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The Elderly In India Are Being Made To Live On ₹500 A Month. But There’s A Bigger Problem

By Vidhi Agrawal:

Kharbee Jan, a 70-year-old woman, sits in front of her house near the Line of Control (LOC) in Uri, about 102 km (63 miles) west of Srinagar, December 1, 2008. When India blamed "elements" in Pakistan for the Mumbai attacks last week, fear gripped Kashmir, the region that has been the frontline of their rivalry and strife for over 60 years. Picture taken December 1, 2008. REUTERS/Danish Ismail  (INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR) - RTR225VJ
For representation only. Source: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

I have been referred to as a saviour on multiple occasions by a number of people – friends, and strangers alike. Until recently, I took a certain pride in being able to solve people’s problems, sometimes even anticipating and resolving those.

However, problems like a missing stapler, or non-functioning mobile charger are nowhere comparable to the grievances of Suwa Devi, a 50-year-old widow dependent on a meagre sum of Rs. 500 per month under the Widow Pension Scheme, who has not been getting her pension since 11 months. Reason? The person who filled her sanction order form misspelled her address – Ram Rahim Colony became Ram Nagar Colony. She has no clue about the status of her pension, claim, or receipt. A well-meaning man in the Ram Nagar Colony (the wrong address) has been able to track her, and is trying to help her update the correct address in the sanction form. But it’s not over – the social welfare department expressed its inability to clear complete arrears.

Pension schemes under social welfare are by no means sufficient to help an individual even achieve a decent standard of living – the absence of even that Rs. 500 aggravates their problems multiple times. They have to borrow money from relatives and neighbours for their daily sustenance. If and when pension comes, it gets used up in repaying the debts, and the cycle continues. According to the government statistics, a large section of older people in rural India is illiterate, and unemployed. It is dependent on the family for sustenance. The pension is expected to give them some semblance of dignity. Instead of an increase in the amount of pension tied to the inflation, what the elderly and/or disabled get are delayed and irregular payments.

Rajasthan also takes a lead in providing maximum coverage under social security pension programs. The widow, single/divorced women, women (55-75) and men (58-75) get Rs. 500 per month. Men and women older than 75 years get Rs. 750 per month. Special persons get Rs. 500, and minors Rs. 250 per month. However, the responsibility of the government does not end at enrolling the people under a scheme. It must also take responsibility or fix responsibility of the people involved in the delivery of these beneficial services to the people.

Generally, we become baffled by problems such as increased costs of 3G data services, or low bandwidth internet connections. But Kadar Khan, a 60-year-old man who limped along gingerly as we entered the Oriental Bank of Commerce in Pali, had a different problem. We were at the bank to find out how to retrieve his misplaced money. Kadar is dependent on a motley sum of Rs. 500 per month which his wife gets under the Old Age pension scheme of the government. For the past 4 months, she has not been able to claim his pension because the e-Mitra personnel entered wrong bank account number in her sanction order, which was linked to her Bhamashah card.

The parshad (councillor) from his ward, the e-Mitra personnel in his area, and the man at the helpdesk at bank – none of them knew what to do. The logical step is to get the correct account number updated in the system. However, it sounds easier than it really is. Even as the money continues to be credited to the wrong account number, the e-Mitra merely issued an acknowledgement slip, the bank clerk clearly tried to evade the issue, not before declaring that the money must be in some suspense account, and they cannot ascertain if arrears can be claimed. The ward councillor remained elusive as expected.

The point is that everyone in the process declared their helplessness in ensuring that the benefits of the social schemes reached the beneficiary. A solution might be devised in due time; however, at that moment, nobody, including I, knew how to deal with this – a lamentable information gap that compounds the feeling of helplessness multiple times.

What is worse is the lack of will on behalf of the service staff to solve the people’s problems in a genuine manner. Perhaps this is only my perception or illusion, but people entrusted with the implementation responsibility of the schemes at various levels do not even pretend to make attempts to find out how to resolve an issue – their confidence in the human will to strive and survive seems unshakeable!

Pali is no different from Jalor, Rajasmand is as plagued with problems as Ajmer. Not surprisingly, everywhere you go, the system takes the blame. It’s the last resort of blames, and complaints. To get our answers, we have decided to organise a Jawabdehi Yatra. We aim to take the onus of blame away from the system to the individuals. Whose responsibility? Whose accountability? Where does the solution lie?

Watch how senior citizens in Bihar are forced to live in similar circumstances.

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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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