In Conversation with Executive Director, Action Aid

Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director, Action Aid
Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director, Action Aid

ActionAid runs initiatives to plant a billion trees and conserve water bodies, how are these initiatives benefiting the environment? Have you had any success with them?

Planting a tree is among the most generous gifts we could give our children. It is an ecological resource that will serve future generations in myriad ways. While economists would speak about the value of its produce, fruit, timber, and other possible products, ecological scientists talk about the close link between trees and water, about how trees and forests can increase the availability of water, which in turn ensures that a landscape can support more trees and forests. However, scientists caution that in some cases, increased forest cover can lead to and intensify local water scarcity, but this is more in the case of dense commercial tree plantations; the overall impact of natural vegetation is overwhelmingly positive.

ActionAid Association has been running many tree plantation programs with vulnerable communities across India, especially with the youth, to encourage people to take custodianship of ecological resources.  Planting a tree and taking care of it in its initial years brings communities, which has a wider impact on how they look at various environmental resources to which they have links.

The plan is to plant indigenous varieties of trees on river beds, common lands, degraded forests, and institutional campuses. ActionAid Association strives for volunteers, especially women, and girls, to participate in plantation programs while celebrating significant days, including ‘World Water Day’ and ‘World Environment Day’ and other significant days. In addition to tree plantation, volunteers prepare seed pellets planted before monsoon for germination.  In recent years volunteers planted more than 150 trees on the river bed in Nichlaul block of Maharajganj district in Uttar Pradesh. Students planted around 100 trees on their school campus. In Uttarakhand, volunteers planted trees to mitigate soil erosion. In the Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh, our volunteers have planted 100 trees to enhance water retention. In the Rayagada district of Odisha, volunteers from the Adivasi Janjati Adhikar Manch (AJAM) participated in tree plantation. Preparation of seed pellets and plantation of trees are regular activities taken up every year.  Every year thousands of seed balls have been prepared and planted in different areas, along with hundreds of trees. These efforts supplement the work of restoring water bodies in urban and peri-urban being undertaken in Bengaluru, Karnataka, and NOIDA, in Delhi NCR. In rural areas, the restoration of water bodies is underway in a significant way in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.

What are your opinions on the Budget for 2023? Is it inclusive of the rural community, in your opinion?

The Union Budget 2023 has given relief to the middle classes; however, India’s vast majority of working people in rural areas and the cities needed a more focused attention

We may have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the precarity of employment continues. The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) and other data indicate high levels of unemployment, particularly among youth, continued precarity, and constrained household consumption. Given this, peasants and informal workers of India expected that MGNREGA allocations would at least, if not more, see an allocation of Rs two lakh crores. But, instead, the outlay has been reduced even further to Rs 60,000 crores, which will reduce employment days available, let alone solve the question of payment of pending wages.

Investing in agri-tech infrastructure and digitizing PACS are welcome steps that make this budget innovative and creative. Agriculture remains the largest employer at 46.5% of the workforce and has increased marginally from 2019-20 to 2020-21. However, given contracted agricultural growth as per the economic survey and the headwinds the agricultural sector is facing on account of climate change, inflation, and reduction in subsidies, more focus and priority needed to have been given to millions of farming households through the way of greater subsidies. Moreover, the question of landless agricultural workers remains with no focus on their protection and welfare.

Expectations were high for assistance under PM Kisan Samman Nidhi to be increased to Rs 8,000 per year; instead, the budget outlays for the scheme have been further reduced. In times of rising extreme weather events and climate change, price support, fertilizer subsidies, and crop insurance act as safety valves for India’s farmers and agricultural workers. However, this budget has reduced allocations to the PM Fasal Bima Yojana, schemes for minimum support prices for crop procurement, and the fertilizer subsidies being provided.

