New Delhi: Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNT) comprise 10% of India’s population, and are struggling during the countrywide lockdown due to COVID-19, a new survey of 240 members of 22 DNTs across 28 districts in 10 states has found.

Many did not have access to food at the end of April 2020, similar to the situation at the beginning of the lockdown when an earlier survey had found that many had run out of food, as IndiaSpend reported on Purulia in West Bengal on April 24, 2020.

Many of them are unable to access food in community kitchens due to social stigma and are surviving on rice or roti and chutney through the day, said the survey published on May 6, 2020, by COVID Assessment and Response Team (CART) by Praxis India and the National Alliance Group for Denotified, Semi-Nomadic and Nomadic Tribes (NAG-DNT).

Many in the community are not registered for benefits under government schemes and have not received cash transfers, while none have received any wages; 51% are in debt and at a higher risk of human trafficking, the survey report said.

India has 1,500 nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes and 198 denotified tribes. Scattered across the country, they often migrate from one state to another, engaging in various occupations such as farming, domestic work and salt trading. Many also work as acrobats, street dancers, snake charmers, astrologers, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers.

These tribes were listed as criminal tribes during British rule under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. They were delisted or ‘denotified’ in 1952; despite this, they continue to face stigma, poverty and marginalisation because of being branded as criminal tribes in times long past. They continue to fare poorly in literacy, housing, employment and living conditions, and 89% are landless.

The community started facing acute economic distress from early March 2020, when COVID-19 reached a pandemic status, and many received limited or no support from the administration, which has “always been at loggerheads with them formally”, the report said.

Access to food

The survey observed a pattern in the access to food over 40 days of the lockdown for 169 out of 240 families. During week one (March 16-21), most families experienced at least one or two days of zero to one meal per day; by week two, they had started receiving ration (subsidised food grain).

By the second fortnight (April 1-15), many were again struggling to receive the second batch of ration; and by the third fortnight, many had started facing food scarcity as the ration had run out.

Many of these families had days that they survived on only rice or chutney and chapati, when most children had no milk. While most families do not have ration cards, of 171 families who do, only 36 received extra ration while 96 had to take loans to buy food, the survey found.

Access to government schemes

The government had announced several relief measures for poor families through different schemes--three-months’ advance pensions for senior citizens and the differently-abled, Rs 1,000 ex-gratia pension, Ujjwala scheme (free cooking gas cylinders for three months), Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme (Rs 2,000 due in 2020-21 to be frontloaded and paid in April 2020) and Rs 500 per month to women Jan Dhan Account holders.

Only 124 of the 240 families had Jan Dhan accounts, of which 78 women account holders received Rs 500, which some found to be insufficient. Of the 53 respondents eligible for the pension scheme, none had received any advance payments or any ex-gratia amount while 30 had received the usual payment in March 2020.

Of 240, 83 families were registered under the Ujjwala scheme, of which 38 received free cylinders. Of the 51 respondents registered under the farmers’ scheme, 28 received the usual payment for March 2020.

Wages and indebtedness

Despite the prime minister's appeal to employers to pay salaries to all workers during the lockdown, none of the respondents had received any wages or earned anything during the lockdown, the survey found.

In the absence of income and government support, many said they were forced to take loans, mostly from local moneylenders--219 of 240 respondents had taken loans, 91 of them from the local moneylender, their employer or a friend.

Indebtedness has a direct bearing on forced labour, bonded labour and child labour--in the absence of a stable and assured income, many end up repaying these loans by contributing to the trafficking industry, directly or indirectly, the survey report said.

(Tiwari is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)