‘Sustainability is not just about reduction of consumption, but also about uplifting those in the bottom of the pyramid’

The concept of echo network is to create a mechanism for organisations and people from different sectors to work together along with academia, says Shannon Olsson 

August 03, 2023 09:00 am | Updated 10:21 am IST - Bengaluru

Shannon Olsson.

Shannon Olsson.

The echo network was initiated in 2019 by the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India with the aim of bringing together multiple stakeholders to address the common problem of sustainability.

A social innovation partnership with 2,100 members in more than 45 countries and 31 Indian States and territories, echo network will hold its first global summit at Tata Institute of Genetics and Society(TIGS), Bengaluru, from August 10 to 12. It is also working with the Initiative for Climate Action and OneHealth Bengaluru City initiative to build the first dengue-free ward in Bengaluru.

Shannon Olsson, global director at the echo network, spoke to The Hindu on the network’s focus areas, India’s contribution to climate change discourse, and sustainable futures.

 A file photo of a flooded road in Bengaluru. The eco network is working with the Initiative for Climate Action and OneHealth Bengaluru City initiative to build the first dengue-free ward in the city.

A file photo of a flooded road in Bengaluru. The eco network is working with the Initiative for Climate Action and OneHealth Bengaluru City initiative to build the first dengue-free ward in the city. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Tell us a little bit about the echo network

I’ve been a scientist for more than 20 years and I have been in India since 2014. I founded the echo network in 2019. It was initiated by the then Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India K. Vijay Raghavan.

As a scientist, I have worked on a lot of issues that affect society, but I was also becoming very frustrated that my science was not getting to the people to whom it would be of use.  Academia, in general, is quite separated from each other and I noticed how those working in the broad areas of sustainability – from NGOs to organisations making sustainable products to individuals – are all working in silos.

The concept of echo network is to create a mechanism for organisations and people from different sectors to work together along with academia and use science and technology to create sustainable communities. We are not just giving to the communities; we are working with them and they become part of the process. For the past three years, we’ve been trying to build this model.

We canvased more than 75,000 people from different backgrounds through various organisations that are part of our network to find out what issues they cared about the most, and it turned out to be health, agriculture, economy, and ecosystem and environment. Our works are focused on these areas.

Can you elaborate on the focus areas?

When you talk about health, it is not just an individual’s health, but how health is being impacted by the health of animals, plants and the environment. And that is OneHealth, which is one of our focus areas.

We are working with the Initiative for Climate Action and the OneHealth Bengaluru City initiative of the Bangalore Science and Technology cluster (BeST) to build a OneHealth ward in Bengaluru. Our first goal is to make it dengue-free. The first ward we are looking at is Marappanapalya in Yeshwantpur.

Another focus area is agriculture where we look at ways to regenerate agriculture and livelihoods and reclaim the dignity of farmers and farming as a profession.

When it comes to ecosystems, we are looking at whether there could be better evidence to make decisions regarding ecosystems and the environment.

In terms of the economy, we are looking at sustainable growth and development. Our economy has to become circular and we have to put back into the ground what we take out of it.

Our work is driven by three levels of ambassadors – junior ambassadors, senior ambassadors, and fellows. The junior ambassadors come from second and third-tier colleges in the country. They have knowledge of the local environment and great connections with local networks. Thirty of them are coming for our first summit which would be held from August 10 to 12 at TIGS.

We have 1,200 organisations in our network that need more connections. It is hard to reach out to diverse communities whose languages, cultures, and backgrounds are all different. We are trying to make that connection through these youngsters who are passionate about sustainability.

The senior ambassadors will mentor the juniors and also work on short-term research projects on our core focus areas. They will present this at the summit. Around 200 of our network members who would participate in the summit will listen to these research project outputs and ideas, plan longer-term projects and try to implement those ideas in the communities through the fellows.

India is primed to lead the sustainability narrative and I think we have all the tools, knowledge, and also the problems. We don’t need to look outside, the outside needs to look at us.

What is your process towards building the OneHealth Ward in Bengaluru?

We want to start with one ward and we want to see what it takes to make a single ward dengue free. There’s no book out there on how to build a dengue-free ward. We are incredibly grateful to have communities willing to do this with us. They are very important in this process.

We have organisations like the Initiative for Climate Action working directly with those communities. BBMP is also very interested in this idea. Platforms like the OneHealth dashboard could help them make better decisions on health-related issues in the city. So, they are also very supportive of this. It’s a matter of working at different levels including policy level, organisational level, and community level. We bring all the information together and synthesise it. We are bringing together people to execute science.

India assumed the G20 presidency in December. How do you think we can contribute to the global discourse on climate change?

Ultimately every man, woman, and child on this planet has to take ownership for becoming more sustainable. That means very different things for different people though.

People like you and I should change our lifestyle. We must consume less and be more aware of where our waste goes and how we consume water.

But when it comes to someone who is at the bottom of the period, they are not sustaining themselves enough. And they are a large percentage of this country. We need to have better conversations about what it means to be sustainable and that’s where India becomes so important.

India has a lot of opportunities, partially because it is still in a very strong developing stage. So, it has the opportunity to develop the right way.

That said we have made our share of mistakes in this country. From the landslides in Himachal Pradesh to the flooding in Bengaluru are examples. Is there time for course correction?

The first thing we have to do is to listen to each other. I remember during the pandemic there was this narrative of all of us being in the same boat. And then it was pointed out that we may all be in the same ocean, but our boats are very different. Some people have yachts and some people have a row boat. And that’s very true. That means that if we are going to solve this problem we have to stop and pay attention to each other.

I think if you talk to people in this country, they want to live more sustainably, but they don’t have the tools, the knowledge, or the access. Farmers would not use fertilisers and pesticides if you can show them a better way to generate more revenue and value.

While the government talks of Mission LiFE and The National Mission for Green India on one side, on the other side, it is also making amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, a move widely criticised by ecologists and conservationists. Is there a mismatch between the talks and the actions of the government?

I think the simple answer to the complex problem you are bringing up is that there is not enough dialogue. There’s a lot of mistrust.

People who care about the environment are often very distrustful of the government and the government is very distrustful of those who talk about the environment. The dialogue gets broken a lot.

We are trying to start to stimulate that dialogue through people who are willing. You have to provide a common ground, an opportunity for listening and dialogue. I think that’s missing.

Who do you think should take the first step towards climate action? Governments, corporations or individuals?

We are all responsible for each other. We are also responsible for giving voice to those who don’t have one. Sustainability is often thought of from a very Western standpoint which talks about the reduction of consumption. Many in India have to do it, but there’s also the need for an equal upliftment of livelihoods for a vast majority of people. These people are not contributing to the problem at all. That necessitates an equivalent action but in an opposite direction. 

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