Kunal Anerao stands in a circle of students from Parsharam Wadi School, a school outside the town of Devrukh in the Indian countryside. Photo: Frida Viklund Rundgren

Interview

Indian civil society organizations face digital challenges during the pandemic

Covid-19 poses new challenges for the Indian environmental organization Srushtidnyan, whose school project has been allowed to continue online. Environmental work with farmers has stopped, but the organization hopes for an increased interest in organic farming methods when migrant workers return to their home villages to invest in agriculture. Positive changes can also be seen when the government has opened up for increased cooperation with civil society organizations in vulnerable areas.

When entire communities are shut down in Covid-19's footsteps, digital has become the only option to meet. It means a lot of new challenges, an organization that knows this is Srushtidnyan in India. The development magazine has interviewed Kunal Anerao, who is responsible for Srushtidnyan's work with climate education in rural areas. He talks about the challenges that followed when the Indian government shut down society without warning in March 2020. Srushtidnyan works in the local language Marathi to engage schoolchildren in environmental issues, farmers in organic farming and for everyone to eat climate-smart and nutritious food. The organization is part of The network of the future earth in Asia and are active in Mumbai and among mountain and rice fields in the Devrukh area. 

  

Digitization and its difficulties 

Srushtidnyan collaborates with schools in Mumbai and in rural areas where students can participate in the organization's climate ambassador program. The young people get to take part in activities to increase their understanding of climate change in order to build capacity for climate adaptation and environmental awareness. During the pandemic, they have had a greater focus on health, sustainable development and biodiversity, says Anerao. According to Kunal Anerao, the biggest challenge has been the transition to digital projects with school students. The promise of digital teaching is only an opportunity for 25 percent of Indian households, marginalized and people living in poverty are often left out. Kunal Anerao says that 60 percent of Mumbai's students can participate digitally. In rural areas, teachers are important. For example, students can show recipes with home-grown vegetables to learn about traditional crops and sustainable food systems. 

- In Devrukh, where students live in remote areas, poor coverage and difficult economic conditions have prevented students from participating. There we have instead carried out activities with the help of the teachers. 

Anerao also works with farmers to inform about the benefits of organic farming for health and the environment. Due to shutdowns and lack of work in the cities, many have migrant workers forced to return to the countryside. Anerao now hopes that more people will want to get involved in organic farming. The organization has a seed bank with millet and traditional rice varieties that farmers in Devrukh can partake of.  

 - In the Devrukh area, migrant workers who have returned from the big cities have seriously started thinking about staying in their villages to start farming. This gives us hope.  

Kunal Anerao stands among students from APJ Abdul Kalam School from Ghatkopar, Mumbai, during a visit to Maharashtra nature park. photo: Frida Viklund Rundgren
The need for civil society is increasing   

In many parts of India, civil society organizations working for human rights and the environment are being prevented from working freely and efficiently. A growing problem is increasingly harsh reviews and controls when the government interprets the organizations' work as criticism of the state. But during the pandemic, the Indian government seems to have realized the need for grassroots organizations' close ties to vulnerable groups in society, says Anerao.        

- In no time, NGOs across the country began cooperating with district managements to combat the situation. Because civil society organizations are known and trusted in the communities in which they work, they have been able to combat the stigma surrounding the pandemic and provide protection to the most vulnerable.

He believes that the future will bring new challenges and changes as the need for NGOs increases. The pandemic has hit Indian society hard and shown that the government must focus more on health and environmental issues in order to be better prepared for similar situations in the future. 

 - The Covid-19 pandemic has meant a change in how people socialize both publicly and privately. I hope that in the future we will have more sympathy for our fellow human beings.

A mural with the global goals of Pragnya Bodhini High School, Mumbai. photo: Frida Viklund Rundgren

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