COVID-19 Could Lay Waste To Forest Produce Worth Rs 1.2 Trillion

New Delhi: The nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19 has impacted the collection and sale of minor forest produce (MFP)--non-timber forest products including bamboo, cane, fodder, leaves, gums and waxes--affecting the livelihood of millions of tribespeople and forest-dwellers across India, as per estimates by a group of independent researchers.

The season between April and June accounts for 60% of the annual collection, according to a preliminary assessment report released on May 3, 2020, by the group that includes tribal organisations, researchers and forest rights campaign groups. The final report will be out in the first half of June 2020. 

An estimated 100 million forest dwellers depend on MFP for food, shelter, medicines and cash income. MFP collection constitutes up to 40% of their annual income. Annually, they collect MFP in the tune of Rs 2 lakh crore, according to data from the Tribal Co-operative Marketing Development Federation (TRIFED), a government entity. Thus, the value of collection between April and June--60% of total--would stand at Rs 1.2 lakh crore (or Rs 1.2 trillion). 

The disruption will have severe effects on the general health and resilience of tribal families for the coming year, the preliminary assessment report cited above has said. The collective has demanded action including a comprehensive COVID response plan for tribal communities that includes clear guidelines to the state governments. 

‘No concrete help’

The Union government exempted the collection of MFP from the lockdown on April 17, 2020, and revised the minimum support price (MSP) for 49 MFPs on May 1, 2020. On May 12, 2020, while interacting with representatives from 20 states and union territories, tribal affairs minister Arjun Munda said his ministry is supporting Van Dhan Kendras and the infrastructure facilities required for value addition and marketing of tribal produce. Van Dhan Kendras buy forest produce collected by tribespeople.

However, the collective said in a May 13, 2020, press statement, the government has failed to acknowledge the “complete absence of institutional support” in tribal areas in a way that MFP could be collected and procured with immediate payment, due to which tribespeople are unable to avail of MSP.

Government data claim 17 states had procured MFP worth Rs 40 crore by May 11, 2020. Further, the Union government has announced it will approve plans worth Rs 6,000 crore under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) to create forestry jobs in tribal areas. However, this can fuel conflicts between forest departments and tribespeople, as IndiaSpend has reported before (read the stories here and here).

Other than the loss of livelihood, here are the major concerns raised in the assessment report and urgent actions needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have created particular problems for forest areas, the collective pointed out. Lack of information on COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for tribals and forest dwellers as they live in areas with poor public healthcare. Tribal migrant workers stuck in cities are facing acute hunger and often police atrocities, causing mental and psychological distress.

Tribals’ and forest-dwellers’ poor access to the Public Distribution System (PDS) exposes them to hunger, while the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs), who live in remote and scattered geographical areas, have been rendered unable to access the forests that provide their means for subsistence.

At the same time, there are reports of Compensatory Afforestation (CA) plantations being carried out on forest land used by tribals and other traditional forest dwellers, affecting their lives and livelihoods. 

It has raised the following demands: 

  • The Central government and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs must come up with a COVID Response Plan for tribal communities and issue comprehensive guidelines to the state governments to address tribal communities’ issues and concerns .
  • The Central government must ensure the provision of adequate testing and healthcare facilities in tribal areas, including by deploying mobile health units and setting up COVID Care Centres in tribal locations.
  • Both the central and state governments must devise strategies to engage with forest produce traders to ensure purchase of MFPs.
  • The Union environment ministry must withdraw the forest clearance decisions and other guidelines issued during the lockdown to prevent violations of the rights of tribal communities and potential conflicts in tribal areas.
  • The huge CAMPA corpus (Rs 50,000 crore) controlled by the forest departments should be released to the tribal communities and Gram Sabhas, which can use them for land and forest regeneration and for livelihood activities to address the economic crisis due to COVID-19 and lockdown measures. 
  • Effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act to ensure land and forest security to tribal and forest-dwelling communities, and empower Gram Sabhas to manage community forest resources. This is important to ensure tenure and economic security, generate employment and build community resilience in the long term.

(Tripathi is an IndiaSpend reporting fellow.)

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