Into the Forest

An Adivasi village forages for survival during the COVID-19 lockdown

A young boy in Adilabad’s Markaguda village breaks muri seeds before eating. Amid the COVID-19 lockdown, forest produce such as muri and mahua have become staple food for the Adivasi families in Markaguda. ashok vedma

One morning in May, 40-year-old Anushabai woke up as usual at 5 am to head into the nearby forest to collect produce. After returning home, she prepared mahua pudding, which she served in sal leaves to her ten-year-old nephews, Jangu and Srinivas. The children enjoyed their breakfast, but Anushabai despaired that she could not give them more to eat. Since the nationwide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic began, her village of Markaguda has battled a chronic shortage of food.

The residents of Markaguda, 15 families from the Gond tribe, have migrated from nearby villages over the past thirty years in search of cultivable land. Markaguda and the families’ native villages were both part of erstwhile Adilabad district. However, after district reorganisation in October 2016, their native village falls under the newly formed district of Nirmal and Komaram Bheem. Its inhabitants still do not have proper documentation proving their ownership of the land.

COVID-19 has impacted many vulnerable communities worldwide, including indigenous populations, who fear ethnocide. Forest laws restrict what Markaguda’s residents are able to hunt or gather in the forest, which makes them depend on staples grown outside the forest. Now, in the absence of government aid during the lockdown, the forest is the only source of sustenance available to them.

On 1 April, the Telangana government launched a scheme to provide 12 kilograms of rice and R1,500 to all ration-card holders, but there have been several complaints of the monetary compensation not reaching beneficiaries. Of the 15 families, four received the rice in April and ten others in May, but none of them received any money. Kanaka Madhav Rao, the pradhan of Markaguda, told us that the villagers usually collected rations from the nearby town of Utnoor. “After the lockdown began, the Utnoor Civil Supplies Department stopped giving us the necessary goods as promised,” he said. The authorities promised to call within a few days. “However, nobody reached out to us for a month, and it seemed like a never-ending wait,” Rao said.