For the past few years, every monsoon, Assam has been in news for the grim flood situation. Once again, this year heavy incessant rains in the midst of the pandemic created havoc in the lives of the people. Lockdown Voices reached out to interview Tezpur based Rita Banerji, an eminent environment and wildlife filmmaker, conservationist and Project Director, Green Hub for a reality check.
Green Hub, a collaborative initiative of North East Network (NEN), Guwahati and Dusty Foot Production (DFP), is the first youth and community based video documentation and training centre for recording environment, wildlife and people’s biodiversity in the Northeast Region.
Lockdown Voices (LV): Thank you Rita for finding time from your hectic work schedule. How has the Green Hub fellowship program been affected during the lockdown?
Rita Banerji (RB): Since we offer a one year fellowship program which starts in May every year, because of COVID-19, it is a gap year for the fellowship program. We had shortlisted the applicants for the interviews in April 2020, but then we had to drop everything. However, we have a network of 88 fellows now and we are working with the alumni to create stories related to the situation from their own locations. And the Green Hub team got busy with the COVID-19 relief work soon after the lockdown in March, as the situation with daily wage workers across the region was quite bad. Thanks to the NEN (North East Network) and fellows network we were able to reach many areas.
LV: How did you keep the fellows engaged during the pandemic?
RB: The fellows from the batch of 2019-20 were going to graduate in May. Many of them looking at the situation managed to reach home before the lockdown was announced.
Those who stayed back continued with their work on the edits, so they remained busy. We had three online training sessions, which was the first time for us, and it was interesting to see that it can work in the future also, not as our main sessions, but to support the program. The fellows also helped with the packing of ration for the COVID-19 relief work as everyday we were going out with 100 – 200 packets. So it was like an assembly line.
LV: Wonderful to hear the fellows got into relief work with full gusto. We hear of monsoon floods in the Northeast every year. How different was the situation this year with the lockdown?
RB: In my understanding, two things happened. One is that over the years, the frequency of big floods is increasing. Earlier, it used to be in a gap of 7-8 years and now in the last 4 years there have been 3 big floods. This year it also came a bit early, in June. With the COVID-19, the situation became worse for the families, as social distancing in the relief camps was almost impossible. Here people mostly shift to tents on the highway, and then some Naam ghars and schools are converted to relief camps. Whichever area we went for distributing relief, it was tough as people did not wear masks or maintain distance. And in that situation they are already struggling, with their houses flooded, living in tents on the road, dependent on relief… it is not easy, and then how do you tell them to wear masks and stay away… it is crazy. Many times we saw women wading through knee deep water coming to the road to take the relief. At the end of the day, it is one packet with some ration, or with sanitation material. It kind of shakes you and in that moment I think COVID-19 takes a backseat… there is no option. You can just hope for the best that all the people are safe and get enough support.
LV: Rita, the relief work must have been a challenging task. With so much demand, on what basis did you distribute the ration?
RB: The initial focus was to see who were the worst affected in and around where we are. One realized during this time that a huge majority in the town as well as the rural areas are dependent on daily wage – from rickshaw wallas, vegetable sellers, fishing community, people who work in stores and factories to farm labour etc. We focused on these people, especially those who did not have ration cards, or BPL cards. It was quite a process as we had to make lists first before the distribution, make sure that the right people were getting the ration. We also found that there were hundreds of people from other states who were working here in sales for farm companies etc. They were all stuck as they could not return, and also did not have money for food.
LV: How difficult has it been for your team to go about with relief work during lockdown? And which areas were you able to reach out to?
RB: We worked closely with the district administration as we needed special permits to move during lockdown. Many times they would call us to provide relief packets to certain areas if they were running short. So in some sense it was good as we were all working together on this.
The Green Hub team covered Sonitpur District and parts of Nagaon. Through the North East Network team and fellows network, we were able to reach several districts of Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and some parts of Manipur. In Arunachal Pradesh, it was primarily for the families of forest patrolling staff and nature guides.
LV: With such a large reach, how have you been able to manage funding for relief work?
RB: The most amazing thing has been the number of people who came forward to support both COVID-19 and flood relief work. We sent out an appeal for donations, and we got a lot of contribution mostly from civil society. It has been heartening to see. The funding agencies who support our work, also immediately came forward to prioritise COVID-19 relief work. This was a big help. In that sense, it has been an incredible time where you saw a network of people all working together to help as much as they could.
LV: Environment and wildlife are the key work areas of Green Hub. What has been your main concern in these areas ?
RB: I think one of the main concerns during the COVID-19 time has been the number of projects that have been cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), which if not stopped will be detrimental to the Northeast region (both biodiversity and people), and it will be a big loss globally. The hydropower projects in Dibang Valley, the coal mining in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, the proposed highway across Pakke Tiger Reserve… And above all there is the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) draft. If passed the way it is, this will leave little hope for environment and wildlife as well as community well-being across India. While the COVID-19 situation should make us think about protecting our natural systems even more, we are going the other way.
Apart from that there is a lot of news about hunting for bush meat. One is not sure, but there is a possibility that this has escalated. But otherwise, looking at the larger picture, there must be sure benefits – so many months of less transport on the road, lesser flights, less pollution, working out of home. Must be a moment of peace for the wild world.