The initiative of green growth and transition to net-zero carbon and several focused proposals, including capital investments towards net-zero, and MISHTI – the Mangrove Initiative and Amrit Dharovar are welcome steps. Under the latter, recognition given to local communities as frontline ecological defenders is worth celebrating. Similarly, the initiative to promote millets in the food security program and providing input support through GOBARdhan and PM-PRANAM is a welcome first step. However, the longstanding demand is to expand the public procurement of millet under the National Food Security Act above the current rate of 1%. In that spirit, this could have been incentivized by providing price support to cultivators through the ecological valuation of climate-resilient agriculture.

Brief us on how ActionAid empowered the women farmers in Bundelkhand.

The ongoing initiative with women in Bundelkhand to enhance income and promote sustainable agriculture with small and marginal farmers has been operational since 2020. We focused on the vulnerable communities across the districts of Lalitpur, Mahoba, and Jhansi in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. We have covered 15 villages in the Lalitpur district, where we have developed 715 units of all seven prototypes. Of the total units, 172 are owned by people from the SC community, 236 from the ST community, 298 from the OBC community, and nine from the general community.

In Jhansi district, we have covered ten villages wherein we have developed 500 units of all seven prototypes. Two hundred forty-eight units are owned by people from the SC community, 251 from the OBC community, and one from the general community.

In the Mahoba district, we have covered 15 villages and developed 735 units of all seven prototypes, with 280 units owned by people from the SC community, 441 from the OBC community, and 14 from the general community. In the last two years, we have established 2,875 entrepreneurs from various livelihood models across the three districts under the BASANT Women Farmer Producer Organisations.

Our initiatives have adopted a sustainable livelihood approach that seeks to adopt livelihood options appropriate to rural Bundelkhand. The development of both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors is pivotal to reducing rural poverty. We started by listening to the community about the problems and issues of the marginalized community while also discussing the major challenges of the region, such as migration, drought, etc. Using participatory rural appraisal tools, the project selected the project participants from marginal and deprived community households, and drew them into co-creation and prototyping process. As a result, seven livelihood prototypes were adopted by the community. These led to increased livelihood options per the region's climatic conditions among the women from the marginalized community and brought them forward in participating in regular meetings, decision-making roles, and collectively working together for growth and earning.

How Are you creating sustainable solutions for farmers?

We must understand that India, like many countries of the Global South, will continue to have large populations in rural areas. In mainstream thinking, this is considered symbolic of our “economic backwardness”; however, near-complete urbanization, as seen in the developed countries, is a historical impossibility and an ecological dead end. The large masses of people that will continue to live in rural areas will include small farmers, agricultural workers, pastoralists, forest dwellers, and fisherfolk – they also make up a large bulk of indigenous, tribal communities and, in the case of South Asia, people from lower caste communities.  In many cases, rural communities are in a “constant flux”, moving to urban areas, not getting absorbed in the urban economies, and either returning to their villages or remaining trapped in cyclical migration.  COVID-19-induced lockdowns in India showed how these workers voted with their feet, showing their preference to undertake arduous and trauma-filled journeys to their homes in the countryside.

Issues concerning working people in rural areas revolve the ownership, custodianship, and access to land and ecological commons – especially pasturelands, forests, and water bodies. The question of wages and decent work for agricultural labor. ActionAid Association is working with Dalit and other landless communities to secure land rights by ensuring the implementation of existing laws and policies for distributing land to the landless. This includes homestead land, agricultural land, and both individual and community forest rights and access to pasture lands. Focus has also been to ensure land rights to single women, and land rights in women’s name or as joint ownership. Protection of commons and ensuring access to vulnerable communities are also agendas for engagement.

The prospects of collective enterprise and especially cooperatives. Mobilization and assertion of vulnerable communities and groups in rural areas through people’s organizations. ActionAid Association has been seeking to promote livelihood by building women’s and women-led collectives and farmer-producer organizations to build feminist economic solidarities which have impacts that go beyond the economy.

The participation of vulnerable communities in local governance and democratization of local governance structures. ActionAid Association conducts training on Panchayati raj institutions to encourage vulnerable communities to participate in local governance, not just by ensuring diversity of elected representatives, but also by assertions of the communities themselves.

