THE aim of ActionAid India is simple: to make this country a better place for marginalised communities. From protecting the girl child to sponsoring children’s education or supporting survivors of domestic abuse, the organisation works to alleviate multiple social problems faced by the underprivileged in India.

Affiliated to the global federation of ActionAid International, it has been in action in India since 1972, working in solidarity with the poor and marginalised communities in 24 states and two union territories of India.

Sandeep Chachra is the executive director of ActionAid India. A social anthropologist by training and a development activist, Sandeep has lived and worked with indigenous people and Dalit communities across the country. Prior to this role, he was International lead for ActionAid International and has also been involved with the work of peasant movements in Asia and Africa.

In a chat with Give, Sandeep talks about the organisation’s relief work during the pandemic, his journey as an anthropologist, his favourite food and more.

Give: Tell us a bit about ActionAid India’s COVID relief work so far.

Sandeep Chachra: At the beginning of the pandemic, we tackled the humanitarian crisis by providing ration, food, sanitation supplies and income support to vulnerable families.

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We also established help desks and awareness campaigns for migrant workers. Through our direct actions, we were able to reach out to over 23 lakh individuals in 2020, and by supporting local administrations and linking people with government entitlements, we were able to ensure support to another 53 lakh.

During the second wave, we continued to reach out to people through direct support in the form of ration, food and cash assistance. To strengthen the public health infrastructure, we set up 23 COVID care centres, two oxygen generation plants and provided 6,700 oxygen concentrators to 435 hospitals and Community Health Centres across the country.

Recognising the importance of prevention and vaccination, we have been running ‘COVID protocol’ awareness campaigns. We have assisted almost 1.3 lakh individuals in getting vaccinated so far. Our direct relief efforts have reached over 26 lakh people.

Give: During the pandemic, did the number of women getting in touch with Gauravi (crisis centre for women facing domestic violence and abuse) increase?

SC: Emergent trends show an increase in the violence and vulnerability faced by women during COVID-19, especially during the initial months of the lockdown . There was an increase in the number of calls to Gauravi  reporting domestic violence and abuse, seeking counselling and help for the same. 358 calls were specific to women reporting violence by an intimate partner and family members.

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The situation clearly aggravated during the lockdown. 338 calls were made by registered survivors who reported relapse or recurrence of domestic violence. We received 350 calls from women who reported a lack of income and ration, out of which 60% of women were single women and survivors of violence while 150 women walked in to seek ration and provisions at the Gauravi premises. The ration was distributed to more than 500 women survivors from Gauravi, while overall 7,000 ration kits were provided to marginalised communities and people in need through ActionAid’s support.

Give: What is the most heart-touching thing that has happened to you through your NGO?

SC: It was to see survivors of violence and injustice and people from marginalised communities and vulnerable backgrounds take the initiative to help others. Talat was amongst the survivors from the Gauravi who were trained to drive an auto-rickshaw so that they can be financially independent. During the pandemic, Talat and a number of others used their vehicles, originally intended as a source of livelihood, to deliver vital supplies and emergency aid to vulnerable people in Bhopal.

Similarly, the pandemic relief efforts of the acid attack survivors who own and run Orange Café in Varanasi are truly inspiring. Amid the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, the women running the Orange Café decided to continue serving food, not to paying customers but to support the most vulnerable communities living in the city.

In the aftermath of communal violence in the Kandhamal district of Odisha in 2008, a youth mobilisation platform called Antaranga was started in the district, and since then they have been working towards mobilising youth for building peace and communal harmony and channelising their energies towards sustainable, equitable and rights-based development of communities in the district.

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In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, Antaranga and Jagruti, a grassroots-based civil society organisation, initiated awareness campaigns among local communities on how to prevent the spread of infection and worked towards building resilience among communities in close collaboration with the district administration.

It never ceases to amaze me how people who are themselves in vulnerable and precarious situations step forward to help others. It always provides me with humbling and inspiring memories.

GI: How has your training as an anthropologist helped you through your journey in the social sector?

SC: Anthropology, first and foremost, ingrains in one a deep appreciation of the diversity of the world, and a respect for ideas and agency of people. It teaches you empathy and understanding of the life-worlds of people.  Further, it exposes one to social structures and the understanding of the play of power in the society, from the perspective, especially, of those at the margins and those facing exploitation.

Living nearly one year with a Mundari tribal community in a village in the Chota Nagpur Plateau was a life-changing experience in this regard, as also was the experience of working among the community involved in manual scavenging in Delhi and the farmers in Sunderbans during the pursuit of my study of anthropology. The idea of a continuum of nature and culture, so embedded in an anthropological journey, is especially relevant at a time we are facing an ecological crisis.

Give: Who is Sandeep Chachra outside ActionAid India?

SC: With a restless spirit, I keep seeking opportunities to learn new things. In the last few years, I have been giving time to explore and learn about the situation of the land, labour and commons across different continents. While using the time to travel in this regard to understand these issues from the perspective of indigenous, landless peasants and women in Africa, South America, South and South-East Asia, I have also accepted the responsibility to edit one of the leading triannual global journals of Political Economy, called Agrarian South, which is published by SAGE.

To learn more about how cities of the world are evolving and the challenges they face, we joined the World Urban Campaign of the UN-Habitat which I now have the honour of co-chairing. It exposes me to the issue of urbanisation on our planet, and also gives me the opportunities to learn and contribute solutions to these challenges in different contexts. Outside of ActionAid, I am also a fun-loving person at home.

Give: What three things help you stay active and motivated?

SC: The energy and imagination of people to make a better world, people who I come in contact with during the course of wide work. Fearless commitment and hope in those I work with. And tennis!

Give: You have been forced to eat only four things for the rest of your life. Which four items would you choose? And why? Are there any memorable associations with it?

SC: Small fish which I would catch in the paddy fields of Jharkhand during paddy planting and monsoons! Dal-Bhat (lentil and rice) which my partner makes, pickles, kanji and lassi that my mother prepares, and jhal muri, which I would get on public transport across West Bengal.

Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan

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