CEO of Oxfam India, Amitabh Behar, talks about the biggest global fundraiser

Published: 19 November, 2020 16:02 IST | A correspondent | Mumbai

While there was coverage of the migrant workers walking back home, it was not enough. Much more needs to be done across media outlets to bring more focus on the people who are suffering because of the pandemic, he says.

CEO of Oxfam India, Amitabh Behar
CEO of Oxfam India, Amitabh Behar

Mid-day has partnered with Oxfam India amid the preparations of their biggest global fundraiser Oxfam Trailwalker. Following is the interview with Oxfam India CEO, Amitabh Behar where he talks about the event.

Q1: Tell us what is the concept behind Oxfam Trailwalker..what are some of the causes you have raised funds for over the years and an overview of the kind of response you have got.

We have our roots back in 1980s! In 1981 Brigadier Mervyn Lee designed a team training endurance exercise for the Queen's Gurkha Signals in Hong Kong. In 1986, civilians were allowed to participate in the event and Oxfam Hong Kong was invited to co-organise.

We expanded our footprint in the coming years — 18 exciting trails in 10 countries as of date. Oxfam Trailwalker is Oxfam's biggest annual fundraiser globally and every year thousands of people walk to support our work.

In India, Trailwalker debuted in Bengaluru in 2012 followed by Mumbai in 2013, and has seen 16 successful editions since. We raise and utilise funds towards Oxfam India's different programmes and campaigns — gender justice, education and healthcare, and humanitarian aid, to name a few. Over years, we have seen incredible support and it has only been an upward graph since inception. In 2019-20, around 500 teams participated in the event in India.

Q2. Share the challenges of organising the Oxfam Trailwalker this year and how you zeroed upon the theme. What has the response of participants been like to a virtual challenge? Do share some heartwarming examples.

It is safe to say that 2020 is nothing like what we have ever seen in our lifetimes. By the month of April, the picture had become crystal clear for us — no physical Trailwalker events in Mumbai and Bengaluru for 2020-21.

In March, the government-imposed lockdown left millions of informal sector, migrant workers, who are the backbone of our economy, out on the roads. Left to fend for themselves, they walked. Many reached their destinations, many died, it was a heart-rending spectacle. Oxfam India and partners were quick to get to the ground with immediate support and relief across the country.

We decided to hold Oxfam Trailwalker virtually and walk in solidarity with those who suffered immensely. The funds raised are being used towards our three-pronged COVID-19 relief efforts, which are still ongoing, along with our other campaigns.

Holding a virtual Trailwalker was uncharted territory for us, at Oxfam India. It looked like a formidable task, especially given the tight timelines we were running with. Our team left no stone unturned to quickly build the technical foundation for the event, and there we were, ready and rolling!

The response has been outright overwhelming. Our past walkers, donors, volunteers, staff members and more people are all coming out in support and participating from across the globe - from walking in the searing heat in Bahrain, to braving the freezing temperatures in Canada, to walking in the famous Mumbai rain! We couldn't have been prouder of all the participants who have proven that the power of 'togetherness' is unmatched, even if we are all together virtually.

Q3: What has the pandemic revealed about the economic divide within the country? Tell us about some of the work Oxfam has done to help the migrant workers post the lockdown? Can you share what you saw and experienced on the ground?

The pandemic laid bare open the vast economic divide in the country. When millions of migrant workers started walking home thousands of miles away after the lockdown, it was a clear sign that the country, the government, the factories and industries they worked for failed them. The migrant workers and the informal sector workers are the backbone of the country and the lockdown simply showed how easily we let them down and left them to fend for themselves or worse, die.

Oxfam India was on the ground within days of the lockdown being announced to assess and prepare for the humanitarian crisis that the pandemic was about to blow up into. Through our projects, Project PSP (Protect. Secure. Preserve) and ‘Project Pathik’ (for the workers walking home), we distributed hot cooked meals, ration kits (to take care of a family of five for at least a month), safety and PPE kits (for frontline workers and medical and non-medical staff in hospitals), hygiene kits including sanitary pads and soaps, and cash transfers of 5000 Rs.

We reached workers who were stranded and walking back home, those whose daily wages had been hit due to the lockdown like rag pickers, beggars, brick kiln workers, the homeless— across the country to tide over the immediate financial crisis they were pushed into.

Between March 30 to Nov 8, Oxfam India has been in 16 states and provided dry ration kits for nearly 74,000 families i.e. 369,605 people, distributed over 60000 packets of hot cooked meals, disbursed Rs 250.95 lakh as unconditional cash transfers to over 5000 households. We provided 48019 safety kits & 6426PPE kits. Mobile vans were run in different districts to spread awareness about the virus and its prevention. Trainings were held with volunteers and partner NGO staff to ensure the smooth and safe implementation of the distribution.   

Q4: What can India do to enable a more equitable distribution of resources to the most vulnerable at this time? Do you think, there is enough media coverage about the issues being faced by the marginalised during the pandemic?

These are unprecedented times. We need community support and compassion in these times. The government should put India’s poor at the centre of its fiscal stimulus and focusing on strengthening public health and education services is the first step in that direction. At a time when 12 crore Indians have recently lost their jobs, it is also crucial to regulate private providers of health and education to prevent cases of profiteering and overcharging. This pandemic is a defining moment in India’s history. Whether it makes it self-reliant or dependent is upon the government.

While there was coverage of the migrant workers walking back home, it was not enough. Much more needs to be done across media outlets (TV, Print, Digital) to bring more focus on the people who are suffering because of the pandemic.

Q5:  How does Oxfam plan to help the migrants post the ongoing Trailwalker? What more can  citizens already involved in fundraisers like this, do to help the underserved on a daily or regular basis?

The lockdown may be over, but the pandemic is still on. There are many who are gradually returning to their places of work. But there are many more who have lost their jobs, have run out of savings and have no way of sustaining their families. Oxfam India has been reaching out to workers and the most marginalised families. They still need support. We are continuing to reach people with food, safety and hygiene kits, cash, and awareness drives. We need to sustain this.

Moreover, the pandemic has shown that the healthcare system is either very poor or too expensive and out of reach. The private healthcare system is too expensive and beyond affordable for the poor — there have been cases of rampant overcharging during COVID; the public healthcare system was not well equipped to bear the burden of the rising number of cases. Despite this the public healthcare system managed to handle most of the cases. At Oxfam India we are campaigning with the government to regulate the private hospitals so that it is accessible and affordable to all. Similarly, with the lockdown education too has taken a hit. While on the one hand there are children who have been forced to drop out of school or abruptly end their studies due to lack of internet facilities, and on the other there are private schools who have hiked fees during COVID making it difficult for many parents (who might have lost jobs or seen a reduction in their salaries) to continue classes for their children. We are campaigning to regulate private schools. We want to ensure that there is no discrimination against those who are marginalised and vulnerable.

At an individual level, there is a need to ensure that those dependent on us get their wages on time. People can also support us so that we are able to continue with our humanitarian responses as well as advocate with the government for better healthcare and better education system.

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