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Stale Advice From The Old Faithful

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It took another lawyer to recognize that ‘the maximum damage done to this government has been by lawyers’, something I first said some two months ago (see here). But Arun Jaitley’s forceful intervention in the Rajya Sabha on 17 August was widely recognized as a wake-up call for the UPA government.  Moreover, the crux of Jaitley’s diagnosis was not so much that lawyers were to be blamed but that ‘lawyers tend to look at political problems through the prism of technicality’. Thus, a government under Sibal and Chidambaram’s influence was likely to give a “legal” or “bureaucratic” response to a political problem.

Jaitley was right. The government understood this as well. By day three of Anna’s Anshan, Chidambaram went into hibernation along with Manish Tewari (another lawyer) while Sibal avoided public glare. Instead, Congress’ chanakya Pranab Mukherjee, Maratha strongman Vilasrao Deshmukh and Delhi MP Sandip Dixit managed the crisis through astute political manoeuvring.

But Jaitley’s analysis needs further elaboration, for the problem is not with individuals (Sibal or Chidambaram) but with practices. The Congress under Sonia Gandhi has for too long clung to the advice of “old-faithfuls”– a handful of retired bureaucrats part of the Rajiv administration, a few all-weather political aides, and a battery of tried-and-tested (also trusted) senior civil servants who never reach retirement. This troupe has been playing musical chairs with critical appointments since 2004 and the sad part is that there are more chairs in the game than those playing it.

So we have a situation where a Rajiv Gandhi aide was exhumed in the 21st century and made National Security Adviser, now Governor. We have a Rae Bareilly District Magistrate in the PMO, then off for a foreign jaunt and back as Principal Secretary. And a line of Foreign Secretaries who have become “advisers”, “envoys” and with the just-established precedence of Nirupama Rao, “ambassadors” to important countries. You also have relics like the outgoing Principal Secretary who dates back to the Rajiv era, survived the entire course of the last government and by way of accommodating others, is now retained in another capacity.

So what’s the problem with this?

Let the starting assumption be, and with full seriousness, that these are earnest, intelligent and experienced individuals.  If that is a given, three types of problems can emerge:

First, with each passing year, the number of people not appointed in place of the old faithful would increase. As this group expands there would be a higher probability of finding individuals of equal if not greater competence. That being the case, for every service rendered by the old-faithful, over time, the number of alternative services ofequal (if not greater) quality that would be forgone would increase.Thus on a relative scale, through its tenure this government would receive advice of a deteriorating quality while forgoing an increasing number of alternatives.

Second, we must make a reasonable assumption that every adviser or policymaker has finite abilities and innovations to offer. That being the case, with every passing year, the number of new ideas generated by the old-faithful is likely to decline just as the re-employability of theirexisting ideas will diminish. It then means that these individuals would be of declining productivity to the government over a period of time. (The second condition can only exacerbate the first).

Third, the collective potential of this group would decline over time. Let’s say each member of this group has an individual potential that expands with greater experience and through interaction with others. Since experience would accrue to both those in and outside the group, that would not be a differentiating factor. However, if the inner coterieremained largely stagnant, the collective experience and potential of the group would be limited by its static composition.  It is true that this power elite would not operate in a vacuum, but it is entirely conceivable that one open window in a closed room can only let in so much fresh air (and that this would severely limit the collective potential of this closed group in comparison to a more dynamic body of advisers).

The argument is theoretical. But its effects are tangible. Increasingly what are being called the inadequacies of this government are in fact, and at source, the problems emanating from stagnancy in leadership, ideas and thought.  This is responsible for the ‘sense of drift’ and it accounts for an unimaginative and ill-elaborated governance agenda called ‘Aam Admi’ (the slogan of the old faithful).

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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