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This Is How Our ‘Chalta Hai’ Attitude Can Cost India Big Time

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By Riju Agrawal

“Everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?” On my recent trip to India, this was often the response I received from my compatriots who were knowingly and willfully ignoring the law. Whether it be the rickshaw driver who enters the wrong side of the road, quickly snarling traffic to shorten his own commute, or the well-educated and well-to-do middle-class families who have the habit of littering on the streets, such indignant rebuttals are all too common. A version of this logic, and the implicit abdication of personal responsibility, can be applied to the scourge of corruption as well: “I’ll just give the bribe this one time; next time, it will be different,” or “he was the one who asked for the bribe, I had no choice but to give it.” I, as well as several of my family members, have been guilty of such transgressions. Though such individual lapses may seem insignificant in isolation, I would argue that they are indicative of a much larger challenge that India faces.

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortations that India’s development is the sum of small changes and small actions by 1.25 billion Indians, we still seem to harbor a widespread reluctance to accept individual responsibility for our actions and our mistakes. Despite the recent rise of well-publicized campaigns against problems like corruption, rape, and public cleanliness, change has been slow to come to India. For example, Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign ultimately failed to usher the passing of the Jan Lokpal bill and new corruption scandals in government surface on a daily basis. Not to mention that the offshoot Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been mired in its own bureaucratic failings and power struggles that have rendered it more inept than the previous governments in Delhi. In the wake of the gang rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ in Delhi, which sparked international outrage and much shame for India, rapes continue unabated in most parts of India. Most recently, the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in October 2014 to help encourage public cleanliness is off to a strong start, but its legacy is yet to be determined, and many have raised questions about the efficacy of the movement.

swacch bharat modiWhen such campaigns are launched with much fanfare and the requisite celebrity endorsements, the citizenry is jubilant with the anticipation that change is imminent. The short-lived hype is important since it helps spread awareness of the issues that our society faces. We may slowly begin to change our errant ways. However, evidence and experience both show that the resultant cognitive dissonance is not yet significant enough to catalyze long-term and widespread change.

Most importantly, the repeated failure of such ‘collective action’ campaigns raises the question as to whether such movements (especially the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) are doomed from the start. Basic economic theory would suggest that our societies are very poorly equipped to protect non-excludable public goods such as most public spaces. The well-studied “free rider” problem, which arises due to insufficiently delineated property rights for public goods, guarantees that individual cost-benefit analyses are bound to provoke transgressions. In other words, I bear no cost for littering on the street, and I benefit nominally in terms of time and maybe effort by not having to find a trash receptacle; therefore, it makes most sense to litter. This problem is especially acute in developing countries like India where the rule of law is weak. If fines for littering cannot be implemented, the cost-benefit analysis is very heavily skewed in favor of transgression.

Under the “homo economicus” model of self-interested individuals optimizing their individual utility, such transgressions are not just rational, but actually the preferred mode of behaviour. Economic models assume that society as a whole functions most efficiently when every individual is behaving in a rational, self-interested manner. As such, we can’t just attribute such transgressions to insufficient education (we would behave better if we knew better) or immorality (those who violate the rules lack a functioning moral compass). This is a problem that theoretically transcends all superficial differences and is a reflection of human nature. Furthermore, the “free rider” problem not only causes people to litter in the first place, but may also spell doom for the “collective action” nature of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan movement. Why should I help to clean up the streets when I can easily benefit from the effort that others are putting in?

Given the nature of the challenge and its possible roots in human nature, are all such movements doomed from the start? And if so, why is the government focusing on such ‘collective action’ initiatives instead of strengthening the rule of law to correct the cost-benefit analysis? Pigouvian taxes are shown to successfully combat the externalities that are generated by this free market failure. Is the government abdicating tough decisions regarding taxes and fines and instead trying to curry favor by employing well-publicized campaigns with popular appeal?

The good news is that all may not be doomed. To the extent that the emerging field of behavioral economics is poking holes in the classical model of economics and human behavior, our efforts may be worth more than they seem. Given that the ‘homo economicus’ assumption is proving to be a rather poor approximation of true human behavior, our own ‘irrationality’ may be our saving grace. As we saw in the campaigns against corruption and rape and littering, non-utilitarian components such as national pride and patriotism can be key driving factors for human behaviour. In all three of these movements, rallies and protests of never-before-seen size and scale underscored the unique power of collective action. Even those who did not have any personal connection to the issues at hand joined the cause in the hope that they could help build a better country for their families and their children. These hopes and these aspirations, which are integral to the emerging ‘Indian Dream’ today (akin to the ‘American Dream’ nearly 100 years ago), are especially powerful if they can catalyze long-term systemic change. Such change will require many tough decisions by both the populace and its elected representatives, but the legacy of such movements will be in their ability to harness our ‘irrationality’ to overcome the failings of our ‘rationality’.

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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, 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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