Forest rights groups, researchers and experts on Wednesday urged the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to take urgent steps to support tribals and other traditional forest dwellers affected due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown. They said the Centre is yet to announce a comprehensive Covid-19 response plan to help these communities during the crisis.

The lockdown, imposed first on March 25 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, was to end on May 3. However, it has been extended by another two weeks till May 17.

An assessment report conducted by the civil society organisations, activists, researchers and experts was submitted to Ministry of Tribal Affairs on Monday. They said the government should immediately ensure adequate awareness and healthcare to protect the rights and livelihoods of the tribal communities.

The report pointed out that tribal areas already suffer from a severe shortage of basic healthcare facilities and professionals. This has led to malnutrition and prevalence of diseases like malaria, leprosy, tuberculosis and others. The researchers said this makes tribal and forest communities vulnerable to the coronavirus more than other people.

“Absence of healthcare facilities can severely limit the capacities to deal with any major COVID-19 outbreak in tribal areas posing a serious threat to the tribal population,” the report added. “COVID-19 impacts people with compromised health conditions and low immunity. This increases risks of infection to the tribal and forest communities living in deprivation. Testing and monitoring of the disease is inadequate and is mostly limited to urban areas. Providing testing facilities in tribal areas is a major challenge.”

They said the lockdown restrictions have also affected access to forests and livelihood activities of the particularly vulnerable tribal groups, or PVTG. According to the ministry, around 100 million forest dwellers depend on minor forest produces for food, shelter, medicines and income.

“The MFP collection season from April to June provides major income support to tribals [almost 60% of annual collection takes place during this period] and, most unfortunately, it coincides exactly with the lockdown impacting the communities right now, which may have a drastic and long term impact on their livelihood and survival,” the report said.

The schemes announced by the Centre – the Van Dhan Vikas and Minimum Support Price – are inadequate to address the problems due to lack of institutional support in the tribal areas, the researchers said.

The report called for the establishment of a coronavirus response cell and for specific guidelines to address the problems of tribals and forest dwellers. “MoTA should request MoEF to release the huge compensatory afforestation fund to the gram sabhas 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,” it added.

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