COVID-19 Pandemic and Tribal Women in Nanded District of Maharashtra

This article is an attempt to critically analyse the impact of COVID-19 on tribal women. Tribal women already experience poor access to basic needs such as healthcare, safe and pure water, sanitation, education, etc. Now they are facing difficulties in obtaining immediate support from the government for healthcare facilities and emergency services for livelihood and survival. This pandemic has created food insecurity and these people have lost their homes and means of livelihood. Hence, this article highlights the consequences of  COVID-19 and the struggle of tribal women in this difficult situation. 

The COVID-19 epidemic has changed people’s lives globally in 2020 and, like in other fora, it has been the subject of intense discussion in academia. It is assumed to affect all sections of people equally but, in reality, it has affected people differently depending on social, economic, and geographical locations. 

Indigenous people are becoming even more vulnerable during this global pandemic. As these people experience a high degree of socio-economic marginalisation and are at disproportionate risk in public health emergencies, owing to factors such as their lack of access to effective monitoring and early-warning systems, and adequate health and social services.  In April 2020, the Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Anne Nuorgam, issued a statement to ensure that indigenous people are informed, protected and prioritised during the global COVID-19 pandemic. She urged member states and the international community to include the specific needs and priorities of indigenous peoples in addressing the global outbreak of COVID-19. She stressed the need to make information available in indigenous languages, protect indigenous elders (as keepers of history, tradition and culture), and respect the right to self-determination of indigenous people living in voluntary isolation and initial contact (UNPFII 2020).

The tribal communities in India have always been neglected, and have suffered and struggled for basic rights and survival needs due to structural marginalisation and the development paradigm. Now, the lockdown has created havoc in their lives. Brinda Karat has pointed out that the lockdown has caused more suffering to Adivasis than the virus. Most Adivasi habitats have so far been free of the virus. But what happens to Adivasi migrants when they get home is a major concern as the health infrastructure in these areas is extremely poor (Karat 2020). They were left with no option than to return home. (Using the word home is also not suitable for everyone because there is no home for all; it is just a place which is considered as an origin.) The migrants tried their best to go back home either by walking or by any other available means, because they were left with no hope of livelihood in the cities. While travelling back home, women and children were the ones who faced greater difficulties. There were pregnant women, menstruating young girls, and infants who had to walk for miles with no food and water. They travelled for many days without worrying for their physical and mental wellbeing; they were more concerned for their economic difficulties.

Tribal Community and COVID-19 Pandemic

Every tribal group has their own unique identity on the basis of their geographical location, ethnicity, language and socio-economic subsistence. But the growth of capitalism, globalisation, and development process affected the social, cultural and economic life and identities of tribal people in India. It pushed them towards urban and industrial areas for working in the informal sector on low wages. After independence, three crucial approaches were introduced regarding the policies and programmes for tribal welfare and development, that is, assimilation, isolation and integration. Indian sociologist G S Ghurye advocated an “assimilationist approach” and suggested that the assimilation process would help the tribal community get absorbed into the mainstream society, but tribal people are left with discrimination and exploitation. Anthropologist Verrier Elwin advocated the “isolationist approach” but the mainstream society interrupted and interfered in the community affairs and did not allow them to live their lives peacefully with full freedom. Jawaharlal Nehru attributed “integration theory” and introduced the five fundamental principles "panchsheel" as a protective and promotional measure to integrate the tribes into the national mainstream. But this pandemic situation has proven that the tribal population was considered only for the labour requirement of capital and the global market. They were thrown out of the mainstream society during the lockdown period. Tribes are experiencing the adverse effects of the failure of all these measures taken up by mainstream society. COVID-19 isolation has made tribal people more vulnerable and left them without government facilities and support.

