Action Village India are honoured to be the recipients of the 2022 Gandhi International Peace Award from London’s Gandhi Foundation. Our Director, Esther Trienekens, and Founder Advisor, Ivan Nutbrown, joined friends, trustees and supporters at the House of Lords to receive the award.
Action Village India received this award in recognition of our fundraising, mobilisation of resources and awareness raising during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In our acceptance speech, we looked back at the pandemic and the work done by our partners, but also shared insights of the lasting effects the pandemic still has on rural communities in India.
We want to thank our partner organisations in India, as this award is also for them. They all worked tirelessly during the Covid-19 pandemic to support the most vulnerable people in rural communities in India and continue to do so today.
We also thank our community of supporters, as it is thanks to this community, that we are able to continue the work we do. Especially during the pandemic, we were extremely proud and moved by all the support that was given.
You can read the full speech below.
On behalf of Action Village India, I would like to sincerely thank the Gandhi Foundation for handing us this year’s peace award. I stand here as Action Village India, but this award goes far beyond Action Village India.
This award really goes towards our partners in India:
Assocation for Sarva Seva Farms
Centre for Rural Studies and Development
Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra
Regional Centre for Development Cooperation
They all worked tirelessly during the Covid-19 pandemic to support the most vulnerable people in rural communities in India and continue to do so today.
Our partnerships are not created as a means to an end. They are at the heart of our work and many of our partnerships have spanned decades. Our partners, whether large or small organisations, all work directly at the grassroots level across rural India – from Bihar and Jharkhand in the North, in Odisha and down to Tamil Nadu. They are experts in their fields and design their development projects to best serve their local communities. The majority of our partners, like many of the founders and original supporters of Action Village India, have their motivations and practices rooted in Gandhian traditions and philosophy: truth, non-violent resistance and self-sufficiency.
Association for Sarva Seva Farms – better known as ASSEFA for instance, started to enable formerly landless families who had received land through a voluntary Gandhian land reform (the Bhoodan Movement) but who had no tools or animals to start farming. One of the most famous disciples of Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, had begun in 1951, with a view to offering a non-violent solution to the problem of the inequality of land ownership that characterised rural India in those years. For 14 years, walking on foot through India, Vinoba asked landowners for the gift of a plot of land to be allocated to the poorest peasants. He collected over 4 million acres of land for redistribution. Special Bhoodan state committees were set up to register and distribute the donated land, but the beneficiaries could not work those dry and uncultivated lands for years due to their extreme poverty, which meant they did not possess the necessary initial capital, nor tools. This is where the founders, Loganathan and Giovanni Ermiglia took initiative and the first ASSEFA village was born.
Also, Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra, or NBJK as we better know them have clear roots in Gandhian traditions. NBJK was founded in 1971 by four engineering graduates who were very moved to tackle the causes of inequality, exploitation and poverty in their state. Motivated by the vision and ideas of the Sarvodaya leader, Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan, these graduates made the decision to abandon their careers and comfortable lifestyles in order to explore ways to establish a just society, in which no one remains hungry, unemployed, exploited, or discriminated against. Ivan Nutbrown, one of Action Village Iindia’s founders and coordinator from 2000 to 2018, met Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra’s four founders in Bihar in 1969 before they started NBJK. Inspired by Gandhi, Ivan had made the journey overland to India and has been working and supporting different communities there every since.
Today is a joyous moment for us. A recognition of all the work that has been done. And I am so happy that we can all be here today in person and celebrate this together. It is not all that long ago that this wouldn’t be an option, and although meeting in person seems all normal again, and our lives have moved on, the effects of the covid-19 pandemic will be felt for a long time – this is especially true for communities in rural India.
I recently travelled to India, to meet with our partners again after 2.5 years. Travelling through India, at first glance, you almost forget about Covid and that it had such an impact on the lives of many, if not all, of the people here. Sure, the masks you see here and there, are a reminder of it, but there are huge crowds at temples and bazaars, people are busily getting on with their lives and a cough or sneeze no longer turn heads.
Throughout my trip however, in conversation with our partners, passers-by whilst travelling and friends, I have been confronted by the devastation Covid has played on people’s lives and how it still continues to do so.
I was surprised to hear from one of the staff at NBJK that many young people had died during the second Covid wave. He himself a young man in his 30s suffered terribly from the virus. Luckily after a few days of very low oxygen levels, he was able to pull through. For several of his friends unfortunately, this was not the case. Talking to other people, it became clear that in India many people aged 25-40, people my own age, lost their lives during the second Covid wave.
Where the effects of Covid also became very clear was in Tamil Nadu while visiting CRUSADE. Here we met Kethan, a man in his 40s, who his family told us was living a happy and successful life a year ago, before Covid. In tears Kethan’s sister showed us a photo of him as a smartly dressed handsome young man before the ‘black fungus’. His family had great hopes for him. She pointed out Kethan sitting at the back of the group his face and head now cloth covered.
Kethan caught Covid and was a diagnosed with diabetes which it turns out is a terrible combination in the Indian context. Both these conditions severely affect the body’s ability to fight the fungalinfections. Kethan’s world was changed completely by the rare fungal infection formally known as Mucormycosis but popularly and more dramatically known as the ‘black fungus disease’. Fungal spores enter the body whilst breathing so the airways of the face are the centre of the infection. Many died but some, younger stronger people survive, though often with terrible disability and deformity. For Kethan the ‘black fungus’; spread dangerously and eroded away his nose, palate and part of his jaw. He has become blind due to spread of the disease into the eye sockets. He can only eat liquidised food.
