Will you join this micro army?

Will you join this micro army?

Can we shake off the apathy and learn from those who have successfully tackled complex situations?

Micro armies for macro problems

A group of women in Kumaon are quietly seeding a revolution. They are battling the impending disaster of climate change in the most surprising of ways. By going back to traditional ways, they are making their lands, their produce, and in turn, their lives climate-resilient. They are growing traditional millets, lentils and vegetables in a mixed cropping manner. They have insured themselves against fluctuations in temperature, rainfall, snow and even labour availability. These women’s groups in Okhalkanda block of Nainital district and Dhaula Devi block of Almora district in Uttarakhand have ensured their food and nutrition security by making diverse food available at different times of the year. In the process, they have demonstrated that it is possible to work the land in an ecologically sustainable way and make it more economically viable.

When one looks around, it is hard not to feel overwhelmed by the major crises that are looming. Changing climate, drastically depleting water resources, nearly unbreathable air in many cities and towns and an exploding youth population, to name a few. What is easy to overlook are the pockets of change tiding over all the impediments and ensuring strong and sustainable communities. How can we engage with these communities? Beyond that, what is our role in being a part of, or creating such communities ourselves and helping them proliferate?

Sustainability is not just a word

Looking at a few ‘big’ issues, let us start with our planet and its resources. Sustainability is a word that is thrown around a lot. So I turned to a sustainability expert’. Gayatri Chauhan has demystified the concept through the group Buzz on Earth that she has set up. Behaviour change of key stakeholders is central to the success of any change movement, and there are both successes and failures on that front. 

Anti-smoking campaigns, better sanitation and safe water access have done well. Urban waste management or decongestion of cities have fared poorly. Ms Chauhan has successfully dealt with behaviour change in multiple settings. She says, “While leading the sustainability agenda at an IT giant, I learnt how deeply businesses can impact the environment via their day-to-day decisions, and likewise, how much the environment can impact a business.” Business and the environment are inextricably intertwined! This cyclical nature of the environment’s impact on businesses and business’ impact on the environment is often overlooked. 

“Sustainability can become a mainstream mantra only by converting naysayers into believers, prompting believers into taking effective action, and recognising and empowering those who take action. We run initiatives that handhold believers to engage in meaningful action. Mission Prakriti, a social forestry initiative, is one such example and a collaborative model between BuzzOnEarth, communities and corporates. India Model United Nations, a pan-India initiative to empower India’s youth in solving sustainability challenges, is another,” she says.

Ms Chauhan, while at a leading business school in the country, saw a lack of understanding around sustainability. “Whenever I introduced myself as a sustainability professional, almost everyone would ask, “what exactly is sustainability”? That led me to think that if this is the level of awareness among the most well-read lot of the nation, there was something definitely lacking.” That inspired her to do something to bridge this awareness gap, which she is doing through her organisation. 

Why not a counter-intuitive idea?

Air and water are on top of the mind when one thinks of sustainability. A city like Bengaluru is already reeling from depleting drinking water. Garvita Gulhati and her friends at Why Waste initiated the #GlassHalfFull movement. What started with a handful of restaurants in Bengaluru has now reached five lakh restaurants across the country and several more across the globe. This counter-intuitive idea of filling glass cups only halfway has saved over six million litres of water and reached over 10 million people. It has spread to eight countries across the world. Now, #GlassHalfFull is living a life of its own, being adopted by people across the world in their own ways and environments. Ms Gulhati, a Bengaluru student, says, it’s simply overwhelming to see people making this movement their own. 

Tap the aspirations of the young

Young people, urban or rural, are smarter, dare to dream, think outside the box and are techno-savvy. “Girls, particularly, are more aspirational and want and are willing to break the mould,” says Sunanda Mane of Lend-A-Hand India that works extensively with young people. The youth are impatient for results, which can be a positive trait. Their lifestyles are trendy, they respect age and experience, but are not bogged down by lack of experience. “These are the observations gleaned from a cross-section of young people we came across in the 14-18 years’ age bracket,” adds Sunanda.

Parents, on a positive note, are supportive of the dreams and aspirations and acknowledge their endeavours outside the academic world. The age gap also appears to be blurring and many parents are more like friends and are even learning from their digital-savvy children.

Connecting with the outside world, digital gadgets, staying trendy — from hairstyle to clothes and shoes — access, building a rapport with influential people, and schooling with reasonable performance are the tools of their success. Many of the young are ready to work extra, are awed by the powerful in the communities around them and strive to stay connected with them. Many unfortunately also voice that nepotism is rampant and therefore is a way of life.   

“We see great hope and a bright future for young people across the board. Better access, improvised curriculum, skilling, and technology are contributing in a big way,” adds Raj Gilda, the other founder of Lend-A-Hand India. Many 17- and 18-year-olds are on the way to become entrepreneurs, starting their own hydroponic labs, a boutique cafe to supply birthday cakes, running a plant nursery and so on.

