ActionAid has shown agility to pivot itself from its existing mandate to provide relief and succour to millions of people impacted by the pandemic. They have helped migrants, provided food rations, oxygen concentrators and managed many public health centres. They have worked closely with the government to disseminate public interest messages about the compelling need for people to have vaccines and to follow Covid appropriate behaviour. Hardnews spoke with Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director of ActionAid to understand how the pandemic impacted the organisation and how it responded to its gargantuan challenges.
Q1. Tell us a bit about your starting days?
I’ve been trying to bring about social change ever since I completed my education in Anthropology and interned with a NGO thirty years ago. After my education my first work was to carry out a door-to-door survey in the capital of manual scavengers for Delhi School of Social work and Delhi Scheduled Caste development Finance Corporation. We surveyed over 8000 families engaged in manual scavenging in Delhi and found that it had not been eradicated, instead large numbers were still engaged in this inhuman caste based occupation.
Maybe it was the time that I spent in what is Jharkhand state today, first in school with tribal communities and later as an anthropologist living amongst Mundas of Chottanagpur, that I got committed to make an effort to create a just and an equal world that I got here
Currently, I am happy to lead an organization, which believes in fighting for the poor and to end inequality so visible in our society. I am also co-leading the World Urban Campaign and also workers and peasants network, agrarian south- spaces which allow me to contribute in all the issues that I care for most.
Q2. What has kept the spark in you alive to continue working with Actionaid ?
In many ways this answer is simple.
ActionAid has wonderful people in many of its teams and those it works with. They are all committed and passionate about their pursuit of bringing in equality and justice amongst people. It is really inspiring to lead this organization.
We are also blessed to have friendships, associations, partnerships and solidarity with individual change makers and philanthropists who create an ecosystem of hope and belief to facilitate social and economic progress of humankind
The fact that ActionAid is also driven by this desire to undo structures and historical processes of oppression like patriarchy, caste, inequality and injustice brings many, like me, to embrace it.
ActionAid also provides a bigger platform for change for vulnerable communities like the homeless. We worked hard since 2001 to put their cause on national agenda.
Similarly we began our campaign on manual scavenging in the late 90s and worked on it to support and to build a national campaign against this practise.
Triple talaaq is another issue where we built momentum on the ground to fight for the rights of Muslim women.
Q3. Tell us about the work you have done during the pandemic?
ActionAid Association has teams across 24 States and 2 Union territories. We have co-ordinators n more than 100 districts that work with grassroots based civil society organisations, and community-based volunteers and activists. We have strong links with district administrations that enabled us to provide much needed support to more than 7.7 million people in the first COVID wave. We gave them ration kits, cooked food and sanitation materials. In the second wave, besides monetary help, the health aspects and medical support were high on priority when it came to the needs of people. People have faced a double whammy, for which they have got little succour and support from the Government.
We started awareness drives through tempos and autos in 20 states and UTs to inform communities about COVID-appropriate behaviour and to promote vaccinations. Our teams traveled within districts, covering villages and townships to do this. Through COVID helplines in 12 states and helpdesks we provided updated and accurate information, including the availability of medicines, hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and in some cases tele-medical consultation through medical doctors. By the third week of May 2021, we were running 71 helpdesks across 16 States and 2 Union Territories. We have worked to strengthen medical services by providing volunteers to run COVID Care Centres, and arrange for supplies and equipment to these centres and public hospitals, including oxygen concentrators and ventilators. Thus far our efforts have been to Save Lives through 17 medical establishments (7 government hospitals and 10 public COVID Care centres). While this number is increasing, with support from various corporate and other supporters such as Give India, we will be strengthening efforts of Primary Health Care Centres and Community Health Care Centres in 100 districts in 15 States, through provision of several thousand oxygen concentrators. In addition, we are now setting up COVID care wards for Children in two states, which will go up to five.
As part of Peoples Vaccination Alliance in Asia and internationally we are also campaigning for free and universal vaccination.
The need for food, cash and livelihood support continues and our teams are providing that., The Orange Café in Varanasi, continues to provide cooked food to people in need. As regards rations, we are focussing our outreach to very vulnerable communities such as refugees, transgender communities, families of domestic workers and all informal workers out of work, slum populations, children in difficult circumstances, tribals etc
We have also been providing inputs to Union and State Governments on the kind of policies they need to put in place to help vulnerable communities cope with the crisis and respond to their needs. Our suggestions have often found place in various advisories issued to Union and State Governments. Most recently we have given inputs to National Human Rights Commission for protecting the Rights of Informal and migrant workers as well as means to enhance their employment and socio-economic rights. We make efforts to bring to the public discourse challenges being faced by vulnerable communities and programme policy solutions to mitigate their precarity through grounded participatory researches. During these pandemic times, we have carried out such participatory assessments and reported on informal workers, de-notified and nomadic and pastoral communities, refugees, single women, domestic workers, children in difficult circumstances, child marriage etc.
Finally it is clear that the impact of COVID is not short term. Whenever this wave abates, apart from preparing for the next one, the recovery would mean looking after those who are marginalised and on the brink of survival. We need to create sustainable rural and urban livelihoods and provide social security for workers in villages and towns. We have to ensure support to children who are out of education so that they don’t drop out of education permanently. Women also need protection so that their work participation rates don’t drop even lower and unpaid care work at home is shared equally with their spouses.
Q4. How has the Organisation evolved during the last year and a half?
ActionAid Association has always encouraged initiative and leadership amongst not only colleagues, but also in the grassroots-based civil societies and the community-based activists it works with. This has helped us roll out the humanitarian response with speed in the first and second wave of the pandemic. Our COVID response has been directed by the needs expressed at the grassroots, the organisation and its structures has shown remarkable agility to facilitate the response as determined by our grassroots-based activists. ActionAid has a dispersed and diverse leadership that works together with shared values and sense of accountability to the people, supporting institutions and the communities we are working with. Our solidarity with the vulnerable community has improved during this crisis period.
We have also learnt to surmount problems of distance and worked without the support of offices and physical interaction. Virtually we have been able to welcome more colleagues into decision-making processes, which was inconceivable in the past as it would have entailed considerable expense.
Due to pandemic, ActionAid Association is now working with community-based organisations, civil society organisations, unions, peoples’ movements, corporate bodies, national and international foundations and government bodies.
We have also become agile in responding to people’s needs, and not remain fixated to our strategic orientation.
And finally, COVID has helped further strengthen our collective resolve to serve the society in manifold ways, including its aspiration for social and ecological justice.
Q5. The disease is here to stay! What are the future plans of Actionaid in terms of capacity build up?
For decades, building resilience in the communities has been our long-term objective, since ActionAid India adopted the rights-based approach in the 1990s. In 2019 a new strategy was adopted that expanded our rights-based approach in two directions: on the one hand we moved towards collective and community-based rights (not remaining limited to individual rights} and secondly, we expanded the realm of our engagements beyond rights to the question of social justice and engaging with issues of ecological justice. We play a more active role in district-level engagements with vulnerable communities to make a real difference in questions of social and ecological justice.
The pandemic has taught us the importance of gender sensitive, in the areas of health, sanitation and education. We are keen to build a participatory democracy, one that is responsive to the needs of the masses and is not working at the behest of elite and exclusionary forces.