The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged lives and livelihoods across the world. As India became the second worst-hit country by the pandemic, the most marginalised and vulnerable communities faced hardships because of how they were placed in the society’s fabric.

Scheduled areas dominated by Adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities have borne the brunt of an unplanned lockdown which was brought in force on March 24 without a forewarning.

Adivasi communities are located in remote areas, where information about the disease was not appropriately available. Moreover, since Covid-19 impacts people with compromised health conditions and low immunity, these communities who have been structurally marginalised in terms of access to healthcare were badly hit. More distress was caused because the access to forests, on which they depend for their livelihoods and several other purposes, was restricted due to the lockdown.

Left to die

Twenty-year-old Sunita Devi lives in Van Raji Basti, a small village along the India-Nepal border in district Udham Singh Nagar, Uttarakhand. She belongs to the Van Raji community, one of the smallest Adivasi groups in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. The Covid-19 lockdown spelt doom for Sunita, when her husband, Karan, died by suicide on railway tracks in the absence of any livelihood options.

Sunita still awaits help and assistance. Photo credit: Heera Jangpangi

Once known as “kings” (raji) of the forest (van), the community now lives in precarious conditions and has a population of around 690 people (Census 2011) spread over 11 villages in Pithoragarh, Champawat and Udham Singh Nagar districts of Uttarakhand. Some Van Raji reside in Uttar Pradesh as well.

The government defines the community as one of the country’s Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups because of its reliance on hunting, gathering, fishing and declining population among other criteria. Their language, Raji, is also considered severely endangered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Literary critic Ganesh N Devy, who has worked extensively on Adivasi languages, believes that languages are markers of livelihood and survival. “When a language dies, its speakers decide to migrate,” he said. “First, they migrate to another language and then they physically start migrating to another region. The second thing that happens is that their traditional livelihood patterns go down. They may have some special skills and those disappear. Third, a unique way of looking at the world disappears.”

The Van Rajis, who were entirely nomadic till three decades ago, now face the brunt of changing land use patterns. They are becoming increasingly dependent on forests for forest produce and wood and often do not have pakka (cemented) houses.

The Van Raji have borne the brunt of radical changes in livelihoods with little support. Photo credit: Heera Jangpangi

A complete lockdown, restricted entry to forests and closed markets are all factors that have increased their vulnerability. A lack of formal recognition of their customary rights and absence of government support exacerbates their predicament.

Adivasi communities in India, which at 104 million individuals make up 8.6% of the population, are significantly dependent on agriculture. However, in the past decade, the number of Adivasi cultivators has shrunk by 10%, while the number of agricultural labourers increased by 9%. This has made Adivasi communities particularly vulnerable during the Covid-19 lockdown, as many found it impossible to access either agricultural or non-agricultural livelihood options.

“For us, there is a perpetual lockdown,” Sunita told The Third Pole. “But the Covid-19 lockdown has brought more trouble. During other times, we use Jibura, Linguda, Parmal, Kochu – all indigenous plants, fish, wild birds to cook our food. But lockdown made it difficult for us to get these as the access to forests was restricted.”

‘For us there is a perpetual lockdown.’ Photo credit: Heera Jangpangi

Previously, she said, her deceased husband Karan would opt for construction work as a daily wage earner in nearby areas, but the travel restrictions made this impossible.

“Moreover, because of heavy winds our kachha (mud) houses broke down,” she added.

Sunita’s tragedy is not unique. Adivasi people, especially women and children, are experiencing severe distress in various parts of the country. The lockdown period sharply limited their earning capacity, as it affected collection, use and sale of minor forest produce or non-timber forest produce.

An estimated 100 million forest dwellers depend on minor forest produce for food, shelter, medicines and cash income. The non-timber forest produce collection season from April to June provides major income support to Adivasi communities as almost 60% of the annual collection takes place during this period. Minor forest produce collection constitutes up to 40% of their annual income.

Unfortunately, it coincided with the lockdown. As per government data provided by the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation, annually these communities collect minor forest produce amounting to Rs 2 trillion ($27.23 billion).

This means that between the months April to June, the main collection season would have accrued Rs 1.2 trillion ($16.34 billion).

Jaydev Naik, a resident of Basantpur village in Odisha’s Nayagarh said the community had a good turnout of Rabi (winter) crops this year. “But we were compelled to sell our crops at a much lower price because of the Covid-19 lockdown, and incurred huge losses,” Naik said.

Adivasi populations faced a range of challenges during the pandemic. Photo credit: Heera Jangpangi

Regions like Odisha were also hit badly by the cyclone Amphan, which caused widespread damage and disruption in May. Communities now face looming mass starvation in its wake.

Multiple, changing threats

Adivasi communities faced a range of lockdown-triggered challenges because of the sheer diversity of geographical locations.

Pastoralists like the Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand faced grazing losses during the lockdown, as they rear a special breed of buffaloes called Gojri, whose movement was restricted. “One of the significant characteristics of this species is that they can migrate close to 50-km in a day on their own,” said Mir Hamza, president of the Youth Association of Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand region.

He added that the preparations for the winter had been impossible as they could not gather hay and food for the cattle, or raise loans from moneylenders. To recognise the historical injustices done to the Adivasi communities in India, in 2006, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act was brought into force after a decades-long struggle.

The Act recognised the power of the gram sabha to be able to “protect, regenerate, conserve or manage any community forest resources which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use.”

Significantly, the Act recognised the rights of communities under customary law, such as grazing rights.

