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Review: A Powerful Book That Gives A ‘Heart-Wrenching’ Image Of Poverty In India

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By Syed Meraj Azhar Rizvi:

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We have all seen poverty around us. Walking through those shabby lanes in the backyard of our walled colonies, smelling of sewage and garbage dump, snotty kids clad in tattered knickers playing barefoot in the cold cloudy afternoon, women trying to burn the damp twigs to prepare a bowl of rice outside the makeshift house made of tin shades or cardboards – but how often have we stopped by and tried to understand, why some of us have to live a life so rotten and filthy, while some of us are among the Forbes list of billionaires? Why is there such a huge gap between the rich and the poor? Why, when there is so much talk about growth and development, a huge section of our society is living in a world of perpetual poverty parallel to our world of growth and opportunity?

“Only some of them are lucky enough to find a hirer. Others go on waiting and waiting for many days, often not having enough money to eat even once in a day. They generally come to the city from neighbouring rural and semi-urban areas in the hope of making some money. They come because they have lost the traditional source of earning, their farm land slowly and slowly to moneylenders, builders, to government projects or even to banking institutions, because the funds made available to them were not enough or in time to produce enough return for them to pay back their debt and interest thereupon. Frustrated, some of them return to their native places to become bonded labourers of big landlords, while others soon become sick, meet with some accident, etc, and become incapacitated for hard labour. This source feeds the cloud of the group under discussion as the primary source or the root stock. The women and even minor girls breed in this hostile environment, not only in a family arrangement of some sort, but also, as a result of sexual exploitation by kabadiwallahs, truck and bus drivers, etc, who during their long journeys prefer to park their vehicles for a rest near such ghettos.”

tightening noose of povertyThis bone-chilling narrative is not from a war-ravaged country or a refugee camp, it is a peacetime description of the unfortunate souls who, as the author Masood Rezvi in his debut book ‘Tightening Noose Of Poverty‘ describes, are at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. The book is themed around the prevalent corporate greed based on the philosophy which looks at the world purely as a marketplace, and the ‘good business sense’ that argues wealth maximisation of the shareholders is the sole purpose of the manager in a corporation. The author presents the current economic system, its genesis and its impact on the future of earth and its inhabitants in layman’s language. The book is illustrated and a rather quick read. Since it is not a textbook, but a commentary from a personal perspective, the author has successfully managed to do away with the jargons and has presented the subject in a lucid and impactful manner.

Tightening Noose Of Poverty‘ begins with a prologue in an autobiographical narrative which makes you feel a bit confused about the motive of the author, but as you sift through the pages and reach the second chapter, you realise that the author means business. It is interspersed with powerful quotes, illustrations and images captured by the author himself to give you a sense of what he is talking about. The image of a (dead?) naked man, his belongings, that I and you call trash, lying around him in the cold winter morning, tells the horrific story of the chilling night that we might have spent in the warm cosy bed, lost in the glitters of some reality TV show.

The book is dotted with many such heart-wrenching images – kids scavenging at the trash dump, a woman carrying twigs to cook a lucky meal for her kids, another man exhausted with hunger, sleeping in the middle of a road, a colony of makeshift jhuggis made of thrown away cardboard boxes and plastic sheets with the old and still glorious clock tower of Lucknow in the backdrop reminding the heydays of the mighty British empire and the dawn of the industrial age and huge corporations.

The author draws the attention of the reader to the direction of the flow of wealth – “By common sense, it appears that the pyramid has taken its typical pyramid shape only because money has historically and traditionally moved against gravity gradient – from bottom to top.” And asks a very pertinent question right at the beginning of the book – “But how low is the bottom of pyramid? How low?” You don’t have to read through the entire book to understand the imminence of this question, you just have to look at the images and you will get to know the answer for ‘How low?’

The book seems more like a collection of essays written in different times, on different issues and in different mood, but one string that connects all these chapters like the ‘beads on a string’ is the conflict between the ‘good business sense’ and ‘do-gooding’ as the required corporate philosophy and a model for sustainable growth. The author argues that the current economic system where wealth maximisation is the sole purpose of the business managers will gradually widen the gap between the rich and the poor and will inevitably skim the earth of its resources and convert it into a barren land devoid of resources.

At this juncture, at the expense of a blurred boundary between fiction and theory, the author suggests that either the world will perish with all its inhabitants or a minuscule fraction of the super rich will flee the earth to settle on some distant planet to evolve into a new species (Homo machiavellian) leaving behind the less fortunate majority (Homo gaius) to be exploited further. The author draws a parallel between such a future and the past exploitation of the Indian sub-continent by the East India Company and plundering of India’s economy to maximise its own wealth. The complicity of the state (the crown) in this Machiavellian endeavour and their sinister ploy to divide the populace along the rifts of religion and ethnicity to divert its attention from the economic issues is evident even today in the national politics and is candidly presented by the author in the backdrop of recent unfortunate events of increasing farmer’s suicide and religious discontent of national prominence.

The author has presented few assertions based on his own experience in the banking sector and one of them caught my attention while reading the book. In the chapter dealing with the ‘farmers and debt trap’ the author asserts that if the NPA (Non Performing Assets) are categorised based on the sector, it will be evident that the major fraction of NPA will be found stuck with the big business houses – “… from my experience I do believe that NPA stuck up with big business houses is much more than the total NPA with the farm and weaker sector.”

The author seems to have missed a report in the DNA published on 18th June 2015, mentioning exactly the same – “It’s not the poor farmers or the middle class who are defaulting on their loans. It’s the country’s super rich, businessmen and the upper middle class with loan amounts of over Rs 1 crore who account for a staggering 73% of the unpaid loans to banks.” This apathy of the super-rich towards a society from where they draw their wealth, but for which they have no sense of responsibility seems to stem from the same philosophy which sees the world as a marketplace that has to be sucked till the last ounce of the resources is dried up. In this context, it is not surprising that liquor baron Vijay Malya’s birthday bash has been criticised none other than the RBI governor Raghuram Rajan.

The author believes that unless we start a culture of ‘do-good’ as the dominant culture, that we start giving back to the society, not just as a counter measure but as an instinctive behaviour to sustain and survive, our long-term existence is highly unlikely and therefore, the paradigm has to be shifted from the conventional ‘good business sense’ to ‘do-gooding’. No matter how much overarching and idealist it may sound, the do-gooding behaviour does gets rewarded, and no matter how much you think that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a waste of shareholder’s money, it, at least, serves well in the time of need – “But even if you accept Friedman’s premise and regard corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies as a waste of shareholders’ money, things may not be absolutely clear-cut. New research suggests that CSR may create monetary value for companies—at least when they are prosecuted for corruption.

As the author himself has mentioned at the beginning of the book, please beware of what lies ahead before you start reading the book, it will certainly change the way you look at the world around you once you will complete it. You will be forced to think about who is responsible for the disparity you see around you, the poverty that is so bizarrely and evidently spreading right under the glitters of showbiz culture that seems to have infected even the highest public offices and the ruthlessness with which the wealth and resources are being sucked up the pyramid and you will certainly hear these words echoing in your ears – Who is responsible for the present state of affairs then?

Who could be, except the ultimate sovereign? Who is the ultimate sovereign in a democracy? Who else could be, but “We the People”?

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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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