Prithvi Ram Bommaraboyina, Asif Shahab, Suchita Jain and Judith Darcus Christiana

Community-led initiatives work to meet material and other needs while respecting limits to sustainability in various ways. For this, community-based approaches at the grassroots continue to be identified as a critical component of sustainable development initiatives and interventions. The importance of the capacity-building in rural communities can never be underestimated.

Eight months after the first reported cases of COVID-19, the global pandemic has altered every sector, leaving many shuttered and disordered. The impact of this crisis on field research and development projects highlights the significance of building adaptive strategies for challenges of research, particularly during Public Health Emergencies (PHE) and disasters.

On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the creation of resources to make research more efficient and cost effective, with a potential to create space for new R&D models.

Some of us have been working on an European Union-funded initiative in four districts across Assam and Bihar, focusing on community awareness on arsenic contamination in drinking water. The project aims to establish a people-centric district level platform to ensure safe water needs for the vulnerable population.

As the pandemic hit, with Assam and Bihar seeing high caseloads, we faced multiple challenges in our fieldwork. As the monsoons came and floods ravaged both states, our problems were further compounded.

Staff conducting an interview at Titabor, Assam | Photo by SaciWATERs

Double whammy

The project implementation area has been under lockdown since March, and more recently, the heavy floods in the region put the project activities on hold. Though the project activities have partially resumed, virtually through telephonic interviews and webinars, work in the age of a PHE is in flux.

Lockdown restrictions have changed daily life, and field researchers are finding their work lives considerably altered from before. They admit that their daily activities are direly affected due to the viral outbreak and the floods that followed. In fact, both Assam and Bihar have almost become synonymous with floods.

Staff conducting survey in Nalbari, Assam | Photo by SaciWATERs

Over time, people in these two states have witnessed ravaging floods. They have learned to live with the annual deluge and accepted it as a part of their lives. But this year, due to the overlap of the COVID-19 crisis with the floods, their capacity to cope hit the extreme.

Along with a dramatic surge in infections, the floods have claimed more than 100 lives so far in Assam and have affected more than 60 lakh people in 30 districts as on 23 Aug. The scale of devastation is also not less in Bihar. This year alone, more than 80 lakh people have been affected in 16 districts as on 28 Aug.

Digital technologies as an alternative tool

As the pandemic and floods continued to hamper fieldwork, our field staff came up with an adaptive strategy to carry out their activities – Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs) and capacity-building activities – by leveraging digital technologies.

In some areas like Jorhat, Assam, the activities have still not resumed or are being delayed as administrative priorities are shifting to handling the pandemic and floods. At the same time, the district coordinator is working at a frenetic pace to figure out alternative methodologies and are trying to complete the preliminary assessments and PRAs virtually.

Diversion of ASHA workers to handle the pandemic due to administrative priorities became noticeable in early April in Bhagalpur district of Bihar. That is about the time our capacity-building activities began to stall and we missed strategic opportunities of health assessments in the district.

Also read ‘COVID-19 Pandemic Reaffirms the Importance of Right to Clean Air and Water for Indians’

Another district coordinator from Buxar has been successful in conducting telephonic conversations with village residents as part of PRA and capacity-building. Nevertheless, the coordinator stated that conventional meetings would have been very beneficial for the local team.

In many ways, physical community PRAs are a very important act of gathering many inputs from villagers and widespread interest would have been generated among the locals. A district coordinator of Nalbari, Assam, said that they are using their time for future reporting tasks, multitasking with supporting agencies to minimise future delays in the post-pandemic phase. 

It is evident that the need for employees to work from home is delaying activities and slowing productivity. The unsettledness being felt throughout society in the face of the rapid upheaval of daily routines is reflected in the workplace too. 

Staff conducting household interview at Nalbari, Assam | Photo by SaciWATERs

For researchers, however, the pandemic does provide opportunities to analyse and publish. The ability to engage in new forms of working and closer collaborations requires individual resiliency, although administrative work may not be severely affected.

Despite the available technology, it is challenging to conduct regular meetings via video chat. It isn’t the same as having open-space conversations and knowledge sharing. There is an urgent need to develop standard operating protocols and guidelines to train the field staff on handling development activities during such PHEs and disasters.

The overall picture appears challenging, but isn’t entirely bleak. In many ways, work-life balance for the field staff has actually improved because the pandemic has forced employers to allow staff to work from home. 

Lessons learnt

Despite all the constrains, field activities have partially resumed through virtual means. Other activities, such as water quality testing, could not be done because of travel restrictions and flooding. Now, working amidst the twin crisis of pandemic and floods has become a new normal.

Also read ‘COVID-19 Adds Fuel to India’s Bonded Labour Crisis’

Needless to say, the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions paralysed, and continues to do so, normal life in many respects. They delayed activities and slowed the productivity. As stated earlier, despite the availability of virtual means, it is challenging to conduct regular video meetings due to slow internet connectivity, especially with the field staff staying at remote places. It isn’t the same as having open-space conversations and knowledge-sharing.

Such practical challenges show that NGOs and other developmental organisations will have to devise innovative working modules to adapt to PHEs and disasters in the future, to ensure that their work isn’t hampered by state-imposed restrictions and natural barriers.

Views expressed are the authors’ own.

Prithvi, Asif and Suchita are Associate Fellows and Judith is the Head of Human Resource Department at the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), Hyderabad.