The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has had a drastic impact on forest communities, causing losses of livelihoods and shelter, food insecurity, physical hardships, health-concerns and economic suffering. But it is heartening to witness hundreds of stories of empowered communities under the India’s Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as Forest Rights Act (FRA) coping with the crisis with remarkable resilience. Understanding the drastic impact of the pandemic on forest communities and their spirited efforts to tackle it is vital in these times of chaos, climate concerns and socio-economic distress.
Rights recognised under FRA and PESA (Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, have helped to facilitate support for forest communities at various levels by overcoming constraints and crisis situations during times of wide scale distress. There are case studies documented from various parts of the country where empowered village assemblies under FRA initiated a holistic COVID-19 governance plan well before local administration. There are also examples of how secure tenure and empowered village assemblies helped reduce distress migration during the pandemic.
Women also played a key role in managing the crisis in areas where the village assemblies were empowered. In the Dindori block of Madhya Pradesh, women organised a system of food distribution and water collection that made sure that physical distance was maintained in tribal villages. Since the legal recognition of their CFRs in Dhule, Maharashtra, communities have been practicing self-sufficient agriculture as a way of long-term cluster development. This long-term practice helped them to save foodgrains and vegetables that helped them during the pandemic.
The Gotti Koya tribals in the Mulugu district of Telangana made face masks of teak leaves. Tribals in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district made face masks of palm leaves. Tribals of Vizianagaram district in Andhra Pradesh made masks of herbal leaves. They covered their faces due to non-availability of protective masks in the tribal areas.