Varda Mehrotra is the Executive Director of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO). She spoke with ACE Researcher Jamie Spurgeon on July 31, 2019. This is a summary of their conversation.
What do you consider to be FIAPO’s three biggest accomplishments from the past year?
Grassroots plant-based advocacy
The areas that we work in are farmed animals, companion animals, wild animals, and movement building. We started with wild animals pretty recently. Our grassroots advocacy for plant-based food and veganism has had a huge success in the last year, and over the last six years, we have had almost more than tenfold growth, I think. We started in six cities with six people and now we have 1,000 people in 80 cities that we know of, and there are many more that we don’t know that are connected to the network. And this campaign is only staffed by two people. That is the team size and we are able to reach out to almost 500,000 people every year on the basis of the activists and leaders that we have been able to mobilize. I think that continues to be a success that has grown over the years.
We have complimented that quite well with mass media advertising. We’ve put up billboards and done other sorts of outdoor advertising—small campaigns in tactically-chosen locations. For example, last year in Delhi, we chose a mall that is really popular, and by putting all our ammunition and tactics on that one place, we were able to create a lot of impact. With this one campaign, we were able to have vegan options introduced in the restaurant in the mall—that was driven not by us, but the mall itself. The mall authorities got in touch with us saying that they wanted to push their tenants to provide vegan food in their restaurants. This has been significantly successful for us in terms of vegan advocacy.
Dairy cow advocacy
Another thing that we did really well last year was related to regulations for preventing factory dairy farms. In India the dairy industry is disorganized; it’s not regulated at all. There is only one law that says that you should register your cows/buffaloes with the local authority, but the law is not followed, and there is no other law that governs how cows/buffaloes are kept.
We were the first organization that stopped India’s first factory farm with 40,000 cows, which they were going to set up in Hyderabad. This was many years ago, but since then we have been working to get other regulations in the sector. We did a huge investigation about one and a half years ago with about 500 dairies, and we have developed our investigations to make them very in-depth with meaningful data. Our investigations are not just about getting photos and putting them in the media. They are really detailed and data-driven so that they can be used for advocacy—we know that the government officials will ask for specific data.
After that investigation, we were able to get voluntary guidelines in seven states of the ten in which we investigated. Seven states agreed to introduce the guidelines we proposed as a Government order on the welfare of dairy animals for the entire state (albeit voluntary); that was extremely encouraging and successful. Ultimately, what we want is a national law or state-level laws that completely prevent factory farms. But even to get voluntary guidelines in a disorganized sector like dairy in a period of just one year, that was really successful for us.
We also did a very in-depth investigation related to cattle rehabilitation. In India, the issues of dairies and abandoned cattle are interconnected, even more so than in other places. Because of the cultural significance of cows, they are often left abandoned since they cannot be slaughtered in many states. There are all these cattle rehabilitation centers that function like dairies more or less. Everybody sees Gaushalas and thinks they’re these wonderful places for cows, but actually, they’re essentially dairies. They get grants, and they get all their support from the government. That was another investigation we did.
These investigations are useful in the public advocacy work, but also for government advocacy and policy change. We’ve had good results with them in our policy advocacy.
Broiler chicken welfare reforms
Another thing that was really good last year was our broiler reform work. In India, again, everything is so disorganized and unregulated. The way that broilers are slaughtered is completely unregulated. There is a law that says you can’t slaughter any animals outside of slaughterhouses, but if you examine states, they lack the proper infrastructure to slaughter animals. In addition, the welfare conditions of animals are not really included in many local laws. The other part of the problem is that there is no grassroots movement; there is nobody who’s really doing any policy advocacy or advocacy to enforce higher standards for broilers.
To address these two problems (the unregulated nature of the industry and the lack of a grassroots movement addressing it), we are working to build up the local movement. We are helping people who typically work for cats and dogs—and equipping them with similar skills that they can use to take action for broiler welfare. Here’s an example: In one city, in Mangalore, one activist alone was able to really impact all the meat markets to make sure that broilers were getting food, water, shelter, and to ensure that basic conditions were being met. We trained local activists on how they could go to the authorities, and it was a success. Our network of activists has been very significant. I see this situation as very similar to the vegan advocacy work that we’re doing. It took us almost four years to establish that, and now we’re really reaping the benefits.
