Amitabh Behar: CEO Oxfam India talks about the rising popularity of Trailwalker

Deccan Chronicle.  | Deccan Chronicle

Lifestyle, Health and Wellbeing

Trailwalker can be an instrument of change in the corporate sector.

Amitabh Behar: CEO Oxfam India. (Photo: File)

Oxfam Trailwalker is global fitness-driven fundraising, endurance and team building challenge for the cause of fighting discrimination and poverty. Trailwalker started in 1981 as a teamwork test of endurance and determination by the legendary Gorkha Signal Regiment of the Queen’s army in Hong Kong. Since 1986 over 200,000 people have taken part in event worldwide to fight poverty.

Oxfam Trailwalker is held in 17 cities across nine countries including Australia, Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom where trailwalkers (participating teams) form a team of four to complete either of its 100 km or 50 km trail in the shortest time.

In India, Trailwalker started in 2011-2012 at Bengaluru with 320 people participants. Today it is held in two cities – Mumbai and Bengaluru with over 1600 people participating every year. Unlike other fitness events, Oxfam Trailwalker is held away from the hustle of the city, in the lap of nature. Participants walk to support Oxfam’s various poverty alleviation projects. In India, it is considered as an ultimate team challenge for which people train for months before participating.

Over the years, celebrities and fitness enthusiasts like actor Hrithik Roshan, Rahul Bose, Milind Soman, Mandira Bedi, yoga guru Natasha Noel, and actor- writer Harman Singha have supported the event and the cause.

In an exclusive interview with Amitabh Behar, CEO Oxfam India, he talks about his personal experience as a participant and how it has shaped him as a person – physically and mentally. As a corporate professional, he talks about how this can be an instrument of change in the corporate sector.

In 2018, people raised over five crores to contribute towards Oxfam India’s projects on climate change, forest rights, education, health, gender and discrimination in the five poorest states of India (Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh).

You participated in the walkathon yourself last year. Why did you think this was important and how has it impacted the perception of the walkathon?

Last year, for the first time, I walked 100kms with my teammates and completed the trail. For me, it was important to experience Trailwalker. It not only tested my endurance but also allowed me to contribute towards the cause of fighting poverty, which I am personally committed to and passionate about.

Unlike, other walkathon or sports events, Trailwalker is a huge emotional roller coaster. You get an opportunity to walk with like-minded people who believe in an equal world. You also meet people who have personally overcome tough situations. I remember meeting a visually impaired gentleman who walked 100 km and was determined to do his bit to build a better world. It was motivating and heart-warming.

The sense of achievement and satisfaction when you cross the finish line is immense. They were indeed the best 48 hours of my life—exhilarating, inspiring and a great learning experience. Yes, the going gets tough, but there is contentment, pride, joy and the experience is one that you take away with you and remember forever.

As a participant, how does one prepare for the walkathon physically as well as mentally?

When I was preparing for the Trailwalker, I was aware that I would need a reasonable level of fitness, good planning, and adequate training. I encouraged my team to participate in practice walks that were organised by Oxfam in different cities for the participants. At least once a week, I walked back from my office to home and gradually increased my frequency and distance. This also helped me train my mind and instilled confidence about being able to complete 100kms without giving up. Since Trailwalker requires you to complete the challenge as a team (of four), we were aware that if one of us gives up during the walk then the team will feel demotivated. This made us responsible for each other and we discussed each other’s weaknesses and strengths to plan for unforeseen situations.

We referred to Trailwalker training manual and fitness talks to prepare ourselves to walk at night and learn more about the trail. From fitness gear to medical supplies, we planned for everything. During the walk, we took adequate breaks, carried water and other essential supplies. At checkpoints, physiotherapy organised by Trailwalker helped us revive our strength and certainly some music kept up our pace.

How can more CEOs or people in positions of power be instruments of change in their corporate organisations?

Oxfam Trailwalker India attracts leaders and companies who have the vision to be socially responsible and are committed to building an organisational culture which encourages team building, makes employees empathic, resilient and passionate about bringing change. It all begins with a small step. We have seen leaders and CEOs participate in a personal capacity and take back learning’s which have helped their teams and businesses grow. Their leadership styles have changed after participating in the event.

It is an inclusive event and people from all different walks of life—teachers, corporate honchos, women leaders, soldiers, people with disability all walk together. They share experiences and celebrate each other’s victories during the journey. It changes the perspective and challenges leaders to think unconventionally.

A top CEO at a firm once described Oxfam Trailwalker as an event “which allows building personal resilience, team resilience and resilience of the society”.

How can companies fulfil their CSR in ways that involve their employees more holistically?

Corporates must not look at corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a PR and employee-engagement as an HR exercise. An honest reflection on the core values of the company can guide organizations to work towards a cause they believe in. Companies must act responsibly even while doing business and follow ethical, sustainable business practices which are inclusive, non-discriminatory and human rights-respecting.

Companies need to proactively engage with employees to work together to create an organisational culture which values social giving and ethical business. An initiative like Oxfam Trailwalker sensitises the leaders and employees to understand and experience the power of social good and contribution to society. It is a holistic event that allows corporates to fund projects on education, health, violence against women, rights of discriminated communities while simultaneously engaging their employees in team building activities and motivating them to do their bit for the world. 

The funds that Oxfam raises, how do they benefit Oxfam's various projects?

Last year, people raised over five crores to contribute towards Oxfam India’s projects on climate change, forest rights, education, health, gender and discrimination in the five poorest states of India (Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.

The funds help Oxfam India work with young boys and girls who are challenging age-old rules of the society on gender, marriage and acceptance of violence against women. The funds support vulnerable communities--Dalit, Adivasi, Muslims, farmers, workers, and the poorest of the poor fight for dignified jobs, their right to good quality health, their children’s right to education and equal opportunity.

The walkathon has seen participation from diverse groups of people. What has been most interesting about their profiles?

Every year, we have been amazed by the grit, enthusiasm and personal stories of the participants. From teachers to soldiers to retirees to corporate leaders to college students, everyone passionate for the cause has walked. We had cancer survivors, people with visual impairment participate and other physical disabilities participate and walk day and night along with their teams. They come from diverse backgrounds and experiences but their desire to challenge themselves to change the world connects them. We have met people who were strangers to each other but connected to form a team to fundraise and participate in Trailwalker. They met at the event, walked together and today are friends.

Everyone and anyone who feels they are physically and mentally strong to take on the adventure can register. 

What do you think motivates so many participants to be a part of the Trailwalker?

Each participant has their reason to start walking at Trailwalker and come back to be a part of it. Since I have also walked 100km, I believe it is thrilling, challenging and satisfying. It is about ordinary people taking an extraordinary challenge to bring about lasting change in peoples' lives. Simply put, we all feel the desire to change the world, but only a few can go the extra mile to make a difference in someone’s life.