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Covid-19 reaches remote tribes of Odisha: Why is it a matter of concern?

One member of the Bonda tribe and five from the Didayi tribe in Odisha tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the last week of August.

Written by Aishwarya Mohanty , Edited by Explained Desk | Bhubaneswar | Updated: September 23, 2020 10:50:33 am
Odisha tribes, Odisha tribes Covid 19, Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, PVTG in Odisha, Covid 19 odisha, indian express, express explainedOf the 62 tribal groups living in Odisha, 13 are recognised as PVTGs – the highest in the country. (Photo: scstrti.in)

After six members of two primitive tribes in Odisha contracted Covid-19, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes has sought a report from the state government. In what the commission has termed a “matter of grave concern”, one member of the Bonda tribe and five from the Didayi tribe tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the last week of August.

Odisha has so far recorded 1,84,122 Covid-19 cases, with 37,684 active cases.

What is a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group? 

A PVTG (earlier, Primitive tribal group) is a Government of India classification for tribes based on their relative physical isolation, stagnant or declining population, low levels of literacy and pre-agricultural stage of economy, such as hunting, food gathering, shifting cultivation and terrace cultivation.

The classification was adopted by the GOI after the Dhebar Commission (1960-1961) stated that within the Scheduled Tribes there existed an inequality in the rate of development. During the fourth Five Year Plan, a sub-category was created within Scheduled Tribes to identify groups at a lower level of development. This sub-category was called “Primitive tribal group”, which is now PVTG.

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What are the PVTGs in Odisha?

Of the 62 tribal groups in Odisha, 13 are recognised as PVTGs – the highest in the country. At present, Odisha has a population of 2.5 lakh belonging to the PVTGs, residing in nearly 1,429 villages in 11 districts. The PVTGs of the state have been identified as Bonda, Birhor, Chuktia, Bhunjia, Didayi, Dungaria, Kandha, Hill Kharia, Juang, Kutia Kondh, Lanjia Saora, Lodha, Mankirida, Paudi, Bhuyan and Saora.

The Bondas and Didiayis are found in the Malkangiri district of the state, which shares its border with Andhra Pradesh on the east and south and Chhattisgarh on the west. The Bondas, scattered across 32 remote hilltop villages in the Eastern Ghats of Malkangiri district, are believed to have come to India as part of the first wave of migration out of Africa about 60,000 years ago. The Didayis – a little known Austro-Asiatic tribe – live in the immediate neighbourhood of the Bondas.

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Why is PVTG members contracting Covid a ‘matter of grave concern? 

According to the 2018 newsletter of the Poverty and Human Development Monitoring Agency (PHDMA), Government of Odisha, which covered the socio-economic status of PVTGs, “The health status of PVTGs is low due to multiple factors like poverty, illiteracy, lack of safe drinking water, poor sanitary conditions, difficult terrain, malnutrition, poor access to maternal and child health care services, superstition, nonavailability of adequate health care services and deforestation.”

The government newsletter also states that diseases like upper respiratory problem and malaria, gastrointestinal disorders like acute diarrhoea and intestinal protozoa, micro nutrient deficiency, and skin infection are common among them.

According to tribal activists, the tribes’ remote habitats also lack the required minimum administrative set-up and infrastructure. “They maintain a community life and if one person is infected, the infection is likely to spread, which is why this calls for special attention. In the last 20-30 years, their way of living has changed. Earlier they consumed salt and forest produce. Now they also depend on ration provided by the administration. However, their immunity levels remain debatable,” a tribal researcher from the state closely working with the PVTGs said.

How did the PVTGs in Odisha contract the virus?

While the members of the vulnerable tribes were earlier confined to their community and habitat, in the last few years, the current generation has started migrating to other districts due to the lack of livelihood opportunities. The number of people migrating, however, remains negligible. The source of infection in these cases is so far unknown.

“There could be many possible sources of infection. The members go to weekly rural markets. Some of them have also returned from other districts. So it is difficult to zero down on one particular source of infection. However, the infection has been controlled,” said Malkangiri Collector Manish Agarwal.

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