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Bengal Might Not Vote For Mamata, But Is The Left-Congress Alliance Any Better?

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By Snehashish Mitra:

buddhadeb_mamata_banerjeeThe Election Commission (EC) has announced an unprecedented seven phase poll exercise in West Bengal for the Legislative Assembly Election in 294 Assembly seats. The decision is in contrast with that to hold elections in Kerala (134 seats) and Tamil Nadu (234 seats) in one single phase. Even Assam with 126 seats, which has a significant number of anti-state insurgent activities, would be rounding up the elections in two phases. Needless to say that the law and administration of West Bengal pose multiple challenges to hold free and fair polls as seen by the citizens of West Bengal since the 2013 panchayat elections in the state.

The highlight, however, would be the municipal elections held in 2015 wherein the residents of the newly formed Bidhannagar Corporation were heckled and manhandled by anti-democratic goons who trampled on the voting rights of citizens. The one-sided election results in favour of the ruling Trinamool Congress were suggestive of the sponsors of rampant terror. During the regime of Left Front (LF) electoral manipulations were heard of from the rural hinterlands. It was unimaginable in a posh locality such as Kolkata adjoining Bidhannagar, popularly known as Salt Lake.

A normative analysis of the West Bengal government under the chief ministership of Mamata Banerjee would come up with very few positives. The collection of tax has been made easy through online submissions which have increased the tax revenues as claimed by the state government. Projects like ‘Kanyashree’ have taken a step towards empowering girls from humble backgrounds by conditional cash transfers. The focus of the government on cleanliness and beautification would be evident if one takes a stroll in some parts of Kolkata and, more significantly, if one happens to visit the Nimtala and Keoratala crematoriums of Kolkata. Self-help groups have been promoted on a large scale with the government providing enhanced opportunities to connect them with potential customers. Relative peace has been ensured in the hills of Darjeeling and the forests of Jangalmahal.

Apart from the small list of achievements, however, it seems that apart from the already dismal state of industry, the existing industries have had to endure the pressure of extortion. The primary sectors such as agriculture and tea plantations are in no better state either. A series of deaths have taken place in the tea gardens of north Bengal over the last five years.

A large number of clubs have received donations of one to two lakhs over the years for the purpose of sports development. But given the unaccountability of the money allocated to the clubs, the futility of such allocation is hard to ignore. The health sector in the early days of the present regime caught the imagination of West Bengal’s citizens as Mamata Banerjee, who holds the portfolio of health as well, used to pay surprise visits to hospitals. Over time, however, transfers of medical personnel seem to be based on the whims of the ruling party and the likes of the ill-famed Dr. Nirmal Maji seemed to hold unparalleled sway in the health department.

The ‘Saradha Scam’ is a big blot on the present government. However, the CBI investigation has surreptitiously slowed down after subtle bonhomie between TMC and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on several issues, especially with regard to Rajya Sabha. The BJP seemed to have gained strength in the state after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections after they managed to win two Lok Sabha seats and an assembly by-poll shortly after. However, national considerations for the BJP have coerced the state unit of BJP to mellow down its opposition to TMC and the following election was a no-show for the party.

Apparently it’s the national-state dichotomy of the Congress which forced Mamata to break away and form TMC. Shrewdly, she has reaped dividends by exploiting the similar situation faced by BJP. Apart from inter-party violence, the opposition had to face continuous breakaways of cadres and elected representatives, almost all of them joining the TMC camp. Such a situation brought the Congress and the CPI(M) close to each other and an alliance has been declared officially despite the ideological differences and acrimonious relationship in the past. The other constituencies of the Left Front (LF), such as RSP, CPI and Forward Bloc, have more or less followed suit. The alliance possesses the potential to thwart the TMC juggernaut. Some vital questions, however, remain unanswered.

An impending crisis of existence has brought CPI(M) and Congress together in Bengal, however, in Kerala and Tripura the parties are at loggerheads and Kerala goes to poll simultaneously with Bengal. Ideology being an important thing for the LF, it would be interesting to see how the LF deals with the national issues with respect to Congress’ standpoint. In case the alliance is successful in forming the government in Bengal, the stability of the alliance would be uncertain in case the parties find themselves on opposite poles on national or state issues, which is very much likely. In Tripura, repercussions are already being felt by the Congress. In the recent Amarpur bypoll election, Congress was demoted to the fourth position with BJP bagging the second spot. CPI(M) as usual was the winner.

Leftist economist and former finance minister of Bengal, Ashok Mitra has openly opposed the alliance, criticising the LF for their eagerness to return to power without rectifying the earlier misdoings and failing to remove the faces from within the party, who’s activities were not well received by the people. It is to be noted that the CPI(M) is yet to apologise for the state-sponsored violence in Singur and Nandigram. Nor do they seem to have tried to come out with alternative development models where industry can prosper without taking up fertile agricultural lands. The Newtown-Rajarhat township, adjoining Kolkata lays half utilised with empty flats across housing complexes after a near decade of functioning. It was built with massive acquisition of farm lands and water bodies. Such blatant imitation of the Western neoliberal model poses a serious question on the leftist credentials of the left parties.

The recent Narada sting operation, wherein multiple leaders of the Trinamool Congress are seen to be taking money as bribes are just a sorry reminder of West Bengal’s current political atmosphere. It barely surprised the Bengal citizens as even without the sting operation, the naked truth has been unfolding for over the last few years. Expectedly, Mamata Banerjee has moved into a state of denial about the issue and the party is busy sniffing out the conspiracy behind the incident. None, however, has claimed that ‘money was not taken’. In all probability, some of the ‘stung’ leaders are likely to win as legislators in the upcoming elections.

On a different note, the political debates now focus on the sting operation rather than any sincere debates on West Bengal’s development. To make matters worse for the citizens, the half-constructed Vivekananda bridge collapsed and claimed dozens of lives. It could be considered as a culmination of the rampant party-centric governance which has been a signature of West Bengal nearly four decades.

It is unfortunate that the political debate of West Bengal has stooped to personal attacks and over the top development claims. Provocations of violence are aplenty in the political speeches delivered by the leaders with every party being the culprit. More than economic development and reforms, the state yearns for peaceful existence amidst a decent society. The abysmal scenario of education and the job sector is creating a steady flow of migrant Bengalis into other parts of India.

A conflict-prone state like Assam is able to complete assembly election within two phases but Bengal needs seven. Gone are the days when Bengal boasted of luminaries and leaders and thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore, Chittaranjan Das, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Bipin Chandra Pal and many more. Today, we have to be content with the likes of their inferior counterparts, whose thoughts are limited to their own welfare at the state’s expense.

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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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