The Oxfam India Legacy Will Live On

The Oxfam India Legacy Will Live On

  • Others
  • by Savvy Soumya Misra
  • 30 May, 2023

Though we are staring at, perhaps, the untimely and unfortunate demise of a stellar organisation, we will continue to fight both the court case and the perception battle where we are blindly lambasted in the name of faux nationalism. But were we to shutter down it would leave a huge void in the humanitarian and social sector.

In 2018, I was visiting Supaul’s Sukhanagar Gram Panchayat. As we—my colleagues and a ward member—went about meeting people, we heard murmurs of “hum pehchante hai isse”. We turned around, saw two men following us and pointing at the green Oxfam logo on my back pack. One of the two men, Najam Bhai said, “ye badi company aayi thi aur saaman bhi diya tha”.

The “saaman” was the livelihood toolkit (oh yes!), the “badi company” was Oxfam India and the time he was referring to was the  2008 Kosi floods during which it was on the ground with one of its largest humanitarian response. The Kosi flood response was one of the toughest for two reasons — one, it was one of the worst floods the state had witnessed until then and two, it was just around that time when Oxfam India was formed and was still finding its feet as an independent Indian NGO.

In 2008, Oxfam India held a press conference on the Kosi response in its Delhi office. This was the first time I heard of this NGO because I was reporting on the floods for Down to Earth magazine. The second  time was when I was travelling in Andhra Pradesh to cover its agrarian makeover and visited Enabavi village. As it turned out the board outside the village had Oxfam’s logo tucked away at the bottom. It was while working on my book Beyond Charity, 10 years later in 2018, that I connected the dots—under its Cotton Textile Supply Chain Project, Oxfam was working with NGOs to convert villages like Enabavi in to organic villages. This is how deeply entrenched Oxfam’s work has been!

Formed in 1942, Oxfam came to India in 1951 to respond to Bihar famine. It continued working on famine and drought relief for almost a decade and a half before changing tack. In 1962, as part of the ‘Freedom from Hunger’ project it funded the largest feed-compounding plant of Amul Cooperative. The Oxfam Gramdan Action Programme in 1966 changed the way Oxfam worked; it started working with local NGOs on agriculture development programmes and providing long term solutions to drought and famine. For the first time volunteers joined and dug wells at the demand of the villagers who in turn provided them with food for their labour. 250 young doctors and medical students were recruited in 1971, on the Indian side, to attend to the Bengal refugees fleeing from the civil war in erstwhile East Pakistan. In Kargil war too, we provided humanitarian relief to the nearby villages. Then there was the 2004 Tsunami. Nepal Earthquake. Uttarakhand Floods. Muzaffarnagar riots. Assam conflict. Kerala floods. The list is long. Very long.

To add to the long list of humanitarian response was Mission Sanjeevani—the COVID-19 Response that lasted over two years. Our teams were on the field from the day lockdown was announced, preparations and planning had begun with the announcement of the pandemic. Oxfam staff and volunteers were spread across 17 states with food, hygiene kit, cash, and (after the second wave started) with life saving medical and diagnostic equipment. We were delivering oxygen cylinders and setting up oxygen generating plants at a time when the country was gasping for breath. Trainings and testing kits were given to ASHA workers and cash support to women SHGs to set up economic enterprise. In an unknown pandemic, our colleagues and volunteers were risking their lives and turning up every single day, double masked and sanitiser in tow, with truck loads of food for the most marginalised who had no savings, no jobs and nothing to fall back on. Oxfam was there. What we did during Mission Sanjeevani was unparalleled.

Though humanitarian is the crowning glory, Oxfam has over the last 70 years worked on a whole range of issues from health to education, from natural resource management to gender justice. In my nine years at Oxfam I am perhaps one of the rarest few who visited practically all the programmes/projects/campaigns—both by virtue of my roles here and during the research and writing of the ’10-year-book’ of Oxfam India.

Even its humanitarian response was much more than just service delivery. We were always the first one to arrive and the last one to leave—after ensuring that the communities at least have some livelihood options to fall back on. So much so, that our bamboo craft trainings after Kerala floods has now evolved into Fibrent—a brand of some excellent bamboo products.

In all its programmes, Oxfam had a rights-based approach and believed in giving power of information (of their rights) in the hands of people—right to education, forests rights act, domestic violence act or the rights of women farmers. We believed in the power of collectives, of collectivisation. In UP, we brought together tens of thousands of women farmers in the Aaroh Campaign—a project that ran for nearly 10 years—and made the term ‘women farmers’ common. Many other work with women farmers emanated from the success of the Aaroh Campaign. In Odisha it was a collective of fisherwomen who went from being SHGs to Producer Company and had their own line of value added fish products and went by the name of Samudram.

The end goal was always to make the communities stronger and more aware. Whether it is the proper running of schools or demanding for decent living wages for tea workers, whether it is the forest dwellers and their forest rights or demands of strengthening the healthcare system—Oxfam India always worked for the people. When we advocated for change, for fighting inequality (in a scenario where the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer) and ending discrimination, it was always to ensure communities and people have equal access to rights and opportunities.

The focus of the our work has always been PEOPLE who constitute this country. But just because we started making some uncomfortable facts public—for instance, how really rich were the rich—we were attacked. We were attacked in the name of nationalism. What I fail to understand is how can one not stand for its own people and instead breathe fire on a false mental construct. True nationalism is to acknowledge the good and the bad and to strive to make things better, and not to keep brushing things under the carpet for so long that we start tripping and falling on our own carpet.

It made sense for us to set up Mohalla classes and send children back to school instead of ignoring the fact that the lockdown was witnessing severe learning losses. It made sense for us to start providing life saving medical equipment to public hospitals instead of saying nothing was wrong and no lives were lost in the pandemic. It made sense to us to strive to teach adivasi children in their mother tongue instead of forcing English or Hindi on them and losing them to an unfit education system. It made sense to us to stay back and work for communities rendered homeless during riots and conflicts instead of ignoring their plight. It made sense to us to doggedly pursue change even when we knew it was a long drawn and slow process.

The fact that someone in that far flung village of Bihar remembered Oxfam India even after 10 years was testimony to the valuable work we did on the ground. We continue to be proud of all the work that we have done and I have nothing but gratitude for this place, for everyone associated with Oxfam India and for all the small and big partner NGOs who joined it in its long seven decade journey. We will continue to fight and if we went down at least we will know we spoke truth to the powers.

📢Oxfam India is now on Telegram. Click here to join our Telegram channel and stay tuned to the latest updates and insights on social and development issues. 


Find out how Oxfam India is enabling communities by working to provide a life of dignity and equal opportunity for all.Get to know more about Oxfam India`s latest projects.

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