~ by Amrita Neelakantan (NCCI Coordinator)
A timely study by NCCI founder Prof. Ruth DeFries and collaborators lays out possible scenarios for minimizing risk of exposure to COVID-19 in rural India as the lockdown is relaxed and migrants return to their villages.
What we know
Seasonal migration is a widespread livelihood option for households in forest-fringe areas of Central India, moving people from villages to the country’s cities for up to 6 months in a year. Typically, these migrants are young males and they return to the village in time to plant monsoon crops. Seasonal migrants are generally poorer and less educated than those that migrate permanently (for work or education) . In the current pandemic of COVID-19, the risks of exposing rural India with returning migrants from cities is of major concern for both rural communities and government authorities, as well as for migrants who are desperate to return with no source of income during India’s lockdown.
Moreover, communities on the periphery of forest areas in the country are some of the most vulnerable and poorest. Central India, one of the main forested areas in the country, is important for tiger conservation and has a high proportion of Scheduled Tribe populations. In these villages of Central India, the poorest households use seasonal migration to supplement their incomes , increasing the risks of exposure to COVID-19 as migrants return. These villages are even more at risk as they have poor or non-existent health facilities and low quality diets in typically crowded households . Additionally, most households continue to use fuelwood with high indoor air pollution already causing respiratory problems . While the populations are not as dense as in cities, the spread from village to village and lack of medical facilities is a grave concern.
As of this writing, the country has been in lockdown since March 24th. Seasonal migrants are unable to access work or means to return home. News channels have documented migrants returning home on foot. Quarantine facilities have been set-up in villages but the quality and efficacy of these are unknown. The government restricted inter-state travel for migrants after April 20th. As restrictions ease, chances persist of exposure and spread to adjacent villages from migrants who have already returned.
Given the economic hardships of lockdown, the authors of this study provide some alternatives to severe physical distancing. The objective is to reduce chances of exposure while allowing people to obtain essential supplies, plant crops, and carry out other necessities of daily life. A post-COVID-19 path could be informed by their results.
The study uses data from a 2018 study that surveyed approximately 5000 households in 500 forest-fringe villages in Central India. The original study was to assess patterns of migration over the previous five years (2013 – 2018) and was unrelated to tracking disease spread.
What they found
The researchers found that seasonal migration is widely dispersed across forest-fringe villages of Central India. Eighteen percent of surveyed households sent migrant workers to cities in the last five years. Seventy-five percent of villages had a least one household with migrants, and all districts had a least one village with migrants. Similarly, migrants traveled to 124 locations over the last five years. Over eight percent of migrants went to cities were COVID-19 cases were reported at the beginning of the lockdown, based on the publicly-available COVID-19 tracker site (www.covid19india.org).
The researchers used a simple, epidemiological model of disease spread to examine different scenarios of movement between and within villages (Figure 2). Using varying R0 values (the basic reproduction number that represents the expected number of cases generated by an infected individual), the researchers allowed for scenarios with lenient (no restriction R0=3), moderate (some restriction to interactions R0=2) and maximal (highest restriction R0=1) movement within and between villages. The findings highlight how different strategies for easing lockdown restrictions might vary in terms of the number of people exposed in the unlikely but possible event of the virus reaching a village.
The most effective way to limit exposure is obviously to keep everyone within and across villages in lockdown. But as most Indians are now familiar with, keeping an indefinite lockdown is not feasible with many states already easing some restrictions to save India from economic hardship. The more important question then becomes, how one would begin opening up the lockdown or easing restrictions to balance the economic needs with necessary caution to avoid exposure to the virus.
This study reports, for a hypothetical case of exposure in one village, that maximal limitations to movement between villages with lenient movement within villages (middle scenario in Figure 2) exposes fewer people than moderate restrictions that apply to both within and across villages (bottom scenario).
Incidentally, the scenario that led to the least number of exposed people in the model is similar to New Zealand’s successful “social bubble” and communities’ efforts in India to restrict entry to villages.
PhD Candidate, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS)
With 664 million tonnes (Mt) of coal, India was the third largest producer in 2014-15, next to China (3474 Mt) and the USA (924 Mt). The Indian government has announced an ambitious plan to produce 1500 Mt of coal by 2020, at an annual growth rate of almost 20%. In order to meet this target, massive expansion of open cast mines is envisaged. About 80% of India’s coal reserves lie in the central Indian landscape and much of it is under forests. Destruction of forests is inevitable for open-cast mining. Along with deforestation, direct and indirect mining activities change the landscape surrounding the mine. Direct activities include removal of the top soil, followed by excavation of overburden and then coal extraction. Indirect activities include tree felling for constructing roads, houses and other infrastructure, thus increasing the anthropogenic impact on the surrounding landscape.
Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, whenever forest land is diverted for non-forest use, compensatory afforestation (CA) needs to be carried out on an equal amount of non-forest land, or double the amount of degraded forest land. It is usually recommended that CA should be done at the point closest to where diversion is taking place. Mining companies often reclaim the overburden dumps for afforestation. But can these overburden dumps, after reclamation, support similar species of trees which were found in the forest that was cleared? How different are the physical and chemical properties of the dump soil compared to the soil found in the surrounding areas?
In order to answer these questions, Jitendra Ahirwal and Subodh Kumar Maiti from the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad evaluated the changes in soil properties due to direct and indirect mining activities around Ananta open cast mine in Odisha. They collected soil samples from 5 different sites in 2008:
Project Spotlight highlights our members' work in Central India.
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