Pastoralist communities faced huge issues with grazing. Photo credit: Heera Jangpangi

The recognition of these rights means that activities such as selling bamboo (Bambusoideae), tendu leaf (Diospyros melanoxylon) and other forest produce, managing forest conservation, regeneration and managing fires is possible within the domain of the village.

However, the implementation of this act remains abysmally poor. The Forest Rights Act poses a necessary challenge to proponents of extractive industries such as mining, by giving power to the people. Yet, contractors, bureaucrats and forest department officials have been reluctant to acknowledge the newly given rights, and there has been little political will to enforce them.

In many regions, the gram sabhas, which serve as the basic unit of decision-making at the village level, have not been formed. In many states, land claims either remain pending or are rejected without proper reasons.

Source: Promise and Performance of Forest Rights Act

As per a citizens’ Promise and Performance of Forest Rights Act report which spans the 10 years of the Act being in force, so far only 3% of Community Forest Resource rights could be achieved, despite the potential forest area for the recognition of these rights being as large as 85.6 million acres.

Community Forest Resource rights confer the right of managing forests to communities living there and is granted to Gram Sabhas. This frees them from having to get permission from the bureaucracy.

Vimla, an octogenarian woman from Palamau, Jharkhand – an Adivasi majority area – weaves bamboo mats. Adivasis in the region have mastery over bamboo and cane products and sell these in markets. Photo credit: Sushmita

Had a greater number of Community Forest Resource rights been recognised, forest communities would have been far more able to manage issues themselves, rather than be hemmed in by a state machinery over which they have little influence.

This would be a natural tool of resilience in crises such as Covid-19, by ensuring self-reliance, both financially and socially. It could have also helped in reducing distress migration since many people migrate from forest communities and are currently stranded in cities often without proper shelter or food.

When and if migrant workers made it to their homes, institutional schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme – a social security and public work programme-offer – delayed payments, further affecting their livelihoods.

Forced out

More than 50% of the Adivasi community across India have been compelled to move outside their traditional homes. The 2011 Census recorded a nearly 32% decline in the number of villages with 100% Adivasi population between 2001 and 2011.

With extensive forest cover and a significant Adivasi population, Jharkhand, an eastern state in India, has 40% of India’s mineral resources. This has led to the forced displacement of people over time, rendering them extremely vulnerable to disasters and shocks.

The figures for forced displacement indicate that Adivasi communities do not get returns from farming or simply do not have the resources to continue it. Due to lack of alternatives, many are compelled to join the already precarious informal labour force.

Bimal Munda’s case is a classic example of this.

The 23-year-old returned from Bihar’s Chhapra district to his home in Jharkhand in August. He had gone to Bihar last year to work in a brick kiln factory, hoping for regular and better wages, especially in lean seasons.

“We were told that we would get work every day,” he said. “But we had to wait for four months for the work to start.”

At the brick kiln, Munda worked to carry bricks to storage; for every 1,000 bricks, he was paid Rs 200 ($2.72). The work was strenuous, and even transporting 1,500 bricks a day was a challenge.

Women who carry the bricks on their heads are able to manage far fewer bricks in a day, earning less than minimum wage. At the same time, a woman faces other difficulties. “Unmarried women are often mocked, especially with sexual remarks,” he added. “We feel very bad but we can not do anything for them as those harassing them are usually locals.” Adivasis working in informal sectors are subjected to many such insecurities and risks.

An expert committee formed to look at poor health among India’s Scheduled Tribes said in the Bridging the Gaps report, “Displacement and enforced migration has also led to an increasing number of Scheduled Tribes working as contract labourers in the construction industry and as domestic workers in major cities. Currently, one of every two tribal households relies on manual labour for survival.”

Government apathy

This situation could have been different if the government did more to support the interests of Adivasis and other tribal people.

With approximately one in every four Indian villages – a total of 150 million forest dwellers living in 170,000 villages – eligible to claim Community Forest Resources, the opportunity for a major shift in forest management is immense, with the potential for 40 million hectares of forest land to be allocated to Community Forest Resources management. Implementing Community Forest Resources could bring about transformational change by ensuring secure tenures, empowering the governance of Gram Sabha, and creating employment opportunities even amidst a global crisis.

“When I spoke with Adivasi community volunteers in Odisha, they said that they find themselves in a better position [compared to those who had migrated to cities] since they were closer to the forests and could avail food and shelter,” said Archana Soreng, a member of UN Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change who was also part of Covid-19 related relief work. “So when we talk about post-Covid-19 recovery, we have to pay attention to this. [When we talk] about sustainable livelihood, we realise that Adivasi communities shouldn’t be removed from forests as our entire way of life is dependent on them.”

Van Raji women carry woods on their back for long distances. Photo credit: Heera Jangpangi

After the suicide of her husband and her subsequent loss of income, Sunita has returned with her two children, to her widowed mother Janki Devi. Janki Devi lives with her mother Devki Devi, who is also a widow.

The questions of livelihood and survival loom large.

“Winter is going to add to their difficulties as many of them do not even have a roof over their heads,” said Heera, a community worker who works with Adivasi people in this region. “While wages have reduced by half, the prices of daily use items are skyrocketing. Now, there is a Goods and Service Tax applied even for the small loans that women take from our Self Help Groups.”

With India and other countries still struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of livelihoods has taken centre stage. The specific issues of Adivasi people need localised and thoughtful responses if there is any hope of strengthening a sense of resilience.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.