The slaughter work is in its early stages in that network, and we are going through the same difficulties as usual—with people starting and stopping, etc.—but we’re gathering that critical mass. Overall, last year was really quite good for us for farmed animals.
Exploratory corporate outreach
One of our other accomplishments—though maybe not a major one and one I want to make more progress on this year—was our corporate work. It took us a while; I think it took us most of last year to really figure out how to do it within India, especially because that type of work has not been done much here. Multiple organizations have been doing it but it’s not really taken off. So in the last year, we went after many targets. We went after some key corporations and institutions to see what pitches would work, what asks would work, and what the best things are to aim for. I think probably every organization needs to do that kind of exploratory work before a campaign is actually stabilized, and we were able to get that done in the last year.
We now have a very clear goal and targets. We go after corporations now to get them to do Green Mondays. It hasn’t been an easy process figuring out how to do these things, I’m quite happy that stage is done, and now we’re in the process of finalizing a few pledges with a few companies. This year, we hope to see the return.
A smaller campaign we are working on is to stop the growing trade of live exports. We didn’t initially pick up this issue because it’s so small, but we’re seeing that it’s growing and we’re worried that it could be “a stitch in time saves nine” type of situation. We think it might be worth it to put some small effort into it now—our work on live exports is hardly even 5% of what we do. But again, it’s something where we saw this trend developing where live animals were being exploited in larger and larger numbers, and more infrastructure was being developed. That’s something that we’ve been alert to and we’ve been trying to respond to without putting significant resources into.
Companion animal advocacy
Other than farmed animal work, which accounts for about 85% of our work, we also do work for companion animals. We don’t do individual dog rescue work; instead, we’ve recently focused on rabies and human-dog conflict which is a real problem in India. It’s a disease that affects humans and animals: A large number of dogs are killed, and it impacts people very significantly as well.
So from that point of view, we’ve been working on this specific issue; we’re currently litigating in the supreme court. In the last year, we’ve been able to introduce a new way of working towards this issue. We’ve been the first organization that has partnered with local state governments to conduct counseling of human patients in hospitals that have been bitten by dogs. We’ve also been the first to conduct extensive community engagement in multiple cities. These sorts of techniques to address the human side of the problem were not really used before by animal organizations, which tend to only focus on animals. We’re trying to build that bridge to partner with various stakeholders, and we’ve also been using this to further our alliance work. For example, waste management issues are also connected to rabies work with dogs. We are constantly on the lookout for ways to connect with other movements on issues that are aligned. This dog issue yields a lot of support from other areas.
In the last year, we’ve been able to work in two of the highest conflict states in India, Punjab, and Kerala. We’ve also been able to respond to situations where a high number of dogs are affected. In one location, official figures—which are likely to underestimate—state that 150 dogs were killed due to dog-bites and fear of rabies. When you compare it to farmed animals, that’s a very small number. Then again, about 12 children were killed in this particular incident. So it’s something that has a huge impact on the whole human-animal relationship, and it shapes how people perceive the whole issue of conflict between animals and humans. So that’s been something that we’ve been able to do. That’s been quite positive.
For the companion animal work, we focus on the conflict-related work because that’s the most strategic intervention we thought we could get involved in. We also have a new project this year to set up some sort of a system for accrediting and assessing shelters in India. We’re not intending to get too involved in the shelter work ourselves because we don’t see that as our primary focus. However, we’re thinking that we may be able to generally enhance the quality of life of animals if we can motivate shelters to enhance their ratings.
Wild animal protection
Finally, we’ve done some work for wild animals. We’ve looked at wild animals in the past: We got a ban on dolphinariums and we hope to be close to a ban on circuses in India. All of these cases came up because there was an emerging trend; there was an immediate priority that we needed to respond to in the country, and we were able to do a good job of it, thankfully. This year, we’re expanding our wild animal work, particularly because our biggest stakeholders have agreed that the priorities here need to be climate change, loss of habitats, all things like that.
