May 23rd, 2020
Dear friends of Gram Vaani,
We hope this note finds you, your teams and families safe and well.
This week marks about two months since we initiated a COVID-19 response with a large network of partners. As an organization born a decade ago to ensure a bottom up flow of information from the hardest-to-reach communities (rural, not on digital media, migrant workers in cities) using simple voice-based technologies, we feel vindicated in our resolve for the need to work with these communities. We were able to, in a timely manner, leverage our established systems and partners’ capabilities to strongly support the communities during this ongoing emergency. Alongside however is our growing impatience that much still needs to be done and could have been done better for bridging the gaps in the social and health fabric of the communities we collectively serve.
This note is to share a summary of what we are learning and a call for collaboration as we tread the emergency ahead. Please click on the hyperlinks to read our thoughts in more detail.
The need for empathy to listen and respond quickly
As the lockdown set in and our platforms started getting flooded with cries for help by our users for food and cash, in both rural as well as in urban areas where migrant workers were stranded, we quickly responded by facilitating linkages via our volunteers with ground partners and the government administration to provide relief. Alongside the online and offline effort, we wrote fervently – we ran rapid surveys about the reach of relief measures in rural areas, in urban areas for industrial workers, problems faced by migrant workers in cities and resident workers in villages, we wrote in the media (here, here, and here), our partner 101 Reporters helped amplify many of these surveys in the media as well, we wrote many letters to the administration on the urgent need to strengthen the relief delivery systems, and we joined hands with the National Campaign for Migrant Workers for safe travel of stranded migrants and with SWAN for review and standardization of procedures for the travel of migrant workers.
Some administrations reacted quickly too, and in many states we are continuing to provide communication services to several government departments, but this episode also made us realize that the gaps we saw in the delivery of relief measures came up because these gaps had always existed in the system. This includes the exclusion of many families from ration card lists, problems with Jan Dhan linkages, biometric authentication failures, deficient banking infrastructure, etc.
This made us question why these gaps had not been addressed so far, even though they have been known since a long time, and points to the need for more empathy by the state to listen to hardships and to respond quickly to them. Several ad hoc and temporary systems have been put into place to address these gaps during the pandemic, but they need systemic fixing. We are launching a campaign from next week titled #NotStatusQuo, to specifically push for suggestions on how some of these temporary systems can be institutionalized to strengthen the foundations for the delivery of welfare services and social security to the people.
The relevance of partnerships and civil society as human assets on the ground
Throughout these last two months, we have been humbled by the tremendous response mobilized by many of our partners and our own volunteers. Right from providing the key technical knowledge by the University of Montreal and the Tika Vaani team to create content regarding health and lifestyle practices for our users, to the delivery of food kits for stranded workers in Gurgaon by GNEM, and cash by IYRC, to our partners Jeevan Trust, Saranalayam, Vizhuthugal, TLRF, providing similar relief in Tamil Nadu, Aajeevika Bureau in Gujarat, and health and other support by the Healing Fields Foundation and Piramal Foundation in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand, along with our own volunteers and field teams in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh, who have relentlessly followed-up on issues raised by the users, it has convinced us of the relevance of partnerships and civil society as crucial assets that need to be nurtured and sustained. They were able to mobilize all this impact because they were there when this was needed, and they were able to strongly support the government systems in a decentralized manner. A quick funding support from Omidyar Networks helped us considerably to sustain the higher call volumes on our platforms.
The model is now being replicated and amplified by an ever increasing network of partners with a focus on specific topics, like child safety with ILFAT and CRY; student wellbeing with NalandaWay; CREA and FPAI on family planning; Plan India, NBJK, IDF, and CINI on social protection, and new geographies with the Swasti COVID Action Collab, Ambuja Cement Foundation, and others.
This of course raises open questions about the challenges in sustaining civil society networks, but it also reinforces the strong sense of volunteerism and solidarity that is a part of our society. It is deeply painful to see attempts to rupture this social fabric every now and then, but we remain optimistic about the strong sense of justice and fraternity that pervades our communities. We remain committed to having Mobile Vaani as an open platform for discussion and debate across divides, as a means for different opinions to understand one another and find common grounds.
