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How A Chennai Boy Is Helping Solve A Global Crisis (And You Can Too)

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India fellow logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of a campaign by The India Fellow program on Youth Ki Awaaz. India Fellows spend 13 months working at the grassroots level to bring about real on-ground change. They are also mentored to be socially conscious leaders and contribute to the development of the country. Apply here to be a part of the change.

By Anupama Pain:

On August 30, 2016, while the rest of the country was experiencing its customary monsoon, the Sikkim bureaucracy was worried. They awaited the arrival of a delegation of scientists, engineers and officials from various government departments, as well as a shy, but gritty team of four from a Ladakhi non-profit. This delegation was equipped for and required to avert an impending disaster – the flooding of the South Lhonak Lake…

Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian (Surya from here on) from the Ladakhi sub-team, at 26, was perhaps one of the youngest amidst the stalwarts who had gathered to solve the crisis. Born and brought up in Chennai to a middle-class family, Surya was schooled in the neighbourhood Kendriya Vidyalaya, before completing an integrated post graduation in Mathematics from NISER, Odisha, by 2015. Bright, ambitious and thoughtful, Surya had always been interested in giving back to society and in his final year, began volunteering his time and energy towards the education of underprivileged children, through his college’s student initiative, Zariya.

Having enjoyed working with them, Surya decided to continue with his volunteering even after his coursework was complete. Following a brief stint in the education sector, he applied to the India Fellow program, a year-long commune-run, fellowship programme that trains the youth to become better leaders of tomorrow.

Surya joined the India Fellow team as as an apprentice to Sonam Wangchuk – the dynamic and brilliant Ladakhi leader (the inspiration to Aamir Khan’s iconic character in “3 Idiots”), working towards educating the community and promoting environmental sustainability – and the experience was one that changed his life forever.

Surya (left) with Mr. Wangchuk (right)

Everything Surya had learnt as a student was put to test like never before. Intensive, exciting and challenging, the programme broadened his capabilities and talents, pushing him to be the best version of himself to help those around him.

Under the mentorship of Wangchuk, Surya had the opportunity to assist with the Alternative Mountain University project, which aimed to set up an institution to conduct environmental research and development, as well as offer higher education to youth living in far-flung communities. Surya was also part of the Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier pilot project, aimed at solving the problem of water crisis in the Ladakh valley during the early summer, which formed the beginnings of an exciting journey with glaciology.

From his simple beginnings at his Chennai home, Surya was suddenly at the cusp of one of the most crucial and iconic research projects in the world, attempting to find a solution to the threat of global warming. As word spread about the research, Surya and his team members found themselves being discussed in academic circles, an experience that many 26-year-olds can only dream of.

A project Surya worked on

This exciting and enviable journey that Surya became part of, did not end even after the successful completion of his fellowship. His journey with the Himalayan hills still continues. The fellowship equipped him with the skill and expertise that makes him one of the handful of people who understand climate control in the hills closely, today. It was the reason behind his being part of the team that was dispatched for disaster management during the flooding of the South Lhonak Lake in Sikkim in 2016, a team that was destined to save thousands of lives.

As we speak, the Lhonak is flowing under the dangerous mark and the Alternative Himalayan University dream is slowly turning into a reality. As for Surya, he is still only 27 with a world of possibilities. Currently, he is preparing himself for another journey to intern for eight months with some of the brightest minds in the world of Glaciology in Switzerland – to delve deeper into the subject as well as contribute there through what he has done in Ladakh. And to anyone who can see what he’s managed to do at this young age, they’d agree that this is no small feat.

Surya says:

“Unlike us, long ago the people of Ladakh lived in an alternate reality. They lived like ants among huge mounds of mud. Having a currency did not make sense to them, as the most important resource at the time was humans themselves. So they treasured the people they lived with and worked together, exchanging food and labour to make this great desert hospitable.

Things changed though when the army and eventually the tourists showcased our lifestyle and made all the pent up technologies of civilisation accessible to them. Many abandoned their communities to acquire the comfort and luxuries these products promised and thus Ladakhi lost their most precious resource in the name of development. Once, entire villages used to build houses and harvest crops for each other, but now Nepali workers are paid to do the same.

If I was born in Ladakh at such a time, I would have definitely left it too. But here I am with the people left behind to learn about their simple awareness. Back home I used to pay for bottled water that dried wells and destroyed marine habitat. I used to ride my bike all the way just to get a box of matches. The plastic bags and bottles I used, probably filled a couple of landfills. So before Ladakh, working for projects that promoted renewable energy and sustainable development felt just like a predicament. But living in Ladakh has brought my life in line with my work.”


The application for the 2018 cohort of India Fellow is open till 28th February 2018. Join a commune of changemakers and discover your social leadership potential. Apply today at www.indiafellow.org!

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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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