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A Snapshot: Tribals and Covid 19 Crisis

With Covid-19 cases surging exponentially in all parts of the country, including the tribal dominated districts, it would be very crucial to do basic stocktaking of these regions as they entail different set of challenges in multiple fronts.

The crisis arising out of the Pandemic has unearthed varied forms of inequities crept in the society to the fore. While most of these have existed in the society for a long time, it has become a lot more visible now. Pandemic requires people to stay indoors as much as possible, maintain social distancing, wearing masks and keeping one’s immunity upbeat.

All these measures have undertones of being in a much-privileged position to be able follow them. These involve having a stable job, house, not needing to stand in queues or be in congested environments and being able to have sufficient nutritious meals.

With Covid-19 cases surging exponentially in all parts of the country, including the tribal dominated districts, it would be very crucial to do basic stocktaking of these regions as they entail different set of challenges in multiple fronts.

Tribal population constitute almost 9% of the population. Delving onto the critical question now, on how the tribal communities in remote, less accessible environments are doing in this situation and thus, also taking this opportunity to understand how the conventional rural jobs have reached them, particularly, much talked about MGNREGS. Here we need to unpack the traditional livelihoods that tribals are involved in and the larger government response to it.

Taking a more comprehensive view of what livelihoods really mean than just an income generating economic activity, its pertinent to underline the access of the critical health and education services among others. These two areas have emerged as the most critical in shaping development trajectory, not just of the concerned regions but also of the country as whole. This is particularly so, because if the services are adequate in these challenging areas, then the status in areas with greater connectivity and proximity to governance circles can be believed to be better.

Health: It now becomes significant for us to delve into the information such as PHCs, Sub Health Centers (SHCs) , number of ANMs (auxiliary nursing midwifes), Lab technicians, AMOs, ASHAs in tribal dominated districts and going further in blocks. This is the very basic health infrastructure that can assure health services in the areas. Data suggests that there’s astounding health infrastructure deficit in tribal areas with highest shortfall of doctors at PHCs in Chhattisgarh (235), Madhya Pradesh (124), and Odisha (90).  (Standing committee report by Ministry of Social Justice) Here we are not visiting the figures of maternal and infant mortality rates as that exudes another whole story. However, what we would definitely need to note, are the prevalence of conditions that have been identified as co-morbidities such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer as may be captured through health and wellness centers (SHCs/PHCs converted into HWCs) under the aegis of Jan Aarogya Yojana or as popularly known as Ayushmann Bharat scheme.

This list needs to be readily available and constantly tracked upon so as to prioritize the critical health services. Moreover, the fear of contracting the virus, it has been observed across the states, decline in institutional deliveries. This has otherwise also been a concern in tribal areas, poses different challenge and requires the health systems fraternity to relook at the concept and practicability of what constitutes safe deliveries than merely institutional deliveries. Additionally, in many states Nutritional Rehabilitation Centers (located in government hospitals and colleges) meant to provide special services to severely malnourished children under five years of age have closed owing the Covid-19 pandemic. This adds to the woes of India’s journey towards reducing malnutrition levels. The situation is even more grim in tribal areas wherein approx. 40% children are reported to be undernourished (CCNS 2016-18, UNICEF).

Education: One of the hardest hit sectors has been education. There has been high level of uncertainty witnessed in the sector with stretched closure of schools, evaluation systems (examinations). Online classes/schooling are being encouraged upon widely both by the state government and union government with several platforms opened up for the same. However, this has been heavily biased for those with lack of such resources that involves not merely the students but also the teachers specifically in areas that is being under discussion here. There’s low connectivity in rural areas despite opening of Common Service Centers in several panchayats.

The question is not merely limited to internet connectivity or smartphone availability. It also commands attention to the fact that even if internet connectivity is available with smartphone, it is mostly with the male adult member of the household. He would be the one who goes out for work and other needful. My engagement in the places previously suggested that very few female members of the household possessed smartphone. Leave alone, here the question how effective could learning be on small smartphone screen for students. There has already been deeply rooted crisis of learning which has only got complicated further.

UNICEF report on educations suggests that an estimated 1.6 billion children may be out of school. There is huge need to explore community based teaching, home schooling, cognitive learning at this hour. In some of districts, television sets are being distributed to facilitate learning, however it necessitates not just distribution of the medium but whole of the system needs to created involving grade specific channels, scheduling, medium of instruction, retention and so on. Even in the regular schooling, it has been observed particularly in lower grades, that medium of instruction plays a great role in grasping of children speaking language different than that of medium of instruction specifically the indigenous tribal languages. This turns out to be one of the very critical space that undermines the learning outcomes.

Livelihoods: My engagement in the two states primarily in the rural setting brought to the fore, that it always is huge challenge, to restructuring rural jobs beyond farm sector. Even within farm sector, pushing for diversification turns out to be tedious task. This is owing to plethora of reasons from capacitation of the community, ensuring the equitable reach of state and non state actors and such other functional causes. Currently, the biggest hope that is emerging is MGNREGS. This is rightly put as well, however, it is not panacea to the overall livelihood crisis. Talking here specifically about the forest based livelihoods wherein major proportion of tribals are involved in, it is not covered under MGNREGS except for wasteland forestry plantation and alike. One of the schemes that is dedicated towards forest based livelihoods is Van Dhan Vikas Yojana and recently announced MSP for certain forest products. More than 1200 Van Dhan Vikas Kendras have been set up involving around 3.7 lakh beneficiaries. However, there’s dire need to do some fixes such as improving upon the coordination between the Forest department, tribal welfare department, TRIFED and in certain cases with NRLM (MoRD). A greater clarity is required on creating forward linkages particularly market availability that fetches them prices better than their current supply chain. Focus on participatory training need analysis followed by regular sessions in smaller groups need to be taken into account.

The current pandemic has endowed us with opportunity to very clearly see through the many divides that are there and work through with utmost focus to bridge the gaps. This shall provide much needed support the ones with least resources and let them exercise their rights.


The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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