Rita Banerji

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Rita Banerji's work was prepared when Rita Banerji was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019 .

Introduction

By leveraging the medium of videography and filmmaking through the Green Hub Fellowship, Rita Banerji is training and empowering young people from remote geographies of the North East Region (NER) to take charge of their development narrative. Belonging to underserved and marginalized tribes and communities, these young people are being trained as the next generation of change agents. By critically engaging with the dominant, exploitative development practices in the NER, the Green Hub Fellows are building a movement towards creating ecological security anchored in a sustainable economies and livelihoods approach.

The New Idea

The Green Hub Fellowship has become a powerful tool in the hands of young people from the North East Region to lift the veil of invisibility that has shrouded their engagement with the Indian “mainland” for generations.

On a primary level, the skills learnt over the course of the one-year residential fellowship, are equipping them to share stories about their day-to-day lived reality from their perspective – thereby breaking stereotypes and commonly held misconceptions about their tribes and region at large. While, on a secondary level, the residential nature of the fellowship is building bridges by breaking misconceptions that have existed within the NER, its 8 states and more than a hundred tribes. The result is a network of change agents working in solidarity for the collective positive transformation of the region at large.

The umbrella of conservation anchors the overall frame of the fellowship. Not just limited to the conservation of ecological diversity, the fellowship’s approach is expansive. It builds a narrative of conservation around the cultural practices of the indigenous tribal populations, their language and community at large. Through this process, the young fellows start an intergenerational dialogue with the elders within their community. Reacquainting themselves with their roots and learning ecologically sound practices that are a part of their heritage. The end result is the creation of a powerful group of change agents, who are invested in transcending barriers, borders and identities in order to preserve and protect their environment.

The Problem

The population of the North East Region is approximately 3.6% of India’s 1.3 billion. It is home to hundreds of indigenous communities with a rich in cultural heritage, spread across the eight states of the region. However, not much is known about this globally recognized biodiversity hotspot or the people who inhabit it.

Even though language and tribal identity differentiates these tribes, their way of life and geographical circumstances remain similar, i.e. interwoven with their environment at large. The region was and continues to be plagued by episodes of insurgency and violence, conflicts grounded in differing ideologies that have left a legacy of mistrust amongst the inhabitants of the region. Additionally, the difficult terrain and topography of the region disallow interaction between communities, further entrenching myopic and limited worldviews and resulting in continuing cycles of violence.

Development interventions in the North East Region are not grounded in an ecological and conservation approach. As a result, the region suffers from the adverse effects of an unbalanced growth story. Mining, deforestation, dams, urbanization and unplanned industrial growth are contributing to high levels of environmental degradation. Large scale destruction of tropical rainforests, dying wetlands, shrinking biodiversity cover, soil erosion, water pollution, flooding, landslides, human-animal conflict, and in some states acute water scarcity, despite the abundant rainfall are becoming the prevailing norm. Government schemes are the primary cause of this ecological degradation the region is experiencing. While, the region’s inaccessible terrain may have helped stem the pace at which extractive industries (petroleum or coal) are working it has been unable to stop it entirely. Additionally, the pace of the increasing population has put further pressure on the already stretched natural resources available in the region.

Ironically, despite the tribal communities’ lives being closely linked to nature and the steady availability of natural resources as their capital, the lack of cash enforces the idea of earning by selling their forests, land and wild meat. Today, mining and mono-plantations such as rubber and oil palm have penetrated into the remotest part of the region.

Young people in the region find themselves contending with these forces, negotiating the rhetoric of purpose and power unable to take ownership of their lives. Given that opportunities for employment, development and quality education are scarce anger and frustration finds fertile ground amongst the youth in the region. At present, unemployment stands at an average of 12% in the region, in contrast to the national average of 6.1%. Systems at large are failing young people in the country, with 54% of India’s population under the age of 25, this demographic dividend is poised to become a demographic liability.

