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Of The Burnt Kusum Tree And The Place In The Middle Of Nowhere

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By Zehra Kazmi:

Monsoons are a glorious season in my home state. Green hillocks peep from behind a whirl of heavy, dense clouds and the air feels pure against your skin. The streets are washed clean and the rice fields sway gently in the cool breeze. The abject poverty of its people, however, contrasts starkly with the natural beauty of Jharkhand.

tree house

I have spent my whole life in the state, growing up in sleepy small towns of a land which I dearly love and whose people and culture have led me to develop immense respect for it. To any observer, the unjustness of the situation in Jharkhand is what strikes as most evident. The voices of its people have been left unheard, their interests neglected for far too long.

The recent election results saw Raghubar Das as the tenth man to have been sworn in as its Chief Minister in the fourteen years of Jharkhand’s existence. Politically, the state has been in chaos ever since it’s conception. People have lost count of the number of times governments have changed here. Out of the 23 states, Jharkhand’s HDI rate is the fifth lowest, with a score of 0.376, comparable to Sierra Leone.

Nowhereland
Maromar Forest Rest House lies in the middle of absolutely nowhere. A winding road leads to the lonely forest rest house in the heart of the Palamau Wildlife Sanctuary. Pamphlets advertising tourism in Jharkhand show a picture of a beautiful white tree house in them. My father was posted as a D.F.O (Divisional Forest Officer) in Palamau when he took responsibility of its construction. The Kusumi Tree House was burnt down by Naxals in 2007. All that’s left of it are a burnt kusum tree and four pillars.

Maromar, Palamau Tiger Reserve
Maromar, Palamau Tiger Reserve

There is an older forest rest house near the burnt down Kusumi Tree House-the inscription on the floor tile says 1945. Once, a wiry thin man named Manmohan had narrated to me the heartbreaking tale of losing his children to the forest, on the verandah of this rest house. The teary-eyed forest-watcher had not been able to take his dying daughter to the nearest hospital because accessible healthcare in the interiors of Jharkhand is a rare luxury.

A few months later, Manmohan had to be transferred because handia (a local rice brew) got the better of him.

Laal Salaam
If you drive in Mahuatand in Latehar, you will see a curious site. White debris marks the way and if you notice carefully, you will see that it actually comprises of the parts of an anti-landmine vehicle that exploded more than three years back. Though the chilling horror truly sinks in when you are told that twelve people died on that very spot when the convoy of an MP-Inder Singh Namdhari was attacked by the Naxals in 2011. The huge craters on the road are evidence enough of the ferocity of the blast. In the years that have passed since, no one has had the guts to remove the scraps from the road. The locals are always caught in the cross fire between security forces and the Naxals. Fear is a constant emotion that people have to live with in these areas of the country. Naxalism is a menace that the state has been facing for decades now. Maoists are active in 20 out of 24 districts in the state. Jharkhand is the worst affected state by Naxal violence, with 383 reported deaths in the year 2013.

Saranda’s Tragedy
It is difficult to guess where Jharkhand is going in the next few years or if, in fact, it is going anywhere at all. The apathy and corruption of the administration combined with the brutality of Naxal violence in the state has left it broken. The Saranda forest, bordering Odisha, is the saddest example of the above. Mining projects have destroyed vast tracts of forest land in the area with over 1,100 hectares of forest land being completely wiped out in Saranda. The mining has led to excessive siltation and pollution in the River Koina which flows through the forest-leading to the water becoming permanently red. Elephant habitat has been systematically ruined by the fragmentation of the forest. Perhaps the most horrific consequence of the rampant mining in the state has been the observed in Jaduguda where exposure to uranium toxicity has led to stunted children being born with swollen heads, skeletal distortions and blood disorders. The practices of indigenous Ho and Munda tribals have been disturbed. Despite the sustained push by environmentalists to notify Saranda as a protected area, the mining lobby has prevented it from happening. The government launched the Operations Anaconda in 2011 to flush out Naxals from the area. Soon after, Jindal Steel Works, SAIL and ArcelorMittal acquired permission to carry out more mining projects in the area. The implications of the Saranda Action Plan cannot be clearer even to the most gullible.

Ranchi, the capital, once a quaint, quiet town known for its pleasant climate, is now like any other bustling mid-sized city in India, with chain stores and malls dotting its crowded lanes. It is growing at a lightning fast speed but is now aesthetically grotesque and culturally hollow. HEC factories are obsolete now and the colony is deserted. The malls that have sprouted up in the past 4-5 years in the city make it hard for me to remember what originally stood in their place. The old city is now paving way for the new, times are changing.

But the nights are still lonely and desolate in Maromar.

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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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