Interview: Co-founder Zarina Mehta and CEO Mangesh Wange share the life-changing experience of empowering communities to rise up to challenges
Geetanjali Minhas | October 12, 2021 | Mumbai
Since 2013, in a holistic, 360-degree model of community development Swades Foundation has reached out to 2,700 hamlets and villages across Raigad and Nashik districts in Maharashtra. Applying the same principles during Covid-19 Swades along with district administrations has been rebuilding communities ravaged by the triple whammy of pandemic, Cyclone Nisarga and floods this year.
Governance Now spoke to Swades co-founder, managing trustee and director, Zarina Mehta and CEO Mangesh Wange for insights into its work during the pandemic.
Please walk us through the journey of Swades Foundation’s interventions during Covid-19 in the regions of Mumbai, Raigad, Nashik and rural Maharashtra.
Zarina Mehta: After the country went onto the lockdown on March 24, 2020 our 270 staff members were told to stay at home. Our team of people who have been part of the corporate world and social sector lead by Mangesh formed a task force guided by HoDs. A plan was rolled out and within 14 days 40 Swades volunteers were on field checking how the communities were doing. 94,000 people were coming back to Raigad and there were stories of distress in community.
There was the challenge of dealing with these people migrating back who probably had Covid infection. How to isolate, feed and teach them to wear masks, maintain hygiene and sanitation, overcome their fear of the disease and, most importantly, letting them know that we are there for them – and that is the biggest comfort we gave them.
With community empowerment forming the core of our model we reached out through village development committees (VDCs) with our 800 Swades Mitra’s (volunteers from community), mostly ASHA and anganwadi workers. We trained them on ‘WASH’, maintaining Covid protocol and the quarantine.
In Mumbai we gave over 3.6 lakh cooked meals to homeless and migrant workers, provided more than 80,000 cooked meals to medical staff and nurses. More than 17,000 grocery and daily essential kits were given to adivasi villages in Raigad to tide over the tough times. Along with the district administration we set up Covid patient counselling for community with more than 50 Swades volunteers, in addition to the work they are doing.
We have been dealing with crisis after crisis as during this period we were also hit by Cyclone Nisarga and floods. The resilience and flexibility of our team to pivot around the disaster is not something that we were trained for or that Swades was planning to do.
Mangesh Wange: At Swades we were continuously working during the pandemic. With 40-plus volunteers on field during the first wave, we put a condition that those employees who have elderly parents or pregnant women at home need not apply as many more people were willing to join in.
Besides Covid interventions during the first wave, when our labour was stuck in the lockdown, we managed to complete our 20 drinking water schemes before the onset of monsoon in June 2020 and handed them over to the government. We could do this as the villagers came forward, took over the work and we supported them.
Many of our skilled youth lost jobs in hotels and had returned back to their villages. As the first wave started ebbing, to revive livelihoods we provided goats and poultry to women who could then start making some money. Just when things were settling down, the second wave happened. The task force approach helped a lot.
While the government of India is providing free ration, many adivasis are not able to access rations. The district administration wanted us to reach out to remote and tribal villages where we gave almost 17,000 ration kits. Swades connected with donors who wanted to utilise their CSR funds in the pandemic situation. There was complete transparency with household-wise allocation with our volunteers and VDCs taking over. Even when kits fell short, the VDCs would make things easy and gracefully manage with a lesser number of kits.
There are many stories of communities taking ownership, coordinating, supporting and providing full data and where the donor and the community both are happy.
How did Swades handle the crisis of medical supplies during the Covid-19 waves?
Zarina Mehta: Unlike the first wave there were massive amounts of medical equipment during the second wave, huge amounts of medical equipment like ventilators, oxygen concentrators, jumbo cylinders, antigen tests kits, PPE kits and multiple monitoring devices etc, etc were given to communities. Swades gave 14 ambulances each in Raigad and Nashik and one in Mumbai. These rural communities are now fully equipped not just for Covid but all illnesses. There was a huge flow of funds from corporate donors who very generously reached out to say ‘come’.
Swades works end to end. We mainly fund ourselves and welcome our donors. We source very carefully for cows, goats, seeds, trees and now we are sourcing high-end medical equipment. Our financial teams very efficiently pivoted medical equipment to source the best equipment which in the beginning was not up to par. With our team of experts, we transported this equipment, trained our staff and now we are also monitoring end to end. We are happy with the results and now more ready for a third wave in case it comes.
Swades reached out to the communities and front-line workers through virtual conferencing, launched Swades Digital initiative and also helped community with e- Sanjeevani App. Please tell us more on that.
Zarina Mehta: In the early days of the lockdown we set up Digital Swades and trained our community on Zoom. Today after roughly 16 months, it has become a regular programme and now reaching out to a wider audience. Incredibly for us, it is a delight to see that ladies are very comfortable with Zoom.
Mangesh Wange: In Digital Swades, we have 4G connectivity maps in all 1,000 villages. We have individual household data of 60,000 homes with our programmes. We monitor their programmes, funds utilisation and performance. Around 400 villages have 4G connectivity, out of which 320 have very good connectivity.
Just before the lockdown, the government of India launched e-Sanjeevani app. Though very enabling the app was not very popular. Our health team trained about 800 Swades Mitras in using the app. More than 3,000 people in the community had used e-Sanjeevani app till December 2020. Our trained Swades Mitras and VDCs work very well as facilitators. It is very satisfying for us to see our young people in remotest areas having Facebook accounts. Every morning the district administration would give us a list of about 200 patients and our 52 trained volunteers would counsel them on phone. This was an out-of-ordinary experience and a humbling experience.
Swades has been instrumental in over 10,000 vaccinations in the remotest areas. Please share your experiences on vaccine hesitancy in communities?