As an organization, we are working with our members on this issue. We’ve chosen to work to build the capacity of those who are working on rescue rehabilitation of urban wildlife because that’s the population of animals that is often at high risk. Oftentimes, the people who are committed to responding in those emergency situations are not the best equipped to do so. So we are trying to work in that space, and we’ve done one such training so far. That’s a new area for expansion for us. We see that problem increasing more and more as cities are growing and habitats are shrinking.
Collaborative campaign for circus animals
In the last two years, we have led a national campaign to get animals out of circuses. The traditional questions, such as where the animals will go if they’re freed, were never an issue because we have this amazing network of members who responded to us in the smallest districts, and it was really a wonderful collaborative campaign. We were able to track the circuses, with our local partners and our coordinator doing a lot of the work. It was a really wonderful example of how we were able to address an issue collectively that would have been impossible for a single organization to do. Without a network, the level of infiltration you need on the field is not available. We are hopefully close to a ban and I would love to say that was another accomplishment, but not this year.
What would you say are your major strengths as an organization?
Network of leaders
Our network is one of our biggest strengths. The fact that we’re a network organization means that we fill a niche and we enjoy excellent support and we have excellent reach. All the leadership in India formed the federation, so we have the credibility, the local network, the membership, etc. Getting support from all these credible people and leaders is a big strength for us.
Very importantly, we are completely Indian, so we understand the Indian psyche. We have strong international links (we work with several international organizations) but all of our leadership is Indian.
Another strength is our creativity. When I look back at the work that we have done, we brought in lots of things into the movement in India. For example, we brought in vegan advocacy to the movement, and we started moving towards things that are beyond just cruelty and welfare, framing the issue from an animal rights perspective. Three years ago, we were only really talking about compassion to animals, but now we’ve framed our work as a social justice issue and we have new sorts of campaign models. We don’t just do the same old stuff, but we bring in new types of ways to solve problems when the old ideas weren’t working. In that way, I think we’ve been able to contribute a lot. We have a very creative, very innovative, and resilient way of advocating for animals.
Our resilience has served us well, particularly with the vegan advocacy; we’ve been able to get some difficult things done instead of being dissuaded and disappointed with short-term challenges.
What do you consider to be FIAPO’s greatest weaknesses?
I think one of the problems that we face is setting a comparative to international NGOs. We are under pressure. The fact that we’re an Indian group is a strength because we understand the psyche, we have the leadership, credibility and so on, including with stakeholders and everything. But then again, at the same time, we are under immense pressure just to survive. So I think that’s something that certainly is a challenge. And it’s a choice—we want to retain our independence, but it’s still something that causes difficulties for us. We have to do a lot more than just campaigning.
I think another weakness is that we are overly ambitious. I think we end up biting off more than we can chew. And that’s certainly something that we’ve been aware of, and we’ve been consistently trying to put in systems and processes and also just being more alert to not fall prey to that. But again, that’s certainly a weakness that we have in the way that we work. And we also need to strengthen our middle management in the organization.
Take me through the process of creating your strategic plan. How often do you produce one, and how is the board involved?
We do a three-year strategic plan. We did the first one for 2016–2019 and then another one for 2019–2022. First of all, we send out forms and we get the views of our members, of our board, of leadership, and of donors. We get feedback from anyone who is involved with the federation in one capacity or another, and we also get feedback from people outside the federation who are significant in the movement in India. We try to get as many opinions and perspectives as we can get, and then we categorize all of it internally.
How do you measure the outcomes of your most important projects or programs at present?
We now have a full-time evaluation monitoring person. One thing that we do is for every campaign that we have, we will have monitoring and evaluation measurements and impact measurement so that through the year, we are able to continuously measure how we are doing. This also allows us to course-correct and evaluate where we’re going, which can feed into decision-making. So that’s an ongoing thing that we do; we have monthly reports on that. We also have a full-time research person who does that and he’s looking at things like impact, scale, etc.
