From comic books to Bhojpuri films, Damage Control uses every tool to make NGOs cooler

Divya Guha July 18, 2017

Going through environmental and children’s rights NGO Chintan’s website is not fun. The homepage is three shades of insipid. The masthead reads ‘Inclusive, Sustainable, Equitable Growth for All. Welcome to Chintan!’ The text uses weighty phrases: ‘Ecological footprint’, ‘scalable models’, and ‘poorest of the poor’ are used to describe what they do. And all the lachrymose sanctimony places the effort beyond criticism. If you are still engaged, you may navigate to ‘environmental justice’ or ‘join us’, but they also hold no surprises.

Chintan is not alone, though. Many Indian NGOs are caught in a trap of jargon and fail to unpack the research they spend hundreds of hours gathering.

Pradip Saha, co-founder and CEO of communication consultancy DamageControl (DC), has strong views on the need for lucid and direct communication. “The low rate of meaningful and permanent change in India may be attributed to this absence of the right social marketing,” says Saha.

Many Indian NGOs are caught in a trap of jargon and fail to unpack the research they spend hundreds of hours gathering.  

DC took Chintan’s research on electronic waste and retold it in the form of a comic book using photos, drawings, computer images, and text, without missing any of the social context and commentary. They based it in Seelampur, in far-flung east Delhi, the largest dump for pre-loved electronics, and toxic e-waste which is harvested by an informally engaged and poorly paid workforce consisting of many children who salvage usable bits and pieces from the scrap for recycling.

For the comic book, E-Waste Sutra, DC and Chintan’s director, Bharati Chaturvedi, imagined three kinds of phones: smart phones, dumb phones, and the rarest of them all, wise phones. The protagonist is discarded Wisephone, on its journey to be reassembled through the bowels of the informal electronic waste depots of Seelampur. “Our challenge was to avoid preaching to young adults, among the most adept users of gadgets,” says Saha. (Read the comic here.)

E-waste Sutra

Chintan’s Chaturvedi is happy with the work. She said on email: “We like their thinking and politics — it is aligned with ours. We like that they have both empathy and are very critical of our communications, but also understand our capacity and want to support our mission.”

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 Since the comic two years ago, Chintan has asked Damage Control to design a new waste collection programme with the Safai Sena, an association of waste collectors. This programme, Pickmytrash, will help children who work and live near these dumps — usually boys, but also girls (and of course, women). They separate and sell toxic acid-washed trash to recyclers and live unhealthy but entrepreneurial lives, and do not attend school, something Chintan is trying to change. This new project looks to eliminate manual scavenging and invest the traditionally lowly job of waste collection with a new well-deserved dignity. It will be much more geared to social media as it will focus on the rich and middle classes who produce the most rubbish.

“Chintan’s model is almost like an art project trying to change the thinking around garbage,” says Saha. Uniformed waste collectors will drive vans with publicity on the side of their vehicles. They will offer a free pick up of service after parties at people’s homes, and set up food waste composters in offices. With snappy catchphrases such as #TuAnaariMainKabari; and punning on Modi-catchphrases #TrashlessEconomy and #TryCashlessGoTrashless, it is a campaign which should translate well across social media, expects Saha.

Damage Control’s modus operandi

Because of its name, Damage Control is, at times, mistaken for an emo-rock outfit — or a public relations firm. They do mind being slapped even mistakenly with the latter label, which has led them to display conspicuously on their website that they, in fact, are not a PR agency. Saha believes everyone in the social sector knows some damage has been done, or is underway, which is their call for action.

DC is a private limited firm with offices in Delhi and Mumbai. They run a tight ship with five people on one-off projects and retainers with reputable clients such as the GIZ (the German government’s international development agency), Oxfam India, Actionaid, ICLEI (South Asia), Change Alliance, etc.

Members of the Damage Control team. L to R: Arjun Mukherjee, Pradip Saha, Nidhi Misra, Vaibhav Raghunandan

Like Chintan, when the MIT-backed Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab ( J-PAL) wanted to sell iron and iodine-fortified salt (Double-fortified salt or DFS) to villagers in Bhojpur in the region of Ara, they came to DC.

Ara is an area with the worst nutrition figures in the country and ranks high for malnutrition markers such as anaemia. Given that the staple diet in this poor region is a salty rice-gruel, the NGO knew villagers could ill-afford balanced diets, so they invented DFS.

DC made a 26-minute film about iron-fortified salt with all the Bhojpuri trimmings of song and dance to talk about the research-approved shortcut to better health, which J-PAL contracted Tata Chemicals to produce, package and sell through existing market channels. DC called the film Lahoo Mange Loha. Saha says an official in the government food department, a fan of the film, had suggested the equally catchy, Khoon Mange Noon (‘noon‘ means salt in Bengali and Bhojpuri).

