Lack of awareness, poor access to nutritious food, inadequate health infrastructure and lack of buyers for minor forest produce are some of the worst conditions that the tribal communities across India had to face during the Covid-19 pandemic. In this context, the Forum for Odisha Dialogues, in collaboration with Laadli — the media advocacy initiative of Population First, organised a webinar on October 24, 2021 to discuss the impact of the pandemic on tribal livelihood.
- Ms Dayamani Barla, Journalist-turned-activist
- Mr Vinod Verma, Advisor to the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh
- Dr Minaketan Behera, Associate Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University
- Dr Nupur Pattanaik, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Central University of Orissa, Koraput
- Mr Rajib Sagaria, Bolangir-based journalist
- Mr Abhijit Mohanty, Bhubaneswar-based development professional
- Dr Manoj Dash, Director, Odisha Dialogues
- Ms Sharada AL, Director of Population First
- Provide diverse income generation opportunities in tribal areas to reduce distress migration and strengthen resilience
- Recognise and promote uncultivated wild and traditional foods because these form a major source of food and nutritional security for the tribal people
- Increase farmers’ access to a wide variety of traditional seeds in among tribal communities. This will help them become more resilient to the ever-increasing climatic hazards
- Create enabling environment for promoting small businesses by tribal women as they are the backbone of tribal household economy and nutritional security
Lack of awareness, poor access to nutritious food, inadequate health infrastructure, and lack of buyers for minor forest produce are some of the worst conditions that the tribal communities across India had to face during the COVID-19 pandemic.
An estimated 100 million tribal and forest-dwelling people derive their source of livelihood directly from the collection and selling of minor forest produce (MFP) each year, according to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. Lockdowns and restrictions imposed on movements of transport vehicles impacted buying and selling of MFPs which in turn deeply affected the flow of income into tribal households.
The pandemic induced lockdowns and movement restrictions imposed by the government to contain the spread of coronavirus coincided with the harvesting and selling period of minor forest produce (MFP) such as mahua, amla, tamarind etc. Local weekly markets were disrupted which are mostly controlled by the tribal women. The impact of COVID-19 is so severe that it outweighed the government’s recovery programmes and schemes.
There are around 2 million tribal migrant workers in India who work in the urban and city areas to sustain their families. After the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, all commercial establishments were closed and this resulted in widespread joblessness. Tribal people faced these multiple deprivations during the lockdown which resulted in significant depletion of sources of income, erosion in whatever savings they had, increase of indebtedness and marginalisation.
To examine the issue, the Forum for Odisha Dialogues, in collaboration with Laadli — the media advocacy initiative of Population First, organised a webinar on October 24, 2021 to discuss the impact of the pandemic on tribal livelihood.
How Covid-19 weakened tribal economy
An estimated 100 million tribal and forest-dwelling people derive their source of livelihood directly from the collection and selling of minor forest produce (MFP) and non-timber forest produce (NTFP) each year, according to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India.
The pandemic induced lockdowns and movement restrictions imposed by the government to contain the spread of coronavirus coincided with the harvesting and selling period of minor forest produce such as mahua, amla, tamarind etc.
“It was a terrible blow to the livelihood for thousands of Adivasis. MFP provides a major source of income to Adivasi people especially during January to June,” said Dayamani Barla, a Jharkhand-based award-winning journalist and tribal rights activist.
“Local weekly markets were disrupted which are mostly controlled by the tribal women,” said Dr. Manoj Dash, founding member of Odisha Dialogues. The impact of COVID-19 is so severe that it has outweighed the government’s recovery programme and schemes, Dash emphasised.
Rajib Sagaria stated that “tribal communities always take time to get adjusted to emerging dynamics of any situation.” During earlier crises such as the drought of 1965 in western Odisha, tribal people couldn’t cope well with the impact and as a result, they suffered a lot. Tribal people in Odisha give priority to their family and community before they look for any opportunity to tide over a crisis. While Dalits could adapt to similar situations many years ago by choosing the services sector, tribal communities took enough time to gain similar traction. The lockdown of Covid-19 delivered a deadly blow to all people working in informal sectors including tribals. They returned to their villages where they couldn’t find enough means of sustenance from schemes like MGNREGA contrary to claims of the government. They also couldn’t sell the minor forest produce because of closure of markets and supply chain. The whole situation put tribal people in districts of western Odisha in a desperate situation.
Tribal women and children were the worst sufferers
Scheduled Tribes were already at the margins of development even before the COVID-19 virus began to spread nationwide. As per Bhubaneswar-based development professional and freelance journalist Abhijit Mohanty, the pandemic has further worsened their situation. The impact is severe among tribal women. Tribal women are the backbone of their household’s food and nutritional securities. And the pandemic crisis has substantially weakened their income sources, pointed out Mohanty.
“A study conducted in Koraput district’s Simliguda block to assess the impact of the pandemic on tribal women vendors showed that it had become very difficult for tribal women to adapt with the new COVID-19 normal.”Nupur PattanaikAssistant Professor of Sociology, Central University of Orissa, Koraput
In anthropology, there is a word called ‘neophobia’ which means fear of new things or situations. Amidst the COVID-19, Pattanaik said the word ‘neophobia’ has become most relevant to analyse how tribal people struggled to adopt COVID-19 responsible behaviour like maintaining social distancing and wearing a face mask. When the pandemic was at its peak during the second phase, people were even sceptical about purchasing vegetables and other produce from tribal women.
Many respondents in the study reported that they were apprehensive about cleanliness and sanitation among tribal women. “This is called stigma,” explained Pattnaik, “People had the notion that if they buy food from these tribal women, then they will get infected with coronavirus.” All these challenges have forced tribal women to sell their forest harvests and agricultural produce at a meagre price during lockdowns.