Movement building is really hard for us to measure. We’re trying to experiment with new forms of surveys and all that sort of stuff so that we can try to establish how much the networks have grown, and this continues to be a challenge. And because that goes into everything that we do, we’re still trying to figure out how to improve that part of the measurement.
Besides that, we do evaluate most of the work that we do. We also put extra time and effort into research projects to evaluate impact. So for the vegan advocacy work, we evaluate the effectiveness of the outreach that we conduct across different cities by gathering data. It’s a six-month research project that we’re undertaking. For longer-running campaigns, which we’ve been doing for a while, we put in that extra effort to understand the impact of the work.
What changes have you made recently? Have you taken any steps to improve programs that you deemed less successful, or to cut off unsuccessful programs to make room for more effective ones?
We do that sort of stuff pretty regularly. About a year ago we shut down a really major program. We used to run a project for establishing local networks and local leadership. We would help establish local-level things, but then the results were not coming. It was a dearly conceived and loved project, but we shut it down because it wasn’t working.
Another example is that for this year’s strategic plan, we decided we wanted to focus a lot on alliance building in the next few years. External linkages was one of the things that we decided we wanted to introduce, and even when we were doing the strategic planning, we weren’t sure how to implement it. We didn’t know if we should have this goal as one project, or if we should split the project into multiple pieces and have different people do different parts of it. Up until about two months ago, we approached this goal as a singular project with the scope of reaching out to other organizations and establishing common projects with them. Then, we realized that from an operational point of view, we are the sort of staff where one person is highly skilled in organizing events, but they may not be as skilled at the other aspects of the projects. So we decided to split the projects up. That’s another example where we very recently changed how we structured a project because it didn’t seem to be giving us results.
Another thing we recently changed was in our broiler reform work. A lot of local activists often want to go and shut down the meat shops; it can be very tempting and gratifying. But it doesn’t help in the long term because the meat shops will open up again and the conditions will be just as bad. So in the last six months, we have changed the approach to focus more on counseling. This is where we take the local authorities and we go with them to these meat markets. Then, the local authorities can explain the law then and there—they can explain the welfare conditions that the meat shops have to follow. This is something we’re finding far more effective. We’ve included more of that and less of the shop-closing stuff. So that’s another example of a change that we’ve made in the broiler campaign.
What piece of evidence would most change your organization’s approach to helping animals?
There are many things, there’s more research being done now on interventions and animal work in general than ever before. So we do read and stay up to date with quite a lot. But then again, I’m coming to learn and understand that it can be a bit of a minefield.
In terms of evidence, I think intervention research is something that I would love to have access to. Something that can tell us what tactics work would really help us. My vision of FIAPO is a lightweight organization that’s not carrying excess load, an organization that doesn’t hold on to stuff that’s not working. If we can get some insights both on interventions in general, and interventions as they’ve worked for other organizations, that would be helpful. We’d like answers to questions such as: What are the trends from the consumers’ point of view? What are the trends from the stakeholders, from the government’s point of view? What organizational tactics are working? More information on all of this would really help, but there’s a caveat there, which is that the research really needs to be reliable. For every research finding, there is information that you can get that is the polar opposite, so I think that’s certainly something that we find quite challenging. High-quality research and data is something that would be quite valuable for us to continually re-examine what works and what doesn’t.
How would you describe your organization’s culture?
As a team, we are very closely connected to each other. We have very strong personal connections and there is a lot of camaraderie, which I love. You could walk up to anybody and ask them for help. It’s a very friendly, warm atmosphere in that way. Everything is linked to us being quite ambitious as an organization, which certainly does create a high pace. And that also creates a level of trust, I think.
We’ve introduced a lot of measures to address burnout, which we see a lot of. Our staff team is really young and predominantly female, so we are now also paying attention to the dynamics of gender. Overall, I would say that culturally we are all very close together and involved.
Can you give an example of how your organization has either benefited from diversity programs or from having diverse members in your work community?
