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Bearing the Brunt: The Impact of Government Responses to COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples in India


India’s indigenous peoples bearing the brunt of COVID recovery plans, NGOs urge Indian Government to stop use of coal for recovery

Copenhagen/New Delhi, 11 September 2020:  On the eve of auctioning of 41 coal blocks today by the government of India, the Danish-based International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs and New Delhi based National Campaign Against Torture and Indigenous Lawyers Association of India in their report, “Bearing the Brunt: The Impact of Government Responses to COVI-19 on Indigenous Peoples in India” urged the Government of India to cancel auctioning of the coal blocks as part of India’s Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-Reliant India Mission).

The coal mines are mostly concentrated in the lands inhabited by India’s Indigenous Peoples in Maharashtra (three mines), Jharkhand (nine), Odisha (nine), Chhattisgarh (nine) and Madhya Pradesh (11). Analysis of the descriptions of the 41 coal mines available on the website of the MSTC Limited under the administrative control of the Ministry of Steel, Government of India show that a staggering 30 coal blocks (73%) do not have the mandatory forest clearance required under the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, and 37 coal blocks (over 90%) do not have the mandatory Environmental Clearance required under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006. The auctioning of the coal blocks without obtaining mandatory legal clearances effectively makes the laws enacted by India otiose and it is bad news for the rule of law with respect to the most vulnerable people on the planet.”- stated Ms Kathrin Wessendorf, Director of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. 

Historically, Indigenous Peoples have borne the brunt of India’s development. The Planning Commission of India stated in October 2001 that during 1951-1990, 21.3 million people were displaced by various development projects, out of which 8.54 millions i.e. 40.1% were tribals although the tribals had constituted only 8% of the total population of the country at 1991 census. They must not once again be forced to bear the brunt of India’s COVID-19 economic recovery plans”. – stated Mr Dilip Chakma, President of the Indigenous Lawyers Association of India.

The report highlighted that during the national lockdown when the entire country has been struggling with COVID-19, the Government of India not only sought to push controversial Environmental Impact Assessment, 2020 that undermines statutory laws relating to Indigenous Peoples but the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the Etalin Hydro Electric Project known as the Dibang Valley project on 18 July 2020 without clearance from the Forest Advisory Committee and further, by 23 May 2020, more than 30 proposals were cleared or discussed over virtual meetings during the lockdown by India’s highest advisory bodies on wildlife and forests, namely the National Board for Wildlife and the Forest Advisory Committee under the MoFECC. The proposals are likely to affect 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, eco-sensitive zones, wildlife corridors, and other forest areas. The projects include a coal mining proposal in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam, a highway through Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa, a limestone mine in the eco-sensitive zone of Gir National Park, and a geotechnical investigation in the Sharavathi Lion-Tailed Macaque Sanctuary in Karnataka, as well as the EHEP in Arunachal Pradesh mentioned before.

The rule of law is seldom applied with respect to the Indigenous Peoples but the now government itself is promoting lawlessness with respect to the development projects in the lands inhabited by Indigenous Peoples. The legal protections are being systematically undermined.”- stated Mr Suhas Chakma, Coordinator of the National Campaign Against Torture.

The report also stated that in the midst of total national lockdown, Indigenous Peoples were forcibly evicted by the authorities across the country. On 6 April 2020, forest department officials torched the huts of Konkani, Bhil and Warli indigenous communities at Kamat village in Dang district, Gujarat. On 24 April 2020, the forest department officials demolished homes of 32 Adivasis living at Sagada village in Khandualmali forest area in Kalahandi district of Odisha, forcing them to live under mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) and surviving for many days on mahua leaves. In June 2020 80 Koya tribal families of Satyaranarayanam of Ganugapadu in Bhadradri Khotagudem district of Telangana were evicted by the forest department.

The lockdown imposed from the night of 24 March 2020 severely impacted millions of migrant workers including Indigenous Peoples who had migrated to cities and towns in search of jobs, primarily in construction and other unorganised sectors. Several tribals died during their journey home. In Chhattisgarh alone, half of the over 140,000 migrant workers estimated by the State government were tribals. Most of them have reportedly walked hundreds of kilometers to reach home.

The Government of India provided free grain (wheat or rice) for the months of April, May and June under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) support scheme, but those without ration cards, including tens of thousands of Indigenous Peoples who have not been issued ration cards as on date remain excluded.

Despite Indigenous Peoples being the worst effected by COVID in India, the Government of India failed to consider any specific plans for Indigenous Peoples.

The report called for the withdrawal of the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2020 and investment of the allocated funds for the Etalin Hydro Electric Project in the Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh for green energies instead of building a dam; implement the recommendations of the UN Secretary General to not include coal in the COVID-19 recovery plans and cancel the coal mines allocated for auctioning and develop a specific COVID-19 recovery plan for and with the Indigenous Peoples of the country. [Ends]


Read the report here:



Tags: Covid-19



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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