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Sikkim: A Nearly Foreign State Of Affairs for a City-Bred

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Ruchika Joshi:

When a gnarly 17-year old Delhiite hears of a three day trip to Sikkim, the first thing to strike her after the three day break part, of course, is the realization of that funny bulb-like projection at the top right corner of the Indian map. Why of course! It’s for real, something that until now for her existed only in miserly textbooks sharing a sentence with the remaining seven sisters.

After ignoring the initial suspicions of this relatively quiet state always having been there, and its mystic nature causing subtle hesitations, I packed my belongings and took the cheapest domestic flight to the Bagdogra Airport in West Bengal (turns out the Sikkim Airport is currently under construction). At this point, it’s important that I mention how lame I felt for carrying a woolen jacket on someone’s advice. Bagdogra was as hot as a frying pan and Gangtok (the capital) which is where I was headed first, was only a 4 hour drive from there and I guessed ignorantly, not much colder. Extra luggage makes me mad and I knew then that the jacket would be my object of fury for the next three days.

The two hour flight landed at about noon and the car ride that followed was quite uneventful, except for a tinge of resemblance between the roadsides of Bengal and that of the Mahipalpur by-lanes. So, I stared at the faces and the Bengali signboards till slumber took over.

A slight chill in the air and a state check post woke me up. This was not like Mahipalpur anymore. A whiff of fresh damp air, hillocks that imposed tranquility and the light buzz of an unknown tongue being spoken, I did pinch myself just to make sure I wasn’t still sleeping. I did it hard enough for the bruise to last a few days.

They had a different emblem in use; the official buildings conveyed that pretty clear. This may have something to do with the fact that only in 1975 did Sikkim officially became the 22nd state of the Indian Union after the prevalent monarchy was abolished.

Clean roads, a well-managed transport system (quite an achievement considering Sikkim’s mountainous terrain) and of course the placidity reflected in every being I passed by, really did make an impact. As far as I was concerned, New Delhi officially had a role-model to look up to.

The staying arrangements had been taken care of by my parents. A defence background meant that the Black Cats Institute was to be my home for the next three days. My first evening in Gangtok was thereafter spent making tedious arrangements to visit Nathu La Pass, the following morning. Located on the Old Silk Route, 54 km from Gangtok, Nathu La is one of the three Indo-China trading posts

At that time, I wasn’t quite sure as to what to expect from an everyday trading post. I didn’t even know why I going there in the first place, but I was, just as anyone visiting Sikkim was supposed to. Sealed by India after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathu La was re-opened in 2006 following numerous bilateral trade agreements. The opening of the pass was expected to bolster the economy of the region and play a key role in the growing Sino-Indian trade. The opening also shortens the travel distance to important Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage sights. Interesting but not all that engaging, you might say and at that time I would have agreed. But then took place the journey to Nathu La.

We started from Gangtok at around 7 in the morning. Gangtok’s unpredictable weather was for once, on our side, which basically meant that the clear skies and fresh air made the day ahead look promising.

Soon enough, the tamed town was left behind, and the terrain took up an existence of its own. Broken roads, monster-cars that cheated death on every hairpin bend among the mountains that inaugurated the Himalayas and the occasional tin houses in their simplest existence, beyond which the Himalayan range continued to dominate…wait, was that snow?! In April? That’s when I made a mental note to thank the person who suggested the woolen jacket.

We stopped at the Tsongmo Lake, a glacial lake on the way. Frozen and tucked away in the valley, its sheer water aroused the quantum of existence around it. The chilly temperature, the strangeness of this almost foreign land, the idea of how this dream was actually my own country and these people (Nepalis, Lepchas and Bhutias) my fellow men, left me a little overwhelmed. Standing there, among a stopped caravan of cars and fellow strangers to this land, and yet being in an exquisite state of solitude, brought with it an unreal sense of peace. And with a boy mischievously walking his decorated yak dangerously close to me, I snapped out of my trance.

I needed someone to talk to, share this magnificence with. And so I walked up to a nearby chai-stall and struck up a conversation with the chai-wallah asking him of the pass. He gave me a bored look. Clearly he had been bothered by those of my like before. ‘Do-char Chinese admi log hai madam, aur kya? Hamare jaisa hi. Ek Chinese ka building hai, India toh abhi apna building bana raha hai. Baaki pahad hai keval. Ek Chai?

(‘Just a few Chinese men. Human beings like us. There is a Chinese building too, India is still constructing its own. The rest of it is just the mountains. One cup tea to go?’)

The conversation was a short one, for obvious reasons. He had a livelihood to earn and having spent his entire life there, he didn’t really understand what the fuss was about. Why would a young girl like me from the city go all the way to Nathu La to see people and mountains. He couldn’t figure out what was it that got me so awestruck by the experience.

And it’s hard to put it in words, the sense of wonder and placid relief that the pass and the journey to it brought about. Living in a metropolitan city, where the pace of your life is set by others, where your days become so monotonous it’s hard to tell them apart, where for every breath you take in you might as well choke twice, where the lead skies and newspapers highlighting human miseries make up your mornings and where you forget that you matter and even who you are, it’s then that a place like Nathu La picks you up, fills you with strength, hope and gratitude, and props you up again.

As I stood there, I felt my existence like I never have. Staring at the stillness of the mighty Himalayas, the thought of a buzz of people going about their lives in a warmer June, so very used to their surroundings that right now have you wide-eyed with wonder, is bound to make for an interesting experience to say the least. It is then that I felt the world moving, almost in a frenzy but rhythmic nonetheless. John Keats’ ‘thing of beauty’ would be a close comparison.

The next two days, it rained heavily. (Blame it on the unpredictable weather and of course, my luck) Armed with an umbrella, I did a bit of local sightseeing within the dry intervals, in and around Gangtok. The famous Rumtek Monastery, the annual flower-show (unbelievable variety), the Banjakhri Falls and the Namgyal Institue Of Tibetology (truly intellectual) were the most I could manage.

But who’s complaining? The journey to Nathu La made up for it all. The sense of sheer joy and contentment that came with it couldn’t be matched. And then there were always hot steamy momos for comfort.

Reading this on your conventional day, you may not be convinced by what I promise this journey will do for you, and I don’t blame you. Getting there first, my own thoughts were restricted to being mad at a jacket. But that’s what this place does to you, it makes you step back and look at the bigger picture. And what is that big picture, you ask? There is only one way to find out. So go ahead, explore Sikkim in this lifetime and you will be spell bound by what you find.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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