Zarina Mehta: With community vaccination initially it was very hard for us to break the many myths like infertility etc. Here many VDCs played a very supportive role and volunteered to take the vaccine in front of everyone to dispel myths. From a small number of 3,000-4,000 earlier along with the district administration we are now ramping up. The Raigad district administration provided doctors, nurses and vaccines. With clearly better vaccine availability from 100-150 vaccinations per van, we are now doing up to 200-300 vaccinations.
Mangesh Wange: In our survey on vaccination around end-July 2021 when we had just started our mobile vaccination along with the district administration, we found that in 99% samples people were aware of Covid. 40% of those who were aware had been vaccinated even at that time. Major sources of awareness were friends and TV. We found adivasis were least vaccinated and had vaccine hesitancy. 75% of those who were educated up to 10th or 12th-plus were vaccinated. Only 23% of the illiterate or with low education levels were vaccinated.
The survey gave us the direction to plan our vaccination drive in three stages, i.e., pre-vaccination awareness counselling, vaccination process and post-vaccination counselling. With adivasis living in remote villages and many parents living alone as their children have migrated to towns for work, pre- and post-counselling becomes extremely critical. The survey was praised by the Raigad district administration and the then collector, Nidhi Chaudhary, for giving direction on targeting vaccination vans in areas.
Please share your experience of collaboration with the district administration and how Covid impacted your own workforce.
Zarina Mehta: For almost two years in a row during pandemic we have celebrated achievements of our employees, community, Swades heroes, heroes from the district administration and our vendors who through thick and thin completed the ongoing water projects. The district administration did a fantastic job and was in the field with us in a magnificent and wonderful partnership.
The concept of ‘end to end’ has led Swades to a great stead during the crisis with continuous mentoring and monitoring along with commitment extended from the district administration, the community working for their own and along with the donors a brilliant ecosystem of trust was created. The entire period of the crisis has strengthened all of us. The district administration took care of half the populations and we took care of the other half. After going through the crisis together we now have mutual respect.
A huge amount of work has gone into this preparation. Swades provided vans and community mobilisation in a great partnership. We are now planning to pan out the programme in the whole of Maharashtra with the state administration. The crisis has led to new and interesting ways to work.
As an organisation, Covid has brought us closer even when we are physically distanced. During floods people of our own community had a difficult time as their homes, toilets, belongings were destroyed and they are now trying to piece everything together. They are closer than ever with us. They have stood with us during the pandemic, cyclone and floods. Trust, loyalty, ability to serve others at your own risk, overcoming your own safety and fear have brought us together in a very beautiful way. A huge influx of money from generous individuals and corporate donors allowed us to make our hospitals in rural areas more robust.
In 2013 we started with water as there was water shortage – also open defecation and safety issues in Raigad. During the last five years we have come on our own with great gratitude to our fabulous team. All our 270 people have the same vision and excitement.
Mangesh Wange: At Swades, there was no job loss, however increments were put on hold till the situation normalised. But employees rather said they wanted to contribute. This was energy to the entire organisation. During the overnight floods 70 of our people were stuck. Several mental health counselling sessions were held along with Neerja Birla’s MPower and had very good participation. Our online rewards and recognition activities were very engaging.
From goats to ventilators we followed the same procurement systems. In alignment with the commissioner of health, Government of Maharashtra, the district health officer and the head doctor at the village/taluka level, and taking specifications from the state government we identified and segregated genuine suppliers with proven licence. We verified their credentials from the manufacturing company to check if they were the authentic/authorised suppliers and saved almost 16% (over Rs 1 crore) ensuring smooth supplies, installation, basic training of local staff on manual and maintenance. In coordination with goverment systems and donors, this system works very well and can be replicated at other places.
What is the current Covid situation and challenges you see in the above regions?
Zarina Mehta: (1) Revival of livelihoods after the triple whammy of Covid, cyclone and floods in Raigad is a severe challenge. When we have given toilets and water these are destroyed. Just when the fruit plant was going to give yield, it was gone. Trees, goats, buffaloes everything was swept away in floods with 8-20 feet water and landslides. Everything got destroyed in Cyclone Nisarga and floods. (2) Education is a huge setback. Though it is being addressed, children have lost 18 months of their school. Some children have never gone to school. There are children who have changed schools and never seen their classmates. In Raigad children are not being educated as parents are working and the child does not want to lean online. (3) Mental health needs to be addressed. There is a huge impact on mental health of 15-25-year-olds who have to build their careers. (4) There is a shortage of doctors and nurses, which hopefully should be addressed post pandemic.
With rural communities forming the core area of Swades Foundations work, what according to you are Covid-19 takeaways for the governments?
Zarina Mehta: That we need to empower our communities in times of no crisis to give them the ‘can do’ attitude and strengthen VDCs. There is now a golden opportunity for communities to learn to look after themselves, put them at the centre, so that they will take care of the whole village. In Raigad we have seen 10 people taking care of roughly 50 houses and in Nashik 10 people taking care of 100 households. Once volunteers from communities are empowered to take on challenges and trained either by the district administration or Swades, it can beautifully bring in change. We have seen that with one person from Swades and 10 from VDC, it has worked beautifully in a dignified way. We have learnt to have mutual respect and dignity within our communities. This is the key of Swades. At Swades we say: ‘Swa’ se bane ‘des’. Covid has shown that we all have a role to play and collaborate with each other – not for charity, but because we owe it to them and they owe it to themselves.
With our experiment of VDCs done in Saudagar, our seventh block, it was later retrofitted in six blocks (total population of 5,00,000). With all our lessons we are now going to Nashik in four blocks with a 5,00,000 population. In the next two years we will hit a million people in the geography. We engage with communities who are willing, able and needy. If you want, we are there. The dignity of community has to be maintained.
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