Chandra Kumar of Kaamanakerehundi, Mysore Taluk, whom I met recently, exemplifies this entrepreneurial spirit. Coming from a farming family, he wants to pursue horticulture and agro-forestry, and in the process, encourage fellow youth to stay back in their communities. “We want to develop the areas, make them productive and create a positive cycle for everyone,” he says. He has burnt his fingers twice with his earlier entrepreneurial ventures. But he is not the one to give up. Such is the prevalent entrepreneurial spirit.

Seek solutions, prepare for change

Ravi Venkatesan has spent a lot of time deliberating on the tools for success in the 21st century. Currently the founder of the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME), he has gained deep insights into the how-tos of success. “The defining skill for success in the 21st century is not something like coding, but rather the ability to solve problems and lead change,” says Venkatesan.

This was true even before Covid-19, when the world was going through an extraordinary rate of change. What Covid-19 has done is magnified this pace. What is driving this rate of change? The first is technology, but the other one is changing beliefs and ideas about everything, the way we think about identity, globalisation, justice, sustainability, who gets to make the rules by which we run the world. Everything is in flux and therefore we are living in a world, which is very fluid. In fact, sociologists often use the term ‘liquid modernity’ and change is the only permanence and uncertainty is the only certainty in the world today.

This kind of fluidity impacts everyone, but it disproportionately impacts young people. So, how do you prepare yourself for a world that is changing in such dramatic ways, and more importantly, what will it take in terms of mindset and skillset to flourish in the 21st century? It all boils down to these three things. First of these, what people call agency or self-determination. “Don’t be a victim, no matter where you are born, may be you are born as a girl in Afghanistan or born in war-torn Syria, really a desperate place. Even there how do you get to see yourself as having some amount of influence over your destiny and having the self-confidence to act on it,” asks Venkatesan who is also UNICEF’s Special Representative for Young People and Innovation. Two is the mindset. If you want to succeed in the 21st century, you have to approach everything like an explorer who is seeing life as an adventure.

Psychologists have unpacked this in more precise ways and talk about the need to have a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. Three is the skill to lead people and to solve complex problems.

These three things can neither be learnt online nor in a classroom! The only way is experiential. That is, more specifically, by tackling problems, progressively complicated challenges, and problems, wherever you are, in your school or college, or in the community in which you live. As you get more sophisticated, you can collaborate with other people all around the world using global network and technology to solve global-scale problems. Think about these challenges as a crucible for leadership development.

Snail-paced progress yes...

If you look at all the major and existential problems, it is becoming clear that we are making snail-paced progress towards solving them, despite having technology, resources and talent. The core issue is leadership and this is where we need a whole new paradigm where we stop looking to people with formal authority, title, power and wealth to come to our rescue. Leadership for these problems must come from anywhere, everywhere and most of all from young people.

Our greatest hope for humanity is to see how we can engage 1.8 billion young people around the world and make this the greatest army of problem solvers, changemakers, and leaders the world has ever seen.

...but can we all do our bit?

Healthcare, the ageing population and the issues of the elderly, job-creation at scale, human-wildlife conflict — the problems are umpteen. As we try to shrug off the Covid slump and look to the way ahead, what should be our mindset? What actions can we take in our respective worlds? Linear and simplistic responses to complex problems can rarely lead us to solutions. It takes empathy, ingenuity and resourcefulness to address these issues. Differences should be accepted and embraced.

Modelling behaviour from those in positions of influence, power and high visibility has a significant impact. At the same time, successful leaders at any scale have shown that it is critical to take the community along. They also spur collective action and continue to strive till systems are changed, not stopping at surface-level actions.

Now, back to the women of Kumaon. They continue to nurture traditional crops with long roots, which help hold the soil together, are less water-dependent, sturdier, as they can tolerate long dry spells. Returning to completely organic methods of farming have helped them retain soil moisture, amongst other things. They have thoughtfully taken care of their forests too, reviving mixed broad-leaved forest species. This prevents soil erosion and landslides and improves water availability in the forests. All this forest management is being done as a community.

Climatic variability has been pre-empted by changing cropping and land-use pattern by engaging in multi-tier cropping, above the soil, below the soil with plants of different heights. This optimises labour input, land and water use besides other advantages, impacted by climatic variability. Community-managed seed banks have helped with the revival of diverse seed varieties of traditional crops. These women have defied the negative impact of climate change and have taken their destiny into their own hands.

As climate resilience and food security researcher Reetu Sogani so eloquently put it, “Ordinary women found strength in each other and fought social evils, starting from their homes. They have stemmed the threat to their lands and in turn, the planet, using their farming knowledge and wisdom for a climate-resilient hill community.” They have shown that all of us can do it, no matter which community we are a part of.

Here’s to a post-pandemic solutions’ oriented world!

The author is a social entrepreneur and a cross-sector partnership builder. He is Senior Vice President at Safe Water Network.

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