Reaching Out to the Poorest of the Poor in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand

Reaching Out to the Poorest of the Poor in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand

Itwarin Bai is completely dependent on NTFPs for her family’s livelihood. An unproductive year coupled with an unexpected hailstorm meant there was no income from the seasonal Mahua this year. The lockdown meant that Itwarin Bai, from the Kamar tribes (belonging to the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG)) would not be able to sell her handmade bamboo baskets; in normal times she used to sell them at the weekly market for upto Rs 400. With no source of income, her only support was the paltry amount of Rs 500 deposited by the government in her Jan Dhan Account. And this she was able to withdraw after she spent Rs 40 traveling to an overcrowded bank branch 17 km from her home.

Rum Bai lost her husband three years. Her two adolescent daughters had to give up their studies to support the family. The sisters worked in nearby farms and as MGNREGA daily wage labourers to make ends meet. The lockdown that began on March 25 reduced the demand for labour and they were soon out of work. Rum Bai who belongs to the Gond community did not have a ration card and she had to make do with Rs 350 widow pension, which was inadequate to feed a family of four.

Sahil Bhandari, also from the Gond community, is a 16 year old orphan who lives with an uncle, who is struggling to feed his own family in these times of lockdown. Sahil’s uncle is a marginal farmer and the income from subsistence agriculture does not meet the needs of his family of six.

For Itwarin, Rum Bai, Sahil and hundreds of such forest dwelling community members, Oxfam India’s ration kits provided a much needed respite from the increasing food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. Dry ration kits were distributed amongst 1100 poorest of the poor families in Gariaband and Dhamtari districts of Chhattisgarh and

Oxfam India which has a history of working with the tribal communities responded to the immediate food requirements of 1100 poorest of the poor families — mostly PVTGs — in the districts of Gariaband and Dhamtari in Chhattisgarh and Godda in Jharkhand.

Though the relief work in these parts was targeted at households belonging to the Kamar tribes, who are PVTGs, few vulnerable families like those of Rum bai and Sahil belonging to the Gond tribes were also reached out to.

Kamar families are either marginal farmers or landless and eke out their livelihood by making bamboo based items such as baskets. Their livelihood is almost totally dependent on weekly sale of these traditional bamboo products but with the market closed, most of them ran out of cash within days of the lockdown. Unseasonal rains and hailstorms meant that the collection of minor forest produce (MFP) like seasonal mahua and chaar was also minimal. The low yield of non-bamboo MFPs meant that the collectors were not able to fully realize the benefit of increased minimum support price (MSP) announced by the state government. With confusion over access to forests and curbs in transportation, even the private traders stopped coming to the villages for purchase of MFPs. This created conditions of abject poverty amongst many Kamar families in the region.

Although the state government increased the supply of rice and sugar through the PDS system, other household essentials for a dignified survival were still missing. Oxfam India intervened in the hope of supporting their basic dietary needs for at least 15-20 days. Besides rice, these households were provided with cooking oil, turmeric, soaps, detergent, vegetables, lentils, soya chunks, puffed rice in pre-packaged kits.

The pandemic raging across India has unravelled the plight of millions of migrant labourers who are one of the worst affected by the crisis. Easy access and rapid transferability of photos and videos have lucidly captured the mass migration of labourers and the treacherous conditions that accompany such forced migrations. The urban nature of the migrant crisis is another reason why the distress has been reported almost in real time by the mainstream media.

However, the voices of the millions of forest-dwelling Indians who too are hit hard by the pandemic, have failed to make it into the mainstream media. There simply aren’t enough smart phones in the remote, forest terrains to capture the daily struggles of the local communities who are undergoing severe economic hardship and faced with food insecurity due to the countrywide lockdown. The indigenous tribes living in these forest areas are one of the most underserved sections of the Indian society and it is not entirely surprising that the mainstream media has failed to reach out to them.

Coverage or no coverage, the struggles of the forest dwelling communities are all too real. A near total dependence on rainfed agriculture, minor forest produce and wage labour forces them to remain economically vulnerable all through the year. The ongoing crisis has brought this economic fragility to the fore and made these communities completely dependent on government and NGO largesse.

Oxfam India was able to bring a smile on the faces of 1100 vulnerable families but compared to the scale of the crisis, the relief work in these small forest-pockets of three districts is miniscule. Our work provides a glimpse of the extreme vulnerability of forest dwelling communities in India.

The fact that thousands of families were reduced to the point of destitution in a couple of weeks speaks volumes of the economic and social security enjoyed by them. Our experience makes it painfully clear that the neoliberal growth story is just that for these marginalized communities—a story.

 

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