Crusade and the self-help group are giving Kethan and his family much-needed psychological and financial support, but the road ahead for him will be difficult and uncertain. Though Mucormycosis is rare, given the number of Covid cases during the pandemic and the high prevalence of diabetes in India, there were a considerable number of cases. Kethan will need long-term and complex medical, surgical, rehabilitation and psychological support. Crusade will continue to support Kethan.
Besides the health implications of Covid, another big impact has been the closure of schools. During Covid, schools have been closed for almost two years, making it, after Uganda, the longest Covid-led school closures. With around 250 million students enrolled in 1.5 million schools, India has the world’s second largest school-going population – which has meant a huge number of students have missed school or have had to follow online education. Access to online learning has been extremely limited among low-income groups, especially for girls, both due to lack of smartphones and patchy internet connectivity in its vast rural areas.
During my visit to ASSEFA, Dr. Rani and I made a visit to the ASSEFA schools in Marakannam and Gingee. These schools provide holistic and quality education for a low fee, and one that the people in the surrounding rural areas can afford. The last time I visited 3 years ago, the schools were lively with lots of children running around. This time, it was quiet, and many classrooms were empty. The schools are currently running at a 25%-50% capacity. Though ASSEFA expect the schools to get back to full capacity in due course, it is going to take some time for this to happen. Dr Rani explained to me that children were automatically passed at government schools over the last two years. Parents now see less value in sending their children to better quality but fee-paying schools and so many more children now go to government schools. Here they are also provided with a midday meal, which is beneficial to the students. The ASSEFA schools also saw a drop in girls attending school, and where previously the number of girls and boys was equal, there are now fewer girls than boys in the school.
The closing of face-to-face education during the pandemic meant that many children were following education as best as possible through their phones, or their parents’ phones. This increase of access to mobile phones has also brought a number of other problems with it. We heard from Satish at NBJK, that there had been an increase of sexual harassment in his state they felt related to boys were watching more porn on mobiles. We heard similar stories from Bimla from the Ekta Resource Centre for women. She spoke about an increase of child marriage and violence against women and girls.
I also met with EKTA’s railway children team who rescue children from railways. Over the Covid period the number of children running away had decreased greatly but over the past few months it had started to increase again. And what they saw as the main reason was phone addiction. They shared that some children ran away because their parents wouldn’t allow them on the phone, and also children had been gambling on their phones and incurred deep debts.
As we all try to move on with our lives and Covid has become more “normal”, the varied effects will be felt for a long time – partners share that developments within their work have been delayed or even set back and effects for poor people are especially difficult.
These are just a few of the examples and people where the pandemic will have lasting effects and where our partners continue to support people. There were of course many more problems in the peak of the pandemic. There were two significant moments in time that I think we all remember.
You might all remember the images of people walking on foot hundreds of miles home after the sudden 21-day lockdown was declared in March 2020. This led to an unprecedented migration of workers and families from large urban centres to rural India.
Another crucial moment you might remember was the second and devastating wave which started in April 2021, where India was gasping for Oxygen. The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic affected almost two-thirds of the population directly or indirectly. This second wave came on the back of widespread food and financial insecurity amongst the poorest households in India.
The pandemic brought the predicament of migrant workers in India to the centre-stage of discussions and decisions. The variegated experience of an economic slowdown across people and places, coupled with the inadequacy of social protection policies for the most vulnerable populations revealed and enhanced existing inequalities in society.
It was during this time where a web of citizen’s organisations and movements responded more than the government itself – and these include Action Village India partners.
The work of our partners has been incredible and the people reached, over 100,000 has been astounding.
The work has included food aid to vulnerable communities, including people living with a disability, elderly women and Self-Help Group members from vulnerable economic backgrounds, Sri Lankan refugees, nomadic families. Also food support was given to migrant workers on their journeys home and to those who had already reached home. Community kitchens were set up in different villages and extra nutrition was provided to women and children.
There were many awareness campaigns about the covid spread, safety measures, common symptoms, isolation centres and vaccinations. Gloves, masks, sanitisers and medication was provided to frontline workers and vulnerable communities. Mental health support was provided to different communities.
Our partners worked together with local health centres and government hospitals to set up isolation units. NBJK converted its eye hospital and schools to quarantine centres for migrant workers. They worked with local hospitals with the vaccination roll out and they distributed oximeters and oxygen units to small scale health centres.
The work didn’t just focus on immediate relief, but also on lasting change. Shramdaan camps were organised where communities built village ponds, livelihood activities were organised and home based nutrition gardens were set up.
Within all the work, Gandhi’s philosophy carried on. The relief work, which has been full of compassion and commitment, not only focussed on the immediate crisis but also on self-reliance.
Rajagopalji, from Ekta Parishad shared the following about the relief work:
“Relief will be essential even in the most advanced societies but the attitude shouldn’t be of pity, but of empathy. We have to ask ourselves, “How would I like to be treated if I am suffering?”
There should be an inbuilt idea of revolution in relief. Relief has become essential due to various policy failures and we want to correct it. Relief should lead to greater empowerment of individuals and communities, rather than disempowering them.
The system is moving into permanent relief mode, which leads people to think they can exploit all resources and keep people happy by giving them something. This behaviour needs to end. This is where Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj comes in.
As long as every individual and community is in control of their own destiny, the dream of Swaraj can become reality. As long as the control is in the hands of the givers from the top, Swaraj remains a dream unfulfilled.”
It is in this spirit that we supported our partners during the pandemic and continue to work and support our partners beyond the pandemic.
I go back to the beginning of my talk – this award is not just for Action Village India – and not just for our partners. But it is also for our community of supporters. As it is thanks to this community, that we are able to continue the work we do. Especially during the pandemic, we were extremely proud and moved by all the support that was given.
True partnership and solidarity enabled us to achieve so much together.
We would once again like to thank the Gandhi Foundation for this incredible recognition.