LV: Rita you are known for your films on environment and wild life. How difficult is the process of making a documentary film in the current situation?
RB: Right now with the pandemic, it is not that easy, as people are also not open to having filming units coming from outside. There is a fear. If you are filming in the wilderness around where you live, it still works. Documentary films, especially wildlife and environment films depend a lot on going into the field, talking to people, so all that is definitely affected as travel is restricted. However, there is a story everywhere, in every situation and people are pushing themselves to innovate. I am sure interesting things will come out of the pandemic too.
LV: Post-pandemic, what do you think would be the documentary film production and funding scenario?
RB: Difficult to say what is going to happen post. Anyway, there are very few channels for documentary funding, especially working on independent films. At the same time documentaries, and any other form of art, plays a big role in telling the stories of that particular time – reflections, history, culture, nature, politics, people… so I am sure there will be a need for seeing those stories, films. For example it has become so evident during COVID-19, the need for revival of our natural ecosystems, and look at sustainable livelihoods, or in other words a system where ecological security forms the bedrock of economy. At the same time, it is not easy for mindsets to change. Films and other forms of communication will play a role in bringing out this narrative. The form of documentaries may explode in different ways – we have seen social media being used for story telling in many innovative ways. So lets see… everything will take time to recover, but it will and hopefully in the right way, and in creative ways.
LV: As an environment filmmaker and conservationist, what should be the action plan to preserve the biodiversity hotspots regions of the North East during natural disasters?
RB: I think this cannot be answered in isolation of floods or natural disasters. We need to reboot the entire system, entire way of thinking about development. I think the need for protecting whatever we have left of forests and rivers is pretty much clear. I think, it is not rocket science. What is needed is the real intention from the governance as well as from the people, and all of us to work towards a paradigm that defines development in a way where ecological security is the foundation of economy and not the other way round. There is no other way. The real profit should be assessed based on how many years of sustainable life will a project support, and not for one or two people, but for the community overall. How can water be secured, how can clean air be secured, how can food be secured? This is your real insurance. And this has to be beyond the idea of cash based economy. Real democracy is when people are self sufficient and are able to live with dignity and happiness… that’s what we have to strive for.
LV: Getting back to your past few months of relentless relief work, what has been your realisation and learning?
RB: I feel in the first 4 months, one of the biggest realisation has been the power of collaborating. I think we were able to do so much because of the number of people who worked together, coordinating, reaching out. It was on the strength of civil society, the NGOs, the local administration that the entire system moved and helped and worked in solidarity. It was just amazing. Some friends from Chennai were on the phone just being translators for migrant labour from Jharkand, Bihar as well as the Northeast, some other groups were on the railway station helping them get onto trains, other groups were coordinating through the entire rail or bus journey to see that they got food along the way. Sometimes we would get a call about hundreds of students from Northeast stuck in other states like Rajasthan. Immediately a WhatsApp message would be sent to support groups and friends, within minutes a whole chain would kick off and in a day or two you would get the message that they are all on board. And I think this would be the story you will hear across the country from anyone working on relief work during COVID-19. There were so many people working on the ground just determined to help. And in all this whether it is the relief work or raising awareness about the environment issues, the youth have played a tremendous role… and I think that is the real hope.
LV: We hope to get over the COVID-19 scare in the coming months. Do you think we can prevent such situations happening in the future?
RB: We definitely have to see how all of us can work towards creating a sustainable future. The way things are, a COVID-19 situation may happen again. It will be important for us to work towards preparedness both short-term and long-term. It may mean looking carefully at the public health systems and improving current facilities and in the long-term adopting a more holistic approach like One Health. One Health looks at multi- disciplinary approach to community well being, where you look at health as part of the larger system – the people, the animals, the environment. This is the core in some sense. It is clear that COVID-19 is the outcome of a whole chain of disruptions we have caused to the natural systems – the large-scale deforestation, damming up rivers, unplanned urban development and much more. It is difficult to reverse, but it is possible to move towards recovery if we focus on rejuvenating the natural ecosystems, plan development, based on how forests and rivers could be protected, use technology keeping the systems of nature in mind, or use it to amplify restoration as well as empower people.
LV: Rita, you began your career as a filmmaker in Delhi in the 90’s. Later, you shifted to the Northeast and set up Green Hub in Tezpur in 2014. What motivates you to work in the Northeast?
RB: My mother is from Assam, so I have my roots here. My grandmother herself was a social worker here and a big inspiration. When I started my own set up Dusty Foot, our first project was based in Pakke, in Arunachal and I guess over the years the bond just grew. It’s a beautiful part of the India. Over the last 5 years, one has learnt a lot from the Green Hub fellows who come from different parts of the Northeast, and more you get to know more you fall in love with the place and the people. They are the biggest motivation…
LV: Thank you Rita for sharing your thoughts on protecting our future and giving us a glimpse of the outstanding work you and your fellows are doing. On behalf of our readers, we wish you the very best in your endeavours. Please stay safe!
Cover Image: Green Hub
Story Images: Green Hub
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