DC made a 26-minute film about iron-fortified salt with all the Bhojpuri trimmings of song and dance   

First, J-PAL commissioned the film about their nutritional innovation, and then research to ascertain whether the film had any impact. So, of 400 of Ara’s village shops, half were offered the option to sell the new salt at 50% or higher retailer margins, and Damage Control’s film screened for the potential customers. The report found the screenings (and the economic incentives to shopkeepers) significantly increased usage.

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Damage Control’s publicity material doesn’t sell stuff but tells people something they really need to know. And they skip corporates altogether, “I can’t be called a marketer. We just communicate ideas and refashion content,”  says Saha.

He says unlike many design/communication consultancies they are unembarrassed about making crappy-looking flyers or a Bhojpuri comedy film, if those will get the message across effectively. DC is strictly not all style over substance, says Saha, and actively discourages the too cool for school attitude of some of its peers.

Unlike many design/communication consultancies they are unembarrassed about making crappy-looking flyers or a Bhojpuri comedy film  

“NGOs shape our thinking about issues; they have access to the media, politicians, policymakers, and this is especially true for environmental organisations. Without meaning to, they use obfuscation and jargon, and though the media has changed, the language hasn’t. Even in 30-word social media posts they use six difficult words. Not everybody does it but it’s a habit that refuses to die,” says Saha. Saha’s so keen on social impact because he is a development sector old timer — he worked for 18 years at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

Saha says he is running a “shop” for the social sector, which he and co-founder Arati Davis set up in 2012. But he isn’t hardselling when he says research is lost to its tedious presentation, especially as online content. George Orwell in his 1945 essay Politics and the English Language said a lifeless, imitative style and meaningless words stopped the reader from seeing the point of what was being said and was a mark of orthodoxy. But such obfuscation by NGOs is not even engineered like Orwell’s totalitarian writers, it’s just a habit.

NGOs from the fields of education, health, energy and ecology, come to Saha’s ‘shop’ to ask to convert reams of research into attention-grabbing, accessible packets of information  

NGOs, whether working in the fields of education, health, energy or ecology, come to Saha’s shop to ask to convert reams of their unwieldy research into more attention-grabbing, aesthetic and accessible packets of information. DC tries to deliver this through short films, exhibitions, graphic novels, and recently, a bit more reluctantly, on social media.

Saha loves to hate the likes-driven influencer marketing-relationships brands or institutions like to establish with users of social media. He thinks, and most NGOs in the business of change-making agree, that very little public service content on the social media results in any deep or meaningful change. And the causes they are unpacking are often driven towards people whose social media usage is minimal — bureaucrats or policy makers, and the poor and barely literate.

Chaturvedi disagrees slightly. “Waste-pickers use Instagram really well. It is the ultimate social media because it is not about literacy as much as a smart phone and wifi or the net-and it enables everyone of us to speak through images across the planet. Chintan’s partners from the informal sector, Safai Sena, has several members on Instagram, but not on Twitter, and they have a lot of  say. So it helps us because it helps our key partners — otherwise invisible and marginal.”

The company created books, factsheets, and posters for the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project by an Indo-German Biodiversity programme

DC’s multi-disciplinary approach sees technology — analog or digital — as a tool. It uses a combination of “organic analog” like natural building and recycled material, for say an NGO’s stall, and coding to create AV material. At the CBD in Hyderabad in 2012, for instance, they used a video loop repeating the five points their client, WWF India, wanted adopted at the environmental conference. They built the pavilion with recycled material and metal purchased at the Hyderabad scrap market. Visitors to the stall were encouraged to pose for a picture as they walked past a sensor-enabled plasma screen and wait for their photos to be processed but received pictures of savagely poached tigers instead. As for software, they use the full Adobe Suite and Protool for sound design.

Saha has his doubts about the efficacy of social media in creating awareness or lasting change: “Trending is a 24/7 cycle and the most important discussions are forgotten rapidly. It sure can start a conversation, but beyond the short-lived hype can it do more? The changes we want are real. For e.g. if we want forest rights implemented, what can social media do? And I dread this business of buying likes,” he says.

Every piece of work Damage Control does for a client is thought up from scratch.  Their eye-catching Instagram debut (@damagecontrol.in), ‘36 Days of Type’, for which they played with typefaces, iconography and fonts, served no immediate economic purpose and was their maiden foray on Instagram. It was a pilot to see how Instagram reacted to their design work and ascertain the accent of their social media content and was undertaken in preparation for Chintan’s PickMyTrash campaign. “#36daysoftype was a self-imposed  exercise, alongside our daily work. It was 2.5 hours to produce the graphics and text,” says Saha.

Damage Control ran a ’36 Days of Type’ project on Instagram

Chaturvedi thinks social media useful, though. “I think that it penetrates across to two new types of audiences — those who do not read the papers, and mainstream media, influencing its reporting and what it covers. And more and more people use social media so you connect with new audiences, in ways more informal and more visual,” she says.


Lead image and inside images courtesy Damage Control. Lead image shows a scene from the short film 'Lahoo Mange Loha'.