Case Study of Tribal Women from Nanded District of Maharashtra

According to the Census of India (2011), the percentage of Scheduled Tribe population in Nanded district is 8.38% with 9.88% in rural and 4.37% in urban areas. The major forest area in the district is in Kinwat and Mahoor talukas. Nirmal hills are located in the southern part of Kinwat tehsil and Satmala hills are located in Mahoor and northern part of Kinwat. Hence, most parts of these hills are covered by forests. There are various valuable species in these forests such as teak, bamboo, bhawda, babul, and grass. The main forest produce is timber, firewood, bamboo, tendu leaves and gum. This area has the highest population of Scheduled Tribes in Nanded district. The major scheduled tribe population in Nanded district consists of Andh, Mahadev Koli, Dondar Koli, Kolam, Mannervarlu, Gond, Maria, Madia communities. These tribal communities have been undergoing changes through close integration with the wider society.

The economy of these Adivasi communities is based on subsistence activities, where there is no surplus. Every member of the family is involved in the production process. They produce and consume for themselves. All the members of the family including women and children work hard for their survival. So, there is no clear-cut gendered division of labour in these families. The difficulty level increased during the lockdown period for the Adivasi women because they had no work for earning a livelihood. The different categories of the tribal economy got affected and livelihood was endangered. Women are involved in all kinds of economic activities whether it depends on forest produce, agricultural sector and unorganised sector, or working as service providers. 

The area which the Adivasis inhabit has tremendous potential for high value food production and opportunities for their development are vast. However, the market for tribal produce is riddled with imperfection and the tribal community is exploited. Adivasi women depend on minor forest products, which include timber, forest medicine, herbs, honey, gooseberry, tree gum, and fruits that give them livelihood. During the summer season, this is a major source of income for the tribal women. But, due to the lockdown, the weekly markets got closed and the Adivasi women were left with no earnings. One such case of a village from Kandhar taluka of Nanded district, an annual fair is organised in the month of April. It is a week-long fair that allows the Adivasi and nomadic women from different communities such as Kaikadi, Ghisadi, and Tambatkari to sell different kinds of traditional products such as handmade toys, medicine, ornaments, utensils and handicrafts. Some tribal women are traditional tattoo artists and some are involved in nose- and ear-piercing. Some nomadic communities like Dombari, Garudi, Makadwale, Aswalwale and others entertain the villagers with the skills of acrobats, musicians, puppeteers, and singers, or entertain with the help of performing animals. The lockdown seriously affected their earnings at the fair this year. Tribal and nomadic women who used to travel to different villages and sell their products or provide different services to villagers were stigmatised and labelled as coronavirus carriers. Many nearby villagers did not allow them to enter the villages in the lockdown period as they are strangers and coming from outside.

The Adivasi women including the nomadic tribes from this area work as service providers to sections of society leading a more sedentary life. They work as agricultural labourers or domestic help. The women from pastoral communities in the Kinwat area get some income by selling fresh milk to the local people. However, during the lockdown there was a sudden decline in the consumption of milk as people felt that consumption of open or unpacked milk could be unsafe. Therefore, some of them preferred packed milk and this change affected the basic earnings for the milk sellers. Consumption of meat and eggs also declined which affected the earnings of women from animal-keeping and pastoral groups. The stigma that the lower strata community may carry coronavirus, affected their work environment. On the one hand, people travelling back to their country from abroad were taken care of, like keeping them in quarantine, and providing them food and medicine, whereas on the other hand the Adivasi, nomadic communities and the migrant labourers were left to suffer alone. Unfortunately, the state does not have any data and record of these migrant workers who have been affected by the lockdown situation. 