In the North East Region specifically, young people largely lack direction and purpose. Anecdotal evidence suggests that increasing rates of alcohol and substance abuse and mental unrest, often in the form of young people committing suicides. Early marriage and signing up for local militia groups are trends especially common in the remote tribal geographies in the region. There has also been an increase in outward migration of young people from the region to the mainland. However, largely under-skilled, they are unable to find non-exploitative employment, only to return, highly frustrated and largely self-destructive.

For Rita, a person who understands the pulse of this region, the lack of formal education is not a barrier in a young person’s endeavor to become a Green Hub Fellow. On the contrary, the fellowship seeks individuals with non-traditional skills, exhibiting the character and passion to engage with the process. In essence, the residential Green Hub Fellowship has become a critical key that is empowering young people, by enabling them to build their visibility by sharing knowledge, all the while transcending internal and external isolation the region has experienced for generations.

The Strategy

Through the Green Hub Fellowship, Rita Banerji has created an avenue where young people are able to learn the skills of videography, editing and storytelling. The program is creating a much-needed safe space for young people in the NER to show up in their vulnerabilities and process their experiences of marginalization.

By running a residential program, Rita is grounding the every-day challenges of these young people in a collective conversation, linking it to the larger specter of ecological degradation.

Currently in its fourth year, the fellowship has been able to search and select fellows from across the North East Region, i.e. its 8 states. The unique aspect of this fellowship is its outreach to the remotest parts of the region. Potential candidates have walked distances to access a strong telecommunications network so that they are able to interview for the process. The appeal of the fellowship is reflected in this effort.

Leveraging her network as a filmmaker, Rita has been able to engage established filmmakers as resource persons and faculty for the fellowship. Over the course of one year the fellows get a chance to work with individuals who have made a mark on the international arena with respect to their filmmaking ability.

The fellowship is broken into modules that progressively pushes the young people to go back to their communities and view it with a fresh pair of eyes, specifically from the perspective of ecological security. The fellows are asked to identify problems within their community that they would like to engage with at a deeper level, to understand its root causes and come up with possible solutions in the process. The element of videography acts as a medium that not only captures their lived reality, but subtly influences the youth to self-reflect and understand their role in the larger ecosystem. Not just within their community but the region.

Since 2015, the Green Hub Fellowship has trained approximately 100-young people covering the NER. At present, 90% of the alumni of the program are engaged in working with tribal communities on wildlife and biodiversity conservation. They are doing so independently or are employed with the resource persons and faculty of the program. 63% of the fellows have been able to find gainful employment in the region as a direct result of the skills they have gained during the fellowship. Many fellows are working with the State Forest Departments to build conversation and awareness about the species they live alongside the villages in remote regions. An example of this is the Nature Conservation Hub within the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal. Using the medium of videography, the Green Hub Fellows, who are also forest officers are bringing the residents closer to the reserve, by building an emotional connect and filling an information gap, addressing myths and superstitions. Most of the villagers living around the reserve were not even aware of the biodiversity and wildlife surrounding them. By engaging young, school going children the officers of the Tiger Reserve are creating a generational shift that is addressing the human-animal conflict at its root. Sowing the idea of interdependent living.

Alumni of the fellowship have begun conversations within their tribal communities to address hunting practices that are having an adverse impact on the environment, especially the endangered species. By doing this, they are also creating a consciousness around poaching practices. Evidence collected, based on qualitative impact assessments done through one-on-one interviews with the fellows suggests, a growing receptiveness within their communities to listen to what they have to say. The result has been a decrease in hunting practices. Alum from different tribes, inhabiting the same geography are also collaborating. An example of this, is a project that has been initiated to address the opium cultivation in their region. These young fellows have been started a dialogue within their communities on the harmful effects of the cultivation, and are influencing the tribal elders to explore, other more economically viable options that do not destroy the land and promote ecological security over generations.

