How Conserve India is connecting community kitchens, bureaucrats, and individuals to mobilize during the COVID-19 pandemic
“The social distancing and lockdown is okay if you have a home and you have the money to store at least the basic food essentials. But the migrants need a livelihood and they need money every day.” – Anita Ahuja, Co-Founder and President of Conserve India
Conserve India’s Approach
Conserve India was founded in 1998 as a social enterprise specializing in converting Handmade Recycled Plastic (HRP) into high fashion accessories. What begins as ordinary plastic waste from Delhi landfills is upcycled into fashion products including handbags, wallets, clutches, and belts. Conserve India is a livelihood program for Delhi’s ragpickers and over 300 artisans who use patented technologies to convert plastics into fabric. These unique designs, free of added colors, are exported from the factory to buyers in Europe and America via members of the World Fair Trade Organization.
Since the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 21st, things at Conserve India have looked much different.
Fundraising for community kitchens: The beginning of lockdown meant that almost a hundred million internal migrants were left stranded without any assurance of livelihood. Those that usually depend on local eateries to get their food and use the restroom were left to fend for themselves. To help migrants who were unable to return home, Conserve India immediately began raising money and rations to open about 15 community kitchens in their communities.
Mask Production: Conserve India also started mask production in the first weeks of lockdown to increase safety measures. Using various materials from the now vacant factories, the team applied for a permit and shipped meters of fabric to over 50 Delhi women to sew homemade masks for those in need. To improve quality and protection, Conserve India reached out to partners to obtain non-woven textiles for new masks. They are currently distributing free masks to NGOs and fulfilling orders for the Indian government.
Establishing communication channels: Recognizing their critical role and platform, Conserve India created a WhatsApp group with over 300 members including community groups, individuals, and donors. This allows the team to monitor the community kitchens and facilitate conversations. The group sends about 150 messages daily, including photos or short videos of COVID-19 patients in need of medicine, food, or monetary donations. Ahuja points to the group’s success as evidence that simple messages go a long way and create feel-good stories in a tough situation.
Working with bureaucrats: Through conversations with bureaucrats and politicians, Ahuja realized that lack of trust and political and party hierarchies may prevent local government from mobilizing as effectively as it should. Despite these complications, the WhatsApp group now includes several active political leaders; to avoid controversy and ease concerns, bureaucrats are added without revealing their name, party affiliation, or photo. Members of Congress and the legislative assembly are now helping in the permit process and explaining government orders.
The adoption of WhatsApp as a workable information platform that is navigable and accessible for low income people is just one idea that Conserve India has implemented in the wake of COVID-19.
“We are doing these crowd-funding campaigns, trying to raise more money every day and putting in a lot of proposals. It’s a big problem, so we’re just trying our best, learning what works well for us because it’s really a learning experience, the whole thing.”
Lessons for Others
Ahuja highlights the unique position of social enterprises as credible, apolitical organizations who hold the trust of their communities and the power to mobilize in difficult times.
“Whether it’s politicians or bureaucrats or individuals, they’re ready to get on and, you know, do whatever in their power to help.”
Anita Ahuja is the President and Co-Founder of Conserve India.
To learn more about Conserve India please visit: conserveindia.org
As written in Ground Breakers Hub. Read more here