Many tribal people from the Kinwat area are dependent on the unorganised sectors. Women and men from poor families migrated to Nanded, Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad city and are working there for a living. They mostly account for migrant workers who work at construction sites or at mining activities or are contract workers and daily wage earners in urban areas. The labour market had completely collapsed due to the announcement of the lockdown period. The contractors too left the cities, leaving behind these workers helpless. The situation was severe for them because they neither had savings nor did they have any other means of earning. Their only hope of livelihood was taken away, so they had no other option than to return to their native places. However, returning to their native place has not been an easy task. Not just because they had no means of transport, but also because the way the villagers viewed them after their arrival. Some villages like Daheli Tanda, from Kinwat taluka and Vadsa Gaon and Malwada Gaon from Mahoor taluka were declared as containment zones in May 2020 due to COVID-19 positive people who returned from Mumbai and other places. Hence, the migrant families were not allowed to enter the village because of the stigma that they would be “COVID-19 positive.” Villagers from Mandavi area of Kinwat taluka were digging holes to block the roads and boycotting the migrant families.

The notion of “stay home, stay safe” is not the same for everyone, more specifically for the women who have been wage earners and migrant workers from the tribal communities. Several scholars have pointed out that domestic violence against women has increased more during the phase of lockdown. Tribal women, who are triply marginalised in the social structure of Indian society, are struggling to get a home. Although staying home was considered to be the safest option for everyone, this was not so in the case of these women.

This point can be well elaborated with the case of a couple from Mahadev Koli community, who returned to their village Kolheborgaon in Biloli taluka from Pune city due to the lockdown. Since they were not allowed inside, they had to set up a hut outside the boundaries of the village on a hilly terrain where the notion of “stay home, stay safe” is not applicable. Though they could protect themselves against the virus, they were in danger from wild animals, snakes, scorpions and many other poisonous insects in the darkness. Yet they were not afraid of the difficulties and dangers of living in a hilly terrain but were more worried about a new beginning without any resources. Another incident from the same village (Kolheborgaon in Biloli taluka) is of a man from Wadar community, who after returning from Mumbai, helped some villagers by making kaccha road from the village to farms and earned some money through it. But when other villagers complained about it, tehsil officers took his tractor in custody and did not allow him to extract soil/pebbles/sand from hills. Once upon a time all these resources such as hills, mountains, land, water, and forests belonged to the Adivasis and they used to survive in coexistence with nature. Their self sufficiency was dependent on these resources. Now all these are under control of the state and private owners. The Adivasis have lost their self-sufficiency and become dependent on capital and the global market for their earnings. “How to survive?” remains a valid question. They are advised to be “atmanirbhar” (self-reliant). Moreover, when the Adivasi women were self-sufficient and self-reliant they were forced to move out of their traditional life and move towards globalisation where they were made to be dependent on the industrialised and unorganised sector. Now, at this stage, they are again asked to be atmanirbhar. This implies that they have to reduce their dependence on the state and be self-reliant to strengthen their standard of living. 

The impact of the coronavirus is not just limited to socio-economic conditions but has also extended to their personal/private matters. More importantly, the problems related to accessibility, affordability and availability of health care facilities for tribal women goes unnoticed. This could be reflected in the case of a woman from the nomadic community, who was pregnant during the time of COVID-19 and decided to abort the pregnancy without informing her husband and family members. As most of the hospitals were converted into COVID-19 care centres and  there already were restrictions on abortion due to sex determination tests, she was struggling for getting the abortion process done. Further, she had to sell the only gold ring that she had for the high treatment cost in a private hospital. She was worried about how she would explain the situation to her family members. She was more concerned about her gold ring than her health because nobody would be asking her about her health, and be concerned about her pregnancy and abortion, but one day they would ask her about the ring and she would have to lie. Despite this, her problems would not end. She had to go back to her household duties without getting any rest or healthcare after the abortion.

When the men from Kinwat area were asked about the impact of COVID-19 on tribal women, they surprisingly reacted to the question and replied as to what the impact could be. For them, there is no relation between COVID-19 and tribal women. The COVID-19 pandemic became a part of the public sphere, but tribal women are far away from it. These women are not considered as citizens and no one realises their presence in the public sphere. The traditionally imposed norms and values have always excluded tribal women and denied their formal and customary rights. They have neither safety nor any life security. Their life is always in danger as they fear that the forest department may throw them out of the region and there will be no shelter for them. Most of the government funds are diverted towards pandemic care and, as a result of it, the life of poor tribal people gets affected. Neither does the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act function effectively in this area. They lack nutrition and basic food for the living, because the public distribution system is not functioning well. They do not have basic healthcare facilities. The question remains then, how can they get COVID-19 tests done and avail of the required treatment and medicines.

