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The Answer To India’s Growing Pollution Lies In ‘Climate Justice’, Not Rapid Development

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By Sunita Narain:

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

A smoke rises from a chimney of a garbage processing plant on the outskirts of the northern Indian city of Chandigarh December 8, 2010. Many rich countries, suffering weak growth and budget cuts, want emerging economies led by fast-growing China and India to do far more to reflect their growing power, including greater oversight of their curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. REUTERS/Ajay Verma (INDIA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTXVIS3
Image credit: Reuters/Ajay Verma.

Some fortnights ago, I had discussed the issue of poverty and environment. I had then said that the question today is not whether the poor are responsible for environmental degradation but whether environmental management works if it does not address inequality and poverty. Why?

Take air pollution in our cities. Today, a minuscule number of people in Delhi and other cities of the emerging world drive a car. In Delhi, the estimate is that only 15 percent commute by car. But air pollution is high and congestion is crippling. Can these cities combat air pollution, given that more and more people will drive? Is it possible to plan for the remaining 80-85 percent? Is there space on the road, or space in the air?

Clearly, it is not possible. Our research has pointed out that unless we reinvent mobility at a scale not seen before, we cannot have clean air. A few years ago, in a landmark judgement the Delhi High Court had ruled that roads need to be planned taking into account “equity of use”—those who use more, should get more space. Today, the bulk of our cities’ population walks, cycles or takes a bus. It does so because it is poor. But we need to take the bus, cycle and walk when we are rich, and not wait till cars have occupied all the roads. Therefore, unless the strategy to combat air pollution moves from fixing the tail-pipe emissions of each car to planning for affordable and inclusive mobility, we will not get clean air. This will not be easy. But one thing is clear that the solutions must work for the poor, for them to work for the rich.

Take water pollution. Indian rivers are increasingly polluted, but again the question is whether we can clean them when a large number of people do not have access to sanitation and clean water. Our report, Excreta Matters, showed why policy had to change. The current system of water and waste management is capital-intensive and it creates division between the rich and the poor.

The state has limited resources and can only invest in providing for some—invariably the rich and not the poor. But if only a part of the city has access to clean water and underground sewerage, pollution control will not work. The reason is simple: the treated waste of a few will be mixed with the untreated waste of many. The end result will be pollution.

It is also clear that the greater the pollution, the higher the cost of cleaning water. Even the rich in our cities cannot afford the current costs of delivering water, then taking back waste and treating it before disposal into rivers. So, either water is not supplied to all or sewage is not treated. The solution has to be to invest in affordable solutions for water and waste that meet the needs of all. Only then can we have clean rivers.

Then take climate change, which is today hurtling the world towards uncertain weather and crippling devastation. In 1990, my colleague Anil Agarwal and I argued in our publication Global Warming in an Unequal World that the world cannot combat climate change unless the agreement is fair and equitable. Today, the same issue is on the table. If the solutions cannot meet the needs of all—is equitable—it will not work. The global carbon budget—the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted without crossing the threshold of temperature rise—has been disproportionately appropriated by the already rich. Their current low level of ambition means they continue to emit more, thus, take up more space. But one should understand that economic growth is linked to emissions, so tomorrow the poor, who are getting richer, will also pollute. In this way, all will be at risk.

The solution is not to ask the poor not to get rich. This is what the Paris Agreement on climate change, signed last December, is hoping to get away with. It is built on the premise that last part of the still developing world can build its future on a limited and much too little share of the global carbon budget. It assumes that this world will not need to emit to grow, or not need to grow at all. This is not possible. So, what will happen is that India and many in Africa will add to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This will mean that the world will not be able to keep the temperature rise below the safe threshold. Climate justice is not a luxury, but a pre-requisite for an effective deal.

It is then clear that the discourse on environment and development must be reframed so that it is built on the premise that sustainable development is not possible if it is not equitable. In other words, growth has to be affordable and inclusive. But most important is that we re-articulate that the environmental challenge is not technocratic but political. We cannot neuter politics of access, justice and rights, and still hope to fix environmental problems.

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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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