Reimagining relief: go local

By Asha Cherian

Often, when providing relief one has to choose between households and decide where lies the greatest need. This can be a harsh process where one invariably excludes households that are only marginally better positioned than the most desperate or wretched. With limited funds available against the colossal scale of deprivation these were the difficult decisions confronting our local partners and us. We needed to find a way to ensure that our relief efforts supported the maximum households in an area, without compromising on the quality of the relief kits.

The answer came from our partners – to go local. SNEHA and UAA both have created women-run enterprises, cooperatives and Self Help Groups. These local institutions are a marker to India’s history of rural development particularly towards micro-financing and as a means of supplementing local household incomes. By creating and marketing value-added products such local institutions have been able to provide more local employment and play an especially critical role in households where women are the primary income earners. Among the essentials in our kits were several items like dried fish, fresh vegetables, tea powder, spices and phenyl that were bought through women’s cooperative societies, producer companies or women vendors. The income from these sales ensured that our actions benefitted not just the households that comprised the most vulnerable in the community, but other local families who also needed a source of income.

The addition of dried fish not only provided a protein source to the recipients of the kits, but purchasing dried fish from women vendors also provided a source of income to a community that had abruptly lost its livelihood. The relatively unknown but significant dry fish sector provides livelihoods and steady incomes to thousands of women, helping them be financially independent. It is worth noting how this product has offered a simple and nutritious alternative to fresh fish in a situation when fishing was banned across the coast.

Other products in the kit – rice, dal, soap etc were purchased from local MSMEs (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) or Trusts making sure that the relief funds circled back into the local economy and charitable initiatives in the area, contributing to community cohesion in a time of social distancing. We are deeply grateful to our local partners – UAA and SNEHA for their decades of experience and equal care and attention towards the identification of households for relief distribution along with planning procurement of relief supplies. To support our fundraising efforts for relief to communities in Odisha and Tamil Nadu, please consider contributing to the ‘Support Indian’s fisher families in this lockdown’ crowdfunding campaign and share its message widely among your networks.

The micro enterprises and women’s cooperatives that operate in vulnerable and marginalised economies of coastal India, play a critical role in maintaining the household cash flow despite unprecedented adversities. The future appears uncertain, but a ‘new normal’ demands smarter and more sustainable choices, at an individual and collective level. The potential of local micro enterprises in contributing towards reducing rural economic despair and cascading malnutrition was made clear to us in this early instance of the pandemic’s effect. With the right institutional frameworks and systems in place, such local enterprises will mitigate financial despair for small-income households and create opportunities for structured community businesses to thrive in rural economies.

We would like to thank UAA and Marianne Manuel for their images, appearing in the order of their names. 

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