[Commentary] A post-lockdown pathway for forest-edge communities of central India

Migrant labour in an Indian city. Photo by The Last Paladin/Flickr.

  • Communities living around the forested areas of Central India are among the country’s most vulnerable populations, with poor access to health facilities. Seasonal migration to cities is a common strategy to supplement household incomes in the forested areas of Central India.
  • The COVID-19 crisis has raised fears that migrants could carry the virus to their villages when they return from cities. To date, this fear has not been realized. The challenge for communities and authorities is to prepare for that unlikely possibility while balancing the need to ease lockdown restrictions.
  • A survey of 5000 households in forest-fringe villages in central India, collected for a purpose unrelated to disease spread, provides rich information on migration patterns and potential risks of COVID-19 spread from returning migrants.
  • In a hypothetical case of someone in one village carrying the virus, model results suggest that minimal movement between villages with lenient movement within villages exposes about half as many people as moderate restrictions on movement both within and between villages. Food and energy have to be reached to the villages.

Households living at the edges of India’s forests straddle two ends of India’s spectrum: wild India with its harsh realities for eking an existence from the forest and urban India with its demand for labourers to build burgeoning cities.  As the COVID-19 calamity unfolds, these two realities meld into a puzzle for communities and authorities as they cautiously navigate a safe path through the crisis.

In Central India, one of the country’s most critical conservation landscapes, the puzzle pieces connect through the high proportion of households who depend on income from seasonal migration to get by.  In 2018, my colleagues from multiple institutions and I surveyed 5000 households across forest-fringe villages in central India to assess the extent of migration, where migrants go, how long they stay, and which households are most likely to use migration as part of their livelihood strategy.  The purpose of the strategy was not related to the spread of disease.  We could not foresee the hardship that would arise two years later. 

We learned that the households who send their family members to earn money in the city are most likely to be the poorest and have few income sources.  In the cities, migrants do daily labor in construction or work as security guards in housing and office complexes.  They leave their villages to earn much-needed income for their families, more from necessity than from desire.  Opportunities to earn a decent income in their villages are scarce and precarious, limited to income from rice paddies that remains at the mercy of the monsoon, jobs in tourism, or daily work on other people’s land.

Migrants stay in the city for a few months and return in time for planting the monsoon crop.  These households, and others in the villages, are among the country’s most vulnerable populations.  Availability of health facilities in their districts is five times less than the national average.  Nearly all households use fuelwood as their energy source, breathing smoke which could make them even more susceptible to the devastating impacts of the coronavirus.

Most forest villages had migrants to cities

With the COVID-19 emergency, the data we collected might help target places to reduce the horrific possibility that an outbreak could affect these vulnerable populations.  Our survey suggests that seasonal migration is dispersed and widespread throughout the forested areas of Central India. Slightly less than one out of five households in our survey supplemented their incomes with seasonal migration in the last five years.  Three-quarters of all the villages had at least one household with migrants and all thirty-two districts had at least one surveyed village with migrants.  Some districts had migrants in up to ninety percent of the villages. While the likelihood of an outbreak is probably very low, the potential risk that a returning migrant could carry the virus spans across the forested areas of Central India.

The destinations were similarly geographically dispersed over the last five years, with 124 locations all over the country.  The most common destinations were Nagpur, Jabalpur, Raipur, Pune, and Hyderabad.  Over eighty percent of migrants went to cities where COVID-19 cases were reported when the lockdown began on March 24, although there is no way to know the extent to which the migrants were exposed, whether they left the city before the pandemic reached, whether they were quarantined either in the city or village, or any number of unknown factors that would affect the level of risk.

Thankfully, reports do not indicate that fears of outbreaks from returning migrants have been realised.  The lockdown and quarantines that the government and panchayats have enacted could be having their intended effect.  As the May 3 lockdown milestone approached, the government classified districts for gradual easing of restrictions based on reported covid cases. 

As of this writing, seventeen of Central India’s thirty-two districts are classified as “green zones.”  In these districts, some commerce can re-open and local buses can ply with reduced capacity.  Three districts, predictably the ones with larger cities, are classified as “red zones” and the remaining as “orange zones.”  States have authority to increase restrictions if needed in particular circumstances.    

The pervasive and dispersed patterns, in both the villages where people migrate from and the cities where they seek jobs, suggest that exposure is unlikely but still possible. Hopefully, an outbreak never happens.  If it does, health facilities, testing, and communication strategies could prevent a single case from spreading throughout the population.

Most forest villages have migrants to the cities. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

What next?

As the lockdown eases in less-affected areas, the looming question is: what next for the forest-fringe villages of central India where people rely for their daily existence on the forest and on travelling to markets in other villages and towns?  How can communities and authorities safely ease restrictions to allow people to collect firewood, go to market, and carry out daily activities while guarding against the small but devastating chance of exposure to the virus?  

With the reality of the extreme economic hardship from the lockdown, what’s the best strategy if a single returning migrant is unknowingly carrying the virus?  Without testing, it’s not possible to know whether a returning migrant was exposed to the virus and, if so, if efforts to quarantine have been sufficient.  Authorities are in the difficult position of making decisions in a sea of uncertainty.  Clearly, if an outbreak occurs, authorities would take swift action to reinforce lockdown in the village.  

A conceptual, simplified application of a model of disease spread indicates what communities probably instinctively know about living with uncertainty.  With the impossibility of knowing if an outbreak is on the horizon, the model suggests that minimal movement between villages, even if contacts between people within villages return back to normal, would reduce the chances of exposure for the greatest number of people.  Overall, about half as many people would be exposed compared to moderate movement between and within villages.  New Zealand, which has effectively curtailed the spread of the virus, is applying the same strategy in the form of “social bubbles” as it eases its lockdown restrictions.

Such a strategy means that essentials need to reach villages so people do not need to travel to towns and markets.  It means that authorities might distribute seeds and other needs for the planting season to farmers rather than farmers traveling to shops in small towns.  It calls for creative, practical solutions that work for forest-fringe communities and minimize interactions between villages.  Most of all, it means that the vulnerable populations who live near forests, who balance the two ends of wild and urban India, merit attention and strategies based on local realities on the ground.

The COVID-19 crisis and its economic cascades remind us how vulnerable those living near forests are to shocks, whether from pandemics, droughts, or personal loss.  Those with limited livelihood options have little choice except to seek jobs in the cities.  In the longer term, once the wave of the current crisis passes, the opportunity to build resilience to shocks of any form depends on a larger basket of options.   

A pre-print with these results is publicly available here.  The paper has not yet been through the peer-review process.

Tribal communities are being praised for properly maintaining social distancing. Photo by Vikas Tiwari.


DeFries, R., Agarwala M., Baquie S., Choksi P., Dogra N., Preetha G.S., Khanwilkar S., Mondal P., Nagendra H., Urpelainen J.Post-Lockdown Spread of Covid-19 from Cities to Vulnerable Forest-Fringe Villages in Central India.”  (in review).


Ruth DeFries is the Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development, Columbia University, New York and founder of the Network for Conserving Central India. 

Banner image: Migrant labour in an Indian city. Photo by The Last Paladin/Flickr.

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