It is not just the Adivasi women who are facing adverse consequences because of the coronavirus, but also their children. The tribal children used to go to the ashram schools (residential schools) which were established in tribal areas. These children were getting free education, tuition, textbooks and other stationery, proper meals and shelter and scholarships. Due to the lockdown all these schools are shut. Schools in urban areas are at least trying to provide online education, but the schools in villages are lacking all the facilities. Therefore, all the responsibilities fall back on the family and especially on the women, which overburdens their life. The tribal women were working under the midday meal scheme through self-help groups, but now they have lost this opportunity too. 

There is a direct, physical and health impact of the pandemic on the tribal people who came into contact with the urban societies. However, those who live away from the cities and are found mostly in remote areas such as hilly and mountainous regions, deep forests and dense valleys are physically safe, but suffering from the adverse effect of the lockdown. One of the important points related to the COVID-19 protective measures has been the use of sanitisers, regularly washing hands and wearing masks. But special attention needs to be given on how the tribal community can purchase or access all these COVID-19 protective measures, when the state has failed to provide them basic necessities. Even for a hand wash one requires a good amount of water, whereas the tribal women have to walk miles to collect water for drinking and household purposes. These women are not aware of the existence of sanitizers. They sweat through the day whilst working amidst high temperatures, in front of an earthen stove. 

Ethnobotanical and ethno-medicinal studies have proven the importance of traditional knowledge of tribal people, related to the use of medicinal plants. The Kinwat region has numerous species of medicinal plants, herbs like harda, behda, awala, jamun, satwin, belphal, ruchaki, and kadulimb, and shrubs like adulsa, nirgudi, tulas, pangara, and many others. Tribal people use these medicinal plants for the treatment of cough, cold and asthma. These women have a rich knowledge about the forest produce because they are strongly connected with the forest ecology. They utilise their common knowledge for healing in their daily life and provide healing services to the settled communities too. Their traditional way of life not only preserves that knowledge, but also conserves nature. These women have a symbiotic relationship with nature. Hence, they know how to boost their immunity by using natural medicinal products. In spite of this, they are often susceptible to rumours and fake news from the outside world and sometimes become victims of these rumours and give up the use of their own health strategies.

Conclusions 

In this article, an attempt was made to reflect upon the issues of tribal and nomadic women from Nanded district during the COVID-19 lockdown period. In the context of the Indian society, Adivasi women, from the very beginning, have suffered atrocities, oppression, economic vulnerability and social exploitation. They are overburdened with household chores and livelihood struggles, leading them to suffer, both inside as well as outside the domestic settings. Since 1991, globalisation has attracted/pushed many people, including the tribal population, towards the urban and industrial sector, but this pandemic made them realise that there is no socio-economic security for their life. This pandemic left them stranded without their traditional way of life with nature and without life security in this new global economic structure. The tribal women from migrant families thought earlier that working in modern society with a modern economy would make their life easier and improve their standard of living. Now, they have lost their faith in this uncertain city life. Those who have an alternative will now not return to urban and industrial sectors. Those who have nothing except their labour to survive will return to serve the modern global capitalists.

 

 

A version of this paper was first presented at the webinar series on Gender Equity and COVID-19 organised by the Women’s Development Cell, University of Mumbai in association with Bhavan’s Hazarimal Somani College of Arts & Science and Jayaramdas Patel College of Commerce and Management Studies on 11 June, 2020. The webinar series was conceptualised by Gita Chadha and Meher Bhoot.

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