The tribal population in Odisha was largely untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic as its unique customary practices and traditions were in sync with the preventive measures to keep infection at bay, finds a study by Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI), a premier government-run research institute on indigenous people.
“The spread of coronavirus has happened on a limited scale in tribal areas because of two main reasons — maintaining social distancing is a distinct feature of tribals’ traditional way of life, and the government has been proactive in spreading awareness about the precautions to combat the disease,” SCSTRTI director A. B. Ota said here on Thursday.
According to the study: “By habit, they [the tribals] walk mostly in rows, instead of in groups. While walking, they maintain a reasonable distance from one another. According to Suresh Wadaka, a Dongria Kondh from Khambesi village under the Kurli gram panchayat in Rayagada district, when the tribal people walk, especially on slopes, they maintain a distance so that if someone slips, then the following person will not be affected and also can extend a helping hand.”
Prof. Ota said awareness about COVID-19 was high among the tribal population as they had not only physically resisted the entry of outsiders into their villages, but also voluntarily informed local anganwadi workers and health department officials to quarantine those who returned to the villages and tried to enter their houses secretly.
“Social distancing and hygiene norms, rooted in the tribal culture, have helped them stay safe during pandemic,” he pointed out.
Festivities toned down
Though it was not easy to bring behaviourial change in tribal community, people were forthcoming in complying advisories about precautions to be taken for COVID-19. In most parts of the State, tribals had toned down celebration of different festivals.
The Chaita Parab festival in southern Odisha is more elaborate compared to any other part of tribal Odisha. For a month and more, many tribal communities there stop all other work and celebrate the Parab, singing, dancing and enjoying special food.
However, the scene was different this year. The celebration in villages was symbolic and participation minimal.
The study says the tribal people visit markets once a week. They carry their agricultural or other produce walking in a line and once in the market, they put up separate makeshift stalls or sit on the ground separately to sell their produce. The SCSTRTI director said it made the difference at the village level.
“For sake of maintaining their household economy and food security, they have rebuilt their ties with forest. Leaving apart the subsidised rations under the public distribution system, an increasing dependency is observed on wild edibles that they believe provides natural immunity. The non-timber forest produce has been optimally harvested during the early days of COVID-19 restriction this year,” the study finds.