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“If Voting Could Change Anything, It Would’ve Been Illegal”: Is Democracy A Good Idea?

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By Priyanjana Roy Das:

As Lincoln suggested and as we learned, “Democracy is of the people, for the people, by the people”. This has been confirmed by some as the best definition of democracy. Moving into the nitty-gritty of it, democracy essentially has a few characteristic features:

1. Free and fair elections.
2. Representation of people
3. A better structure of the government
4. Protects human rights and liberties

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

We have all been taught at some point or the other about the goodness of democracy and, how it brings justice and liberty to its citizens. We have not moved beyond it to discover a system or a model which is more acceptable and inclusive because democracy, in its definition, feeds itself as the best form of government any government must fight to establish and practice.

Considering the case of India. We have fought our way to establish democracy that is representative of the views of our people. Recently I saw a poster in one of the protests in Davos, Switzerland, which said “if voting could change anything, it would have been illegal”. It is an extremely cynical take on democracy to begin with. What could possibly be wrong with the best form of government? And what could be so wrong with voting, for which we had to fight our way out of colonialism, and which is necessarily the essence of a democratic government?

The election commission, an independent body, is responsible for conducting the free and fair elections in a vast country like India. However, the findings of last Lok Sabha elections will tell us how the elections, even if free, are most definitely not fair.

Even after having a prescribed limit on spending by Election Commission in the Representation of People Act, the estimated amount of money spent by the government, the candidates and the parties in the last Lok Sabha election according to Centre for Media Studies was nothing less than 30,000 crore rupees, of which official spending by government and parties was only 8000 crores rupees. We have an ocean of black money circulating in the political nexus, and while some turn to bribes others turn to distributing liquor during elections. In India, elections, are nothing short of a festival. The candidates become gods for some and demons for few. The menace of this huge amount of black money cannot be curbed and controlled by the Election Commission of India alone. It would include syncing the audit standards of various acts like the IT Act, the FEMA, the Companies Act, the Prevention of money laundering Act, Banking regulations Act, the Cooperative Society laws, with the Representation of People Act. It would also need the political will and citizen participation to transform, and curb the circulation and transaction of illegal funds of the political parties. With a system of election which is so discrete in its funding process, democracy definitely is not very reliable.

As far as representation goes, our members in the largest house, i.e., the Lok Sabha, are elected by the first-past-the-post system. The problem with this system is that majority of people do not find representation. The elected candidate is the one who has the majority support from a particular constituency, and the person with a minority support or a person holding a different viewpoint will be left out in this system of representation. By this logic, democracy is not the most representative system form of government. It is often a certain section of the society that influences the formation of government while other sections are left without representation.

And again, when the elections are finally over and the government is formed, they stay for a good five years with privileges and some immunity. In the meantime, some candidates prefer to work for the interests of all while others  prefer to work on their next election, and only keep their vote bank satisfied. For the former section, to get a bill passed, again needs approval of the majority of the house. If the government formed has a clear majority in the house the probability of getting a bill passed in the interest of sections with little representation becomes a difficult situation to surpass.

Democracy gives us a better structure of government is what some people like to believe and argue. Undeniably, it does provide us with a system of executive, judiciary and legislature which ensures that checks and balances are in place. We have independent bodies like the UPSC and the Election Commission, the CAG to further strengthen the system of checks and balances. But despite these measures, we have fissures in the system. This also is not something which is a distinguishing characteristic of democracy alone.

I have encountered a viewpoint often, which says, a majority party rule of a government helps in taking political discussions faster, getting bills passed quickly and helps in faster economic development and growth. This however holds true to some extent but it is not representative of everyone’s view, and it is not a benefit provided by a democratic form of government alone. Most autocratic governments would reach a consensus earlier and get projects approved faster. They will also not hesitate in using force to ensure their implementation. I am not speaking in favour of an autocratic government here, but trying to convey that certain benefits are not provided by democracy alone.

Democracy claims to accommodate various viewpoints and ensures to extend human rights and protection to everybody in the state. Here in India, we have a democracy that boasts of being highly representative of all sections of the people in the country, of securing social and welfare needs of the state, of extending the right of judicial justice to everyone and of providing rights to its citizens’. However we are a very young democracy and our democracy has not reached the sweet spot yet- there are still underdeveloped rural areas, cartoonists are still being sent to jail for expressing dissent through art, media houses are owned by the biggest corporate houses, people still live on the streets, bereft of hope, devoid of rights and most importantly, we still have a judiciary which is accused of being corrupt.

Our democracy is young and we should experiment with it, focusing on participative democracy- a democracy which is accommodating of all the citizens, that does not get threatened by the rise of population of a minority community, that holds elections without having a whole parallel economy being involved in the process. What we must be looking at is not democracy alone but at ‘inclusive democracy’. We must aim for a country that represents the minority that gets left out in the first-past-the-post system, where the parliamentary majority passes bills in securing the interest of the minority community, where dissent is tolerated and heard, and a country that along with passing bills on gender equality also includes women’s participation in the parliament, without bias or alternate representation. What we need to look at is a country without the fear of the fallouts of democracy, a country that understands the fissures of Indian democracy and attempts at correcting it.

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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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