Exhibition: Food for Peace and Justice

Two local responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and Food Justice: Ekta Parishad

Covid & Community – Action Village India

Friday July 24, 2020

1:30 pm - 2:30 pm

Part of the Madras Café Unlocked event:

A humanitarian crisis: Migrant workers and India’s COVID-19 lockdown

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Ekta Parishad in India and Change Kitchen in Birmingham UK took up the challenge to feed vulnerable people during the Covid-19 emergency. This story is about ‘Ekta Parishad, emergency relief and building communities’.

An overview

Total Lockdown, as a protective response to reduce the spread of disease, results in loss of income, severe interruption to complex food chains, and damaging pressure on community and personal relationships. A crisis of malnutrition, debt, and deterioration in mental and physical health builds rapidly and people on low incomes or who have psychological and physical challenges suffer most. Inequalities, lack of fairness and justice that are already endemic, are exacerbated by social emergencies and become a breeding ground for entrenched community division and unrest.

We have examined the strategic Covid-19 relief work of two organisations, in India and the UK, both with connections to Jai Jagat 2020. Their activities during the emergency supported some of the most disadvantaged people. We discovered that what they initiated and learned during the crisis provided a basis for future development in their own organisational practices and approaches to campaigning for equity, social justice, and community harmony:

  • Ekta Parishad (transl. One Forum) and its network of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) across 8 Indian states responded to the plight of migrant workers who were, at very short notice, forced by the Indian government out of cities back to their often very distant villages.
  • ChangeKitchen CIC (Community Interest Company), with its extensive experience in event cooking and training volunteers, served thousands of hot meals and food parcels, which they delivered to people in isolation as part of Birmingham’s partnership of community organisations.

Ekta Parishad and ChangeKitchen are linked to Jai Jagat 2020 in very different ways:

  • Ekta Parishad has, for over a quarter of a century, initiated and been involved in nonviolent campaigning for the legal rights and social status of landless farmers and tribal people in India. Their major means of public protest is walking, which they back up with case studies, community conflict resolution, and training for young community leaders. Over the years, Ekta Parishad has developed an international support network of community organisations, inspired by Ekta Parishad’s philosophies and working methods. From this network emerged the campaign Jai Jagat 2020, a year-long walk from Delhi to Geneva to present the countries/member states of the United Nations with a challenge to implement their commitments to improving global and local peace and justice.
  • ChangeKitchen has become a partner of Jai Jagat 2020 UK, a Midlands based support group for Jai Jagat 2020, which chose to focus on Climate Justice, one of the purposes of the global walk, and in particular, the need to encourage populations to move to more plant-based diets and away from agricultural practices and food consumption choices that exacerbate environmental degradation and climate change.
  • ChangeKitchen has become a partner of Jai Jagat 2020 UK, a Midlands based support group for Jai Jagat 2020. The UK group chose to concentrate on Climate Justice, one of the purposes of the global walk, with a focus on Food issues. Discussions with ChangeKitchen highlighted their shared philosophy: the need to encourage populations to move to more plant-based diets and away from agricultural practices and food consumption choices that exacerbate environmental degradation and climate change. Change Kitchen’s purpose as a CIC has always been to serve delicious, nutritious food that contributes to a local, sustainable and healthy food economy. But they also provide training and work opportunities to people who face social exclusion and support them back into mainstream employment.

Jai Jagat 2020 was halted in March in Armenia due to COVID-19 restrictions. They quickly regrouped and set up an extensive programme of internet forums and discussions on Peace and Justice. Jai Jagat 2020 UK’s Covid-19 case study on ChangeKitchen contributes to a review in September 2020, through Jai Jagat’s international partners, of strategies for supporting the development of community Peace and Justice.

Covid-19: Two local responses to a global pandemic – Ekta Parishad, emergency relief and building communities

The issues

Gandhi said that ‘The soul of India lives in its villages,’ but because of reduced rural employment opportunities the proportion of people living in villages declined from 82.9% in 1915 to 67.2% in 2015, and the trend is set to continue with families divided and relying on remittances from their relatives in the cities. With the onset of Covid-19, the Central Government’s strategy was to empty the cities of migrant workers. Arundhati Roy wrote that the resulting chaos and hardship evoked ‘memories of the population transfer of 1947, when India was divided and Pakistan was born. Except that its current exodus was driven by class divisions, not religion.’ The rate of Covid-19 infection and deaths is rising exponentially at this very moment.

How Ekta Parishad responded

On 11 June, Ramesh Shah of Ekta Parishad reported ‘This is the 80th day of lockdown here in India. During the period since the Lockdown, the entire Ekta Parishad family has worked tirelessly to serve the poorest and unheard people on the ground.  ‘We are very happy to inform you about our Phase I initiatives and where we provided food supplies to the needy people across various States of India. This phase is now nearing completion and we are able to see the results of this phase of the relief work.’

Ramesh then detailed the results of an astonishing collaboration between the members of their network in that they supplied between 7 and 14 days of food packs to 10,034 families who had already reached their villages, 15,610 families stranded away from their villages, nutritional supplements to 2,200 women and children, cooked 5,000 one-off meals to migrants travelling back to their villages and gave out 41,500 units of two cotton face masks, and 400 units of mobile top up to stranded migrant workers.

Phase II’, Ramesh went on to say, ‘is focused on Shramdan Camps. Our aim is to build community resource structures which directly benefit villagers and help support their livelihood (current or alternative livelihoods). These Shramdan camps have specific values for the deprived community which is getting food (materials) in lieu of their voluntary work. We have included various new components in these Shramdan Camps in consultation with the local communities.’

Twenty camps are being built across 18 villages in 8 states and the project build focuses on ensuring drinking water and irrigation from rainwater and renovated wells and reservoirs, planting fruit trees and vegetables and improving fishing tanks.  At the time of writing, Ramesh says that another 30 camps are planned and they want to set up Grain Banks for seeds and food, ‘especially in the areas known for regular scarcity of food grains.’

Possible future directions for Ekta Parishad:

Their nature as a campaigning organisation enables Ekta Parishad to collaborate with their partners and engage local authorities to start to build the infrastructure for alternative housing and means of employment for people.

Ekta Parishad have kept local government and the press informed of their activity and compiled  a data base of migrant labourers, which has turned into a useful information and planning tool. They are also preparing to file a Writ Petition with a team of senior lawyers, at the Supreme Court of India, to address the gross failure of legal and institutional safeguards meant for migrant workers, which in itself adds another dimension to the work they already do on campaigning for land rights for indigenous and landless families.

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