In addition to the government forest departments, the Green Hub has strong partnerships with WWF and the Corbett Foundation, which have resulted in employment opportunities for the fellows. Because of a young fellow’s desire to document and understand the rising trend of suicides in her community, the Green Hub is now building a partnership with the state government body in Tezpur, Assam – the Regional Institute of Mental Health. Through the partnership, Rita has supported the creation of youth hubs that are dedicated to creating a safe space for conservations on mental health and well-being of young people in the nature. A youth-run and led space, this is a new and unique addition to the city. The partnership has also resulted in a resource person from the Green Hub co-designing modules on mental health that are grounded in the nature. Practices of mindfulness and meditation in nature are now seeping into a government run institute, that has been historically seen as a ‘mad-house’ in the region!

In the coming years Rita seeks to formalize the Green Hub Fellowship in the form of an institute in Tezpur, so that it can continue to be a safe space for the youth of the North East Region. Following a regional approach, similar to the North East, formal conversations to build similar hubs in other regions of the country are under progress; namely with the Indian Institute for Health Management Research (IIHMR) in Jaipur (for indigenous youth from Central India) and with Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu (for indigenous youth from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka). Over the next 10 years, Rita wants to expand the fellowship in context-specific manner to remote regions of the country that are facing ecological degradation and insecurity. The aim is to build a robust network of young change agents who are committed to building a future that is empathetic and not exploitative of their environment.

Furthermore, she intends to systematize and activate the live digital archive The Green Hub is building for the North East Region. Currently in the aggregation phase, this archive holds information on flora and fauna from far-flung, until now undocumented, geographies of the region, attracting research; scientific and sociological in nature. Once systematized, The Green Hub will serve as a repository of community-based knowledge and research for future generations.

The Person

Rita was born outside India and bought up in the city of Meerut (in India). The youngest of three siblings, Rita’s parents are professors. Growing up she was always surrounded by narratives that connected her to the world at large, covering a host of topics ranging from music, service, art, books and sports. Her parents would often host out-of-city students unable to afford housing in their home. In many ways, the Green Hub is a recreation of environment she grew up in.

In college Rita discovered her love for the camera. In 1991, upon graduating, she joined a professional filmmaking company which specialized in wildlife biodiversity and conservation. Over the course of a decade, Rita learnt the power behind the art of storytelling, has she apprenticed with the filmmaker and honed her craft. During this time, she also had the opportunity to experience India from a very different lens. Rita began to understand the issues affecting humans and wildlife species at large, the farming communities, water scarcity, to name a few. Her work with film allowed her to experience not just India’s diversity vis a vis its people, but also its landscape. Along the way Rita’s films, The Last Migration, on the capture and rehabilitation of a herd of wild elephants in Sarguja and Shores of Silence, on the killing of whale sharks won accolades on the international scene in the form of Green Oscars. The latter led to the ban on killing whale sharks in India.

On a more practical note, Rita was consumed with what to do with the ‘b-roll’ left after projects were completed. Hours and hours of documentation, rich in information and knowledge, however not immediately required for the project at hand.

These experiences consolidated Rita’s conviction in the power of filmmaking as a tool for conservation action. She saw the medium as a multi-pronged tool to propel the narrative of social change. On the one hand, this was a tangible skill which could be learnt, a realization that was coupled with the insight that more young people needed to enter this space and be in charge of creating their narrative; and finally, a systematized archive would transform the b-roll into source of tremendous knowledge. The combination of all three would result in a transformative force for conservation. This was when the idea of Green Hub took root.

Rita began piloting her idea by conducting capacity-building workshops in collaboration with the North-East Network. In 2014, based on her insight, that more young people need to get actively involved to trigger a movement that preserves and defends indigenous culture based on sound bio-cultural heritage, both nationally and globally Rita started the Green Hub Fellowship[1].

[1] Established in 1999, North East Network (NEN) is a women’s rights organization linking women across diverse geographies (urban and rural) across the region. Since 2014, The Green Hub Fellowship has been incubated within the NEN for administrative and logistical reasons. All intellectual property, with regard to the material produced is owned by Dusty Foot Foundation, a not-for-profit Rita registered in 2003.