Amid coronavirus lockdown, Gond tribals survive on roti with salt in Panna

High levels of malnutrition, lack of local employment opportunities, and returning migrant workers, is aggravating a hunger crisis

March 29, 2020 07:21 pm | Updated 10:47 pm IST - Bhopal

The Gonds are making do with the PDS wheat and rice.

The Gonds are making do with the PDS wheat and rice.

For the third Sunday in a row, Pritiroshan Adivasi waited in vain for his mother’s return from Bamitha village, where suspended transport has left her stranded. The 16-year-old’s responsibility, at a time when the COVID-19 outbreak is shattering families, fraying relations and racking the poor, is immense. To tide his infirm grandmother and younger sister, aged seven, over hunger, a meal of only wheat rotis with salt is what he manages. The threat of novel coronavirus comes later.

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‘Torn us apart’

“Mother used to come over every weekend, bringing us vegetables and oil. But the lockdown has torn us apart; hunger may kill us before the illness reaches us,” Mr. Adivasi says in a low voice, while idling with friends at Darera village in Panna district.

The Gonds are making do with the PDS wheat and rice.

The Gonds are making do with the PDS wheat and rice.


Left without work after the lockdown kicked in, Gond adivasis are confronting a familiar, unyielding adversary — hunger, more hideous in its form now as the nation scrambles to contain the virus spread first. With shops shuttered and weekly markets wound up, the two-month advance disbursal of 4 kg wheat, a kilo of rice and salt each distributed to every BPL (Below Poverty Line) family under the PDS (public distribution system) monthly is keeping them alive.

“Mother used to sell wood in Panna market too to tea vendors, after fetching wood while dodging foresters,” says Mr. Adivasi, who is a Class X student. After his father’s death four months ago, the mother’s first step outside the village was to the fields in Bamitha, 35 km away, where she made ₹150 a day for harvesting wheat, before the lockdown. Now, she is stuck there along with 15 others.

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‘No work’

“This is worse than demonetisation,” quips Mohan Adivasi, 17. “At least we got back our money at the banks then, but there is no work now and the whole city is closed. And my family’s savings are drained in medical care. We have not a penny to spare.”

His parents worked as construction workers in Panna, making ₹200 each daily, and on the way back in the evening brought groceries to feed five children. Now, he says, there is no public transport for the city, 10 km away, and the police beats up those driving vehicles anyway.

The State government on February 28 ordered the ration be given in advance, not with the aim to preempt the hunger crisis that may follow a lockdown, but to empty granaries for the upcoming wheat purchase from farmers. Nevertheless, the stock is the last bet for most tribals in Panna where 42.3% children under five are stunted (height-for-age), 40.8% are underweight (weight-for-age), 68.2% of children between six and 59 months are anaemic, while 48.7% women (15-49 years) are anaemic, according to the National Family Health survey-4 (2015-16).

No wages

Pushpendra Singh, who owns 25 acres in Lakshmipur village, hasn’t paid wages to ten labourers for two weeks, as the COVID-19 scare collapsed the market, even before the lockdown kicked in. “When traders are no longer coming over to buy our produce, how can we pay the labourers? And the Panna market is shut. There is another eight acres left to harvest,” he said. As a result, most Gond tribals of Lakshmipur, Brijpur and Sunhara villages, being agriculture labourers, are left with no pay. They are alive on wheat, salt and sugar, besides chillies most grow in their backyards.

Yousuf Beg, a social worker in the district, says lack of industries offering employment locally and closure of diamond mines in view of the shutdown had aggravated the hunger crisis. “Moreover, anganwadis are closed for a month now. Earlier, tribals worked in mines now under the Panna Tiger Reserve. After they were shut, construction work, selling wood and agricultural labour, even in other States, were the only options left.”

Workers returning

Migrant workers in droves are returning hungry, which will spike malnutrition levels further, says Sachin Jain of the Right to Food campaign. He points out that hurriedly drawn up government orders, to belatedly cater to the poor after the lockdown, are mostly confusing and contradictory. “Although the State government has decided to distribute free ration through the PDS to every poor person, irrespective of eligibility, there is still no instruction ruling out biometric authentication.”

Moreover, he says, to ensure balanced nutrition to children, anganwadi workers and self help groups must be roped in to prepare food packets.

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