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How Long Will We Allow the West to Sell Indian Poverty?

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By Astitwa:

After the entire hullabaloo at the Jaipur Literature festival, we have something new to focus upon. In design, it is refreshing, deeply incisive, fast-paced, bewildering but in substance, it is the same—embarrassing, trivial and outright pathetic for any Indian citizen. Hail the Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo for her three years of intense reporting that has produced yet another western masterpiece, ‘Behind the Beautiful Forever: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai under city’, that is a reminder of Indian poverty in the slums of Annawadi and Dharavi in the financial city of India, Mumbai. Flash back to 2008 and you will be able to recall the Oscar winning Slum dog Millionaire that displayed the fragile state of our country, its striking inequality, through some wonderful cinematic and media lenses. Boo’s book and Boyle’s Slum dog both remind us of one obvious reality, which we can hardly deny. Both these exemplary works of art and journalism point out to the same fact, the tantalization of western imagination with the Indian poverty, especially in slums.

If I drop the eyes of a movie buff or a literary critic and distance myself from all the hype surrounding such works, I can witness, deep in my heart, a feeling of embarrassment and to some extent, pain. Why only Indian slums represent to the west a sorry state of affairs? Why only the middle class aspirations of those in utter penury in the Asia’s largest slums paint a picture of helplessness, abject poverty and survival? Urban poverty that is metamorphosing into flourishing slums is known to us. Isn’t it? Are we or the Indian government not aware of Dharavi? Why we need the Western imagination to stir our collective consciousness? It isn’t that there are no slums in Brazil or South Africa? But have you ever heard of movies, books, art exhibitions regarding Rio de Janeiro’s biggest slum or Cape Town’s shantytowns? I bet you haven’t. It is always India.

In the circumstances that have prevailed in the last ten years, poverty in Indian slums has become the new face of India. And why not? Even if we relentlessly boast of our stupendous growth in the last decade, the reality of poverty can’t be denied. The social, political and economic divide between the poorest in the country and the obscenely rich is a fact that we have now accepted with ease. The enigma and the creative streak such inequalities arouse, compel directors and creative professionals to spend millions in filming poverty and helplessness. If we dig deeper, we can easily understand why the 27 floor Antilla of Mukesh Ambani, the sea-facing house of Jindal’s or the several multi-crore apartments in posh South Mumbai coexist in deeper harmony with the slums surrounding Mumbai. The entire areas of South Mumbai, Coloba, the oh-so-wow Marine Drive, everything was constructed by the colonial powers, the western elite for giving the then Mumbai, a status of thriving metropolis. As the entire development and richness was distributed in such posh areas, the chawls and the slums were pushed back to North Mumbai. The apathy that a significant population suffered at the hands of colonial powers was deepened post Independence, when the fragile Indian population rose to earn livelihood and started migrating to Mumbai for work. The dream city, Mumbai, in the past decades has hence seen population explosion and several other realities of a highly urbanized city.

The Indian government that runs on the premises and laws enshrined in the Indian constitution, borrowed from constitutions of several western countries, has been unable to change the needs of Mumbai with time. So, in a city that has followed colonial architecture, town planning and demographic divisions, it isn’t surprising when the west still views India through the same old lenses and looks down upon us. So, a western reporter stays in an Indian slum for years documenting stories of grit, survival and poverty, and we are in awe of her. The west becomes thrilled in such pieces of narrative non-fiction that can keep them hooked for hours, as it is ironically thrilling to experience and know about a world where one has never been. So, Boo’s one-liners like, “We are the garbage between the roses’ make tremendous impact on the psyche. It becomes surrealistic for the west to even think about a place that is just behind the world’s third best airport, but is laden in garbage and excreta, with flies hovering over them. It becomes enticing to know that behind the facade of international city there lies a city that exists in multiple identities, which anyone can explore and write about.

Commercializing poverty and pouring out empathy and sadness for people who dream to get out of their adversities has for long been a part of entertainment and media industry. So, even if the ten-year-old son Azharuddin (young ‘Jamal’ in Slumdog) flies back to Mumbai from LA, he is afraid, if he will be able to take his family out of Dharavi. If that one-movie, where he rises to fame to earn millions, will translate into reality. We, the Indian intelligentsia accept stories of such miseries and Indian poverty thanking the western counterpart to have showed us our flaws. But the truth is that, we are to be blamed for it equally. We as a nation haven’t been able to integrate the poor into the mainstream society. The inequality is widening. Indian failure to handle poverty is an altogether new story. But we should do something about it soon, because even after 65 years of Independence, we can’t let the west make us realize how poor we are in implementation and execution of social policies. The world, even the US and UK are facing the issues of financial exclusion but it is not as pathetic as in India, with one of the highest populations in the world, living below poverty line. It is time we rise to the occasion and strengthen our social policies. Or else, we must be ready to sell our poverty stories to the west, without any guilt. After all, they have given us railways and phenomenal architecture that is sufficient for us to boast about forever. We won’t create something phenomenal from our own, not even our social policies. We always need their inputs, masqueraded in harsh truths and fabricated lies.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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