The need to have an ear to the ground when designing technology
Before the lockdown and the need for a humanitarian relief response, we were thinking of the COVID-19 crisis as mostly a health-related issue and our partner network was probably the first to launch a COVID-19 self-assessment test on our IVRs. However, just one day into the launch, we started receiving feedback from our volunteer teams that the survey was creating anxiety among our users because of the fear and communal stigma which had already set-in in the communities. We immediately rolled back the survey and tried seven different stances before we finally launched it as an explicit intermediary counseling and guidance support layer, to be provided via our partners like the Healing Fields Foundation, in a completely discrete manner. Several impact stories followed where people got reassurance and guidance on appropriate steps they should take, through the human connectenabled via the service. Many self-assessment tests have since then come up, including even on the Arogya Setu app, but we are deeply skeptical that unless a message of support and care is not established by these platforms, they will remain underutilized in their impact. We have written a bit about this in our article titled Technologies of Disempowerment.
We remain alert to new issues that are likely to arise as the lockdown eases.
With a heavy push towards financial digitalization, but for a population which did not even have bank accounts until recently, we have come across many issues of fraud. Phishing scams done via Facebook networks, and allegations of service fraud by banking kiosks and correspondents which have been brought up by our users, indicate the need for a re-think on the technology design and associated processes for financial inclusion. Similarly, extensive exclusion problems in welfare schemes due to Aadhaar related linkage errors, point towards a reorientation to an emphasis on reducing exclusion errors than inclusion errors.
The lack of documentation of workers emerged as a significant roadblock to disbursing instant cash relief to stranded migrants, as has been documented in extensive surveys by Jan Sahas and ourselves. The reliance on employer or contractor initiated worker documentation has not worked, across social security schemes like PF, ESI, BOCW, and other welfare boards. A re-think is needed on systematic worker-initiated methods to guarantee social security and move towards formalization of worker rights, even before we consider formalization of the economy.
Providing income opportunities to the surplus labour now in rural areas remains an open question. MNREGA work has started in many places but it is well known that it alone will not be sufficient to provide employment to the surplus labour now back in the villages, and neither will it be sufficient as the only means of income. The agricultural economy will also take time to recover, with significantly disrupted supply chain linkages. We do not know how the economy will emerge from this crisis, but we remain committed to evolving new methods and use-cases to support our communities in dealing with grave impending economic problems. Widespread discrimination against the returned migrant workers make the situation even more complex.
Both COVID-19 related as well as regular health services delivery have been challenged with the enormity of the scale of the emergency. We are helping connect our users with partners including ARMMAN, Karma Health, and Lets Talk who are providing tele-counselling services on ANC/PNC advice, general ailments, and mental health, respectively, along with also directing our users to relevant government services. As the public health services begin to resume, we are remaining alert to any emerging needs where the communities may need guidance. Added to this will be the complexity of living with the pandemic for the immediately foreseeable future, which means paying an ongoing attention to the quality of isolation and quarantine centers, guarding our communities against misinformation, and spreading a message of solidarity and not discrimination. We are fortunate to have strong partners like the University of Montreal who have years of experience in public health and community response, to work with us in this marathon run that will clearly not end any time soon.
Finally, as work resumes in the factories but with a reduced workforce, we ask ourselves each day how the working class struggle will change shape. Our platforms are reporting that permanent workers are getting employment while casual workers are queuing up outside factories. Social distancing is not actively being followed during work. Landlords are threatening to charge arrears which they forego during the lockdown, especially since much of their clientele has left for their villages or are in the process of leaving. Many governments and industry stalwarts feel that it is better to relax labour laws, stall minimum wage increases, and increase working hours without overtime pay, rather than step up on worker safety and wellbeing, and increase direct tax collections to finance essential public services. What are the workers thinking?
Going forward, we have two specific asks:
1. We have developed a lot of content related to COVID-19 awareness, relief schemes, escalation processes in case of problems, and have ready to use IVR setups that can be rapidly deployed in new geographies. We are looking for new partners who may want to use these systems in geographies, especially in hotspot areas where the situation is more critical. Please write to us to use our platforms in your areas of work. We have built small tutorials to get you started, on community mobilization, content contribution, and impact pathways.
2. We are launching a campaign from next week, titled #NotStatusQuo, to specifically identify systemic issues in the delivery of welfare schemes and social security that need to be addressed urgently so that once the pandemic eases up, the situation does not revert to business as usual. We are looking at issues with PDS, DBT, worker documentation, and administration-panchayat-community communication systems. Please watch out on our social media (Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin) and also write to us to collaborate on this campaign.
Further, all our content is publicly available. We are also grateful to so many of our content partners who have contributed their content, including the Sesame Workshop, Noora Health, ICDS Bihar, Haqdarshak, UNICEF, JEEViKA, Tata Trust, and so many more. We have developed 150+ capsules, which have been heard by 300K people, and additionally 8800+ voice reports have been contributed by our users on different issues. See the dashboard for the latest stats, and just write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need anything at all.
The Gram Vaani team