I think diversity is important, and we’re trying to increase it in our organization. When we’re hiring, we try to find people who are not completely opposite, of course, because that wouldn’t work, but we try to find people who come from different backgrounds because they’re able to bring new perspectives to the team. For example, we will try to hire someone from the private industry, and another person from wildlife government research, etc. These are examples of professional backgrounds, but we also look for people from different personal backgrounds in terms of gender and such. People from different backgrounds will see the same problem in a very different way, and that really helps us whenever we’re working through an issue.
An idea I’m thinking of implementing is having compliance officers. These people would help the team think about aspects like gender issues, environmental issues, etc. Having diversity in that way helps hugely.
If you became aware of harassment taking place in your organization, how would you handle it?
We have an internal dedicated committee that deals with this. It’s comprised of female members from our staff and one external member who is sort of a celebrated activist in the area in sexual harassment and related issues. So when we get a complaint, we have a very clear procedure on how to deal with it. There will be a hearing of both parties individually and then a hearing with both parties together if they’re agreeable, and then there will be some sort of appropriate resolution action.
We’ve also had requests from our activist network. Our individual activists don’t have the infrastructure or capacity, but these sorts of things happen in the network, too. And though they are not technically our employees, we do take responsibility for offering a safe environment for people who are associated with us. In that case, it’s not a formal committee but there is a similar process that is followed in trying to provide a resolution. We have a zero-tolerance policy.
Finally, we do monthly reviews for all our staff to provide them with feedback on their work, and one of the things that we include is an option to report complaints against behavior. We do this so we’ll have a healthy culture in which it’s not only about what we are achieving but also about how we’re actually behaving.
How does your work as an organization fit into the overall animal advocacy movement? Are there important ways in which it supports or is supported by the work of other advocates?
As a membership organization, we’ve created so many networks. For example, with the vegan work, we have not just created vegans, but we created vegan activists. If you come to India, any activist you meet who’s doing advocacy will either have been trained by us, or have been trained by somebody who was trained by us. This includes absolutely everybody. So many of these people have moved on to work professionally in the movement: They set up their own vegan businesses, and so on and so forth. We’ve been able to really play a very important role in growing the movement.
Specifically and importantly, we’ve been successful at growing the movement beyond companion animals work. We’ve introduced farmed animal advocacy and we’ve produced other forms of tactics. Six or seven years ago, if you cared about animals in India and you wanted to do something, 90% of the people would either feed dogs on the street, or get them spayed/neutered and rescue them. Alternatively, some would do legal work. We’ve made a huge contribution in building up the movement and bringing in diversity. In fact, our organization has created a lot of activists, a large number of professionals who are working in the movement or in training.
We are hugely supported by our network. FIAPO enjoys so much support and credibility, not just from within the animal movement. Today, any city or state where we need help with the local government or we need help with finding people there, there are always people that we can easily call upon and we will get their support. We’ve really made a lot of effort in reaching out to the leadership of other movements: human rights, environmental, LGBT, HIV, and more. That’s something that we do really quite well, and it really comes down to our amazing activists and team.
What does FIAPO do differently from other organizations? How does your organization stand out?
I think there are two things that we do differently. One is the network. Every campaign that we do, we always ask ourselves, how are we going to build the movement? How are we going to connect more people? How are we going to build more activists and train people? So movement building is one thing we do differently. Even in our evaluation, for example, one of the criteria that we use to evaluate our campaigns is how federated the campaign was. That’s one thing that we will always do for every campaign—we really build up a network in whatever we do.
Secondly, I think one thing that we do very differently is that we are very curious as an organization; we’re creative as an organization. We’ve gotten so many models, new ways of doing things in the last few years. And I think that’s something really extremely healthy and positive. Like I said, we’ve been doing vegan advocacy, rights-based messaging, conflict mitigation with dogs, and broiler reforms. All of these things are new ways of dealing with the same old problems where old solutions weren’t working. We do things differently and we really try to find ways to have more impact. I think that as a national organization, everything that we see is from the point of view of scale. Instead of trying to only help chickens in one city, we’re trying to really achieve something at scale nationally. So I think that has really helped us in bringing in creative new ideas in our campaigns. I think that’s a difference in how we tend to work versus how many other organizations tend to work.