Feminist assertions through women’s ownership of property, recognition in the world of work, participation in mass organizations, local governance, and collective enterprise. The need to recognize rural populations as frontline climate change workers in mitigation and adaptation processes, taking up custodianship of ecological resources and providing environmental services. ActionAid Association seeks to work on all these fronts to explore sustainable solutions for small farmers and other vulnerable communities and sections of the rural population.

What are your expectations from the G20 Summit 2023?

The Presidency of G20 has shifted from Indonesia to India and will then go to Brazil, bringing an opportunity to a more inclusive world order. The G20 Presidency is supported by the troika consisting of the previous, current, and incoming Presidencies. In the eyes of majorities of our world, the current combination of Indonesia, India, and Brazil could energize a step towards a better world even as pandemics, conflicts, economic shocks, and climate change push millions back into poverty and oppression.

Despite attempts to divide it, the recently concluded COP27 at Sharm el Sheikh saw a unity of purpose by the global south. In this unity, the 134 developing economies pushed for a global loss and damage fund. While this is a landmark deal, we need much more progress in cutting fossil fuel emissions and rapidly ensuring climate financing. If advanced in the spirit of a feminist and just transition, the next two years of the G20 with India and then Brazil in the Presidency could offer a game-changing possibility.

India’s G20 Presidency theme is ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ – ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. A significant moral compass, as the very idea of a planetary family, invokes values of seeing humans as natural custodians of ecological resources and biodiversity, encouraging a critical engagement with indigenous knowledge and wisdom, and investing Nature with rights, which are held by the communities who have done least damage to Mother Earth.

There is a lot on G20’s shoulders. It accounts for over 75% of the global GDP and trade and 80% of the world’s emissions. But, of course, the responsibility for emissions is disproportionately distributed among the Global North and Global South members, as is power. Thus it is for the Global South members within G20 and, more particularly, the current troika supporting the G20 Presidency to herald a “just” way forward for all. For instance, thus far, the G20 has pledged climate action but made no significant commitments. Yet, from this body, our planet needs commitments and action.

There is a need for concrete pledges on climate financing and a calling to account for past failures to pay. Similarly, debt cancellation, not merely restructuring debt, needs to come back to the agenda of G20. According to IMF, 60% of low-income countries are at high risk of or already in debt distress. A growing number of middle-income countries are also suffering high debt service burdens, severely impeding their ability to respond to peoples’ suffering on account of climate impacts, as the case of flooding in Pakistan forcefully demonstrated. In addition, more and more people are forced to seek refuge or migrate because of climate change. An ActionAid and Climate Action Network South Asia research report predicts that more than 62 million South Asian people will be forced to migrate from their homes due to climate disasters by 2050. The danger of vulnerable developing countries entering a vicious cycle of worsening climate vulnerability and unsustainable debt burdens is fast becoming a reality.

Contemporary urban trends foreground the claim of an urban age because, for the first time in the history of humankind, more than half of the world’s population is living in cities. Most cities of the world share some common features such as land misuse, exclusionary planning, and oppressive housing conditions, in which large numbers of people are forced to live. In such a context, it is imperative to build a future with cities that welcome all. The idea of a ‘city for all’ has been furthered by the World Urban Campaign with its The City We Need Now movement. This promotes cities that are socially inclusive and engaging; affordable, accessible, and equitable; economically vibrant and inclusive; and collectively managed and democratically governed.

The democratization of cities not only requires equity in land use but also demands the consideration and achievement of collective ownership and sharing. And at a time when colonization of land and resources and various forms of social divide threatens our democratic fabric, the reconstruction of slums and informal settlements and their integration with the city would be an effective means for harnessing the much necessary collective solidarities. Throughout the world, the number of refugees living in urban areas is also on the rise. The integration of this vast majority of urban refugees in host cities will not be possible if cities continue to extend their service based on citizenship rather than residential status. This requires not only a rethinking of the citizenship discourse in cities but also an inclusive reimagining of citizenship geared towards an emancipatory future.

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