On 6th April 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued orders to state governments to ensure the restriction of movement of public in national parks, sanctuaries, tiger reserves and forests. This was aimed at reducing human - animal conflicts during COVID-19 lockdown but has had devastating effects on tribal communities.
Van Gujjars are a nomadic tribe of buffalo herders from the foothills of Himalayan states including Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand. The Forest Department halted their milk distribution to cities of Rishikesh and Dehradun under a completely unscientific allegation that the Van Gujjars might be carriers of COVID-19. In Punjab, people refused to consume their milk on the basis of hearsay that they might be connected to the Tablighi Jamal incident in Delhi. With no market left, they had to dispose off milk that was fit for consumption.
Best months for collecting honey are the Tamil months of Chithirai (April – May) and Vaikaasi (May – June). Paliyar tribe from Vadakadu village in Dindigul district, Tamil Nadu are nomadic hunter-gatherers whose primary source of income is collection, procession and sale of honey that they collect during these months. Apart from any casual menial jobs like construction work, their primary occupation is collecting Minor Forest Produce (MFPs) such as tamarind, wild honey and sal leaves. Owing to the seasonality of their occupation, this year they faced severe losses owing to the lockdown.
Yet, not all of it is a sob story. In an interesting turn of events certain tribes of Vissannapeta, Tiruvuru, Machilipatnam (all are rural regions in Andhra Pradesh) started earning ₹1000 per day which is more than their previous income of ₹400 per day through the production of Indian liquor, arrack. Government initially banned liquor however falling revenue collections forced it to reverse the policy. This was followed by a 70% hike in price of Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) and other high-end brands. Regular alcohol consumers therefore switched to drinking rural made arrack. Encouraged by increase in demand and deteriorating economic conditions, many tribes started producing illicitly distilled (ID) liquor. Rise in production has been largely witnessed in states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and regions near west Godavari. This not just helped them sustain themselves but also contributed to their financial empowerment.
This lockdown has brought many communities’ sustenance to a standstill. According to a census report of the National Committee of Forest Rights Act, 100 million forest dwellers depend on MFPs for livelihood. Many tribes are retreating to the forests owing to lack of opportunity and perhaps, security in familiar surroundings in uncertain times. However, due to their inaccessibility, they are cut off from any public health aid. Public health service vans have stopped visiting them, volunteers face difficulty in locating them as they have retreated further deep into forests. That means they are left to depend on their own knowledge of herbal medicine and indigenous alternatives which may fall short for more serious ailments and definitely so for COVID-19.
According to the National Family Health Survey 2015 – 2016, scheduled tribes are India’s poorest people, with 5 of 10 falling in the lowest wealth bracket. The ongoing nationwide lockdown has cast a shadow on the trade of MFPs. While governments have allowed collection, the usual weekly markets haven’t been functioning due to fear of catching the virus and social distancing norms. Traders too are not allowed to move around. Non-availability of transport and vehicles has further added to their miseries.
While governments relaxed MFP collection, police in most states did not allow tribals to transport their produce to the market. This induced the Tribal Affairs Ministry to increase the minimum support price for 49 MFPs by around 16% to 66%. However, experts point out that collection and procurement of MFPs with immediate payment has not been secured. A group of forest rights activists had earlier pointed out that the Environment Ministry’s advisory may be misunderstood and misused to further alienate and restrict access of these tribal communities to the natural resources that they are dependent on for their lives and livelihoods. Pradhan Mantri Van Dhan Yojana too is not of much use as Van Dhan Vikas Kendras (VDVKs) are only about 1,000. Two of the most valuable forest produces – tendu and mahua flowers are not included in the Van Dhan programme thus putting tribals of Maharashtra, Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar in a fix.
A malfunctioning system aided by incompetent policy makers, lack of funds, non-availability of medical facilities, superstitions, rumors and ignorance has further heightened the hardships of the tribal population.
Vaidehi Tripathi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Trying to get out of my own head.