck in the cities are without any support system, shelter, food or water and facing acute hunger and almost a famine like situation. In Addition they have to often face police atrocities and criminalization causing mental and psychological stress. Some reports also stress on Stop falling of 2.7 lakh trees for Etalin project in the

huge megadiversity project and goes on to reiterate that Dibang Valley, Arunachal ,India is home to lush greens forests, mighty rivers, rare endemic wildlife and Indigenous Idu Mishmi community. 

Report by Vasundhara, Odisha Asks to Implement the Revised MSP of MSF in COVID-19 Lockdown. It also goes on to reiterate to ensure the functioning of Institutions mandated under the MSP Scheme like Primary Procurement Agency District Level Committee for Collection, Storage and Procurement of Minor Forest Produce in COVID-19 Lockdown. Some reports remind us to Uphold the Spirit of PESA and Forest Rights Act 2006 and Ensure the Collection, Storage and trade of Mahua securing the Livelihood of Adivasis and Forest Dwelling Communities. Bimisha of Thanda village reports in Village Square reports about the youth volunteers came in minivans and using microphone, they told us the reason for the lockdown. Report by The Telegraph explains how Banana plants have become the source of sustenance for many. Due to abandonment by the ATCL and Lockdown the daily wage workers are forced to survive on herbs and shrubs from the nearby forests. Muiniram Tanti says “Most of us took to daily wage earning after the company abandoned us and almost all of us live a hand to mouth existence. We have never faced such a situation before. With no work because of the lockdown, most of us are starving. 

Sanjay Kumar Hansda from Santhal tribe, Jashiput Block, Mayurbhanj District, Odisha says “I used to collect and sell Mahua, Karanj Seed, Tamarind and other Forest Produce in the market but this year no buyer has turned up in our area because of lockdown. Whom shall I sell all this to now, says a report in Mongabay. 

Another report requests to Remove GST on MFP in COVID-19 Lockdown. While GST on all other MFP is 5 % for Kendu leaf it is 18%. Bring down the GST rates to zero on Minor Forest Produce is what they request. Zero down of GST would encourage their trade which would give fair return to the poor forest dependant families amidst Covid-19. Another report shows us the absence of Healthcare facilities in Tribal Areas and the incapability to control an outbreak in those areas. A lot of confusion persists among traders regarding lockdown relaxations and to come and collect the forest produce and that has resulted in confusion. Subhashree Madi, a member of the Mahila Jan Shakthi Sangathan of Totrei village in Malkangiri district Odisha says that she fears that she will run out of cash and food soon. Reports by Newsclick says the homes of Adivasis from Nehla village in Sagda gram Panchayat were abolished. 

Finally as we see mass migration, this shows many of the schemes that the govt introduced to uplift the Adivasis didn’t work and it also shows that the MNREGA scheme too failed to provide a livelihood to the Adivasis says Ramesh Sharma, National Convenor of Ekta Parishad and Land Rights Activist. We hope the Government works on The Key issues in which the tribals wanted more clarity and solve their problems at the earliest. 

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