Empowered gram sabhas help tribal communities build resilience to pandemic disaster

The report ‘Community Forest Rights and the Pandemic: Gram Sabhas Lead the Way’ documents how empowered tribal communities in many areas sustained themselves in face of the COVID-19 pandemic and disaster.

Credit : Outlook India

Empowered gram sabhas helped tribal communities cope with the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, states the report ‘Community Forest Rights and the Pandemic: Gram Sabhas Lead the Way’. The report, published by an independent team of researchers as part of the Community Forest Rights: Learning and Advocacy initiative, Vikalpa Sangam and Vasundhara, has documented some examples of how tribal communities in many areas sustained themselves in face of the disaster caused by the COVID-19 pandemic with the help of Community Forest Rights (CFR) under the Forests Rights Act (FRA).

A study of 10 different areas - Narmada and Kutch (Gujarat), Gondia, Dhule and Nandurbar (Maharashtra), Rajnandgaon (Chhattisgarh), Alipurduar (West Bengal, Dindori (Madhya Pradesh), Chamarajanagar (Karnataka) and Nayagarh (Odisha) - has shown, as per the report, that local actors understand local complexities and can act faster when empowered. Another important one of the key lessons derived from the report is that when empowered and in possession of resources, local institutions invest in local needs. For instance, for the Soliga community in Karnataka's Chamarajanagar district, the lockdown came as a shock, as they do not practice stocking up food. "The Adivasis leaders of the Sangha (local organisations) approached the District Commissioner and District Tribal Welfare Officer to demand distribution of nutritious food items and free rice. This acted as food security for communities who in the initial phases of the lockdown supplemented these with the tubers and greens they had managed to harvest,” the CFR report stated.



In another example in the report, in Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon, the gram sabhas had declared a lockdown even before the nationwide lockdown was announced. However, the tribal communities sustained themselves with a planned dependence on locally grown medicinal plants, farm vegetables, forest vegetables and other forest produce.

“The Gram Sabhas ensured food security for all families, including an estimate of the quantity of food required, especially by the most marginalised. They arranged a free and dry cooked meal for people. Due to the high number of migrant workers returning home, quarantine facilities were made in the district, and food was provided to the workers,” says Keshav Gurnule, a member of SRISHTI (a community support organisation) in the report on how the Gram Sabhas led the COVID management plans in Rajnandgaon.

"A vast majority of forest and other ecosystem dependent communities in India still do not have secured rights and access to the forests and other ecosystems," states the report adding that this makes them vulnerable, especially during sudden disasters like the one caused by the pandemic. At the same time, the intrusion into forests in the name of development that affects the tribals also leads to severe environmental degradation. Conservation of the rights of forest dwellers could ultimately help protect forests and biodiversity.

An immediate step as suggested in the report would be to take up the implementation of laws like the FRA or Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) - PESA - Act to empower local self-governance. However, it should also be ensured that these institutions have mandatory participation from women, Dalits, nomadic communities, etc. At the same time, prior informed consent from these local institutions should be a must before the forests are diverted for any other activity for Acts. 

The word 'informed' holds great importance here. For instance, as Indie Journal had reported earlier, after the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), in August 2020, notified an area around Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in three districts of Maharashtra, comprising 42 tribal villages, as Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) it sent ripples of fear amongst the residents there. Already afraid of losing their homes and livelihood, they also complained that no explanation was ever provided to them regarding the extent and impact of the notification. 

More than anything, the report emphasises, that the communities need to be supported and backed in their endeavours to govern, conserve and boost sustainability. And the implementation of the existing laws is one of the first things to do to ensure the same.