The impact of COVID-19 has been disproportionate among different segments of society. Not just the tribal women, but their children also suffered disproportionately, according data released by UNICEF.
“Tribal children lost one major source of meal under mid-day meal programme as schools were closed.”Sharda A.L.Director, Population First
There are around 2 million tribal migrant workers in India who work in the urban and city areas to sustain their families. After the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, all commercial establishments were closed and this resulted in widespread joblessness.
“Reverse migration created a panic-stricken environment in tribal areas,” quoted Minaketan Behera, Associate Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The lockdown impacted around 40 million inter-state tribal migrant workers across the nation. Over 90 percent of migrant workers who work in the unorganised sector were hit hard by the COVID-19 induced economic crisis. There has been a reduction of up to 40-50 percent in the incomes of tribal people, according to a study conducted by Behera in Odisha’s tribal districts. Apart from the economic impact, the mental trauma caused by the pandemic among the marginalised communities cannot be overemphasised, he added.
When it comes to assessing the impact of COVID-19 among the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs), Behera claimed that the lack of baseline data of PVTGs should be one of the major concerns for government and policy experts. The situation of the socio-economic situation of PVTGs in Odisha is not promising.
Revisiting the chronic issues
The pandemic has heightened the necessity of revisiting the chronic issues that have been jeopardising the tribal community’s food and nutritional security. People’s diets have changed over the years and farmers now grow commercial crops. Monocropping is widespread instead of the community’s traditional mixed-cropping and inter-cropping. “These challenges are responsible for limiting dietary diversity and self-sufficiency of tribal people,” underlined Mohanty. The situation of pregnant women and mothers is worse as a direct impact of the pandemic and their diet now consists mainly of rice, boiled potatoes, chilli, and a pinch of pickle and salt.
Stories of adaptation and mitigation
“Amidst the pandemic, there are some tribal women who are showing the way forward for adaptation and mitigation,” highlighted Mohanty. For instance, in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, when tribal families lost jobs and access to the forests during the pandemic and the lockdown, many of them faced hunger and poverty. Since May 2020, over 42,000 tribal women farmers in the district have been cultivating organic nutrition gardens in their household’s front and backyards. This is strengthening their food and income security.
Similarly, with the support of Odisha Millet Mission, Bonda women farmers in Odisha’s Malkangiri district are taking the lead in reviving the cultivation of native varieties of millets that are resilient to drought, salinity, extreme heat, pests and diseases, need less water than paddy and are richer in nutrition.
Tribal youth in Rayagada and Kandhamal districts have produced audio documentaries to improve consumption of local dietary diversity. This initiative has facilitated in production of audio documentation of a range of edible tubers, roots and insects, their local names, scientific names, a brief description, seasonality, traditional acceptance and nutritional values.
Chhattisgarh shows the way
More than a third of Chhattisgarh’s population is tribal. In the first phase of the pandemic, tribals living in the remote areas of the state were less affected in terms of infections and access to basic health care services. The second phase, however, was devastating particularly for marginalised communities according to Vinod Verma, Advisor to the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh.
“The second phase of the pandemic would have been different had the central government become more proactive to contain the spread of the virus. Apart from income losses, the tribal in Chhattisgarh had also faced health issues. Tribal areas of the state which are adjacent to the border of Odisha were also hit hard by the pandemic. The Government of Chhattisgarh took immediate steps to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.”Vinod VermaAdvisor to the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh
For example, earlier tribals used to sell mahua at Rs 17 per kilogram. The Chhattisgarh government decided to increase the minimum support price (MSP) of mahua to Rs 30 per kilogram. Now, tribals are able to sell their harvested mahua at Rs 40-42 per kilogram. Similarly, earlier there were 7 MFPs in the state under MSP. Recently, the state government brought 53 new MFPs under the MSP system.
Because there were no markets and buyers during the lockdown, the state government created and empowered Van Dhan Samitis (VDSs). “These VDSs have started buying MFPs from tribal and forest-dwelling communities based on the MSP,” said Verma. Earlier payment for MFPs to the tribals was always done through bank account transfer. To ensure easy access to cash, the state government switched to making payments in cash, he said. As a result, Chhattisgarh today accounts for three-fourths of the country’s MFP collection, Verma claimed. Out of 139 VDSs in the state, 121 have started processing the MFPs as part of value addition. These VDSs sell MFPs via the Chhattisgarh government’s online portal. Now, many private traders and businessmen are also showing keen interest to procure MFPs from the VDSs. The state government has paid Rs.502 crore rupees to kendu leave workers before the scheduled time, he added.
“Providing income generation opportunities in tribal areas is the need of the hour,” said Behera, the JNU professor. “This will reduce distress migration and strengthen resilience amongst the communities to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.” It is also important to support infrastructure facilities for the value addition of MFPs and train tribal youths and women on entrepreneurship development and marketing.
Uncultivated wild and traditional foods form a major source of food and nutritional security for the tribal people. “Unfortunately, these are largely neglected in government food programmes and policies,” said Mohanty, the Bhubaneswar-based journalist.
There is an urgent need to document and develop an inventory of important edible plant species. “We need to increase farmers’ access to a wide variety of traditional seeds. This will help them become more resilient to the ever-increasing climatic hazards,” believes Mohanty. Policies on climate change, conservation, food security and agriculture need to be integrated to recognise and preserve the importance of uncultivated and traditional food. Tribal farmers have a critical understanding of traditional local varieties and their manifold uses honed through generations of farming.
This was the first of a three-part webinar series organised by Odisha Dialogues. The second and third episodes were to focus on the thematic areas of tribal rights and education.