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7 Communities Swachh Bharat Mission Gives No Shit About

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WaterAidEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #InDeepShit, by WaterAid India and Youth Ki Awaaz to understand the reality behind the inhumane practise of manual scavenging in India. You can speak up against this form of discrimination and share your views by publishing a story here.

“Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of an India which was not only free but also clean and developed.” These were the words with which PM Narendra Modi inaugurated the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) in 2014. He called upon the 125-crore-strong Indian population on board an ambitious movement to gift Gandhi the Clean India of his dreams in 2019. With much pomp and splendour, the movement took off, emphasising on freedom from open defecation as a stepping stone to equality.

In 3 years, over 1 crore toilets have been built across the country. But is India really open defecation free (ODF)? Comments on a visual Youth Ki Awaaz had shared earlier revealed that the practice continues even in big cities like Mumbai and Hyderabad that have officially been declared as ODF. And this is just one example of how the Abhiyan has been failing. Why? For one, building toilets across the country has not adequately addressed the need for attitudinal change that is paramount to making India ‘clean’. But a bigger concern is that the SBA, built on the premise of securing social and economic equality in the long run, is ironically very selective in its approach.

Don’t believe us? Take a look at those that the SBA has forgotten in the race to make Bharat Swachh:

1.  Ragpickers Segregating India’s Waste

“Ragpickers in India are constantly denied basic rights of inclusion.” Image for representation only. Source: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

India generates 1,00,000 metric tonnes of waste per day. And the mammoth task of waste segregation is left to India’s ragpickers, according to Shashi Bhushan Pandit, who runs the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh (All India Ragpickers Union). Ragpickers work in dangerous conditions, without safety gear, minimum wages and technical training. Consequently, a lot of reusable waste also ends up in landfills.

By simply formalising their work and ensuring basic rights, India can make giant leaps in waste management – truly making it Swachh. Because presenting clean roads, while overburdening landfills doesn’t make the cut for ‘development’.

2. Manual Scavengers Who Continue To Work In The Shadows

“Despite manual scavenging being declared illegal, the Indian Railways is the largest employer of manual scavengers in India.” Image for representation only. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 2014, the Supreme Court of India made a landmark move directing state governments to ban the inhuman practice of manual scavenging and work towards rehabilitation.To date, however, dry latrines continue to exist, with over 5 lakh people – 95% Dalits – employed in cleaning shit with their bare hands.

According to Ashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, the Indian Railways itself has over 4 lakh dry toilets in its coaches and is the largest employer of manual scavengers, despite the practice being illegal. Without financial support and inclusion and at the mercy of the exploitative caste system and institutions, this community, Shaikh says, barely has access to the sanitation that Swachh Bharat promises to all.

3. Transgender Community At The Butt Of Societal Stigma

Renowned trans-rights activist Akkai Padmashali.

In 2014, trans people in India got legal recognition as the ‘third gender’. Yet, this community’s basic right to sanitation is consistently ignored. For instance, renowned trans-rights activist Akkai Padmashali faced harassment and was told, “You don’t belong here,” while trying to use the women’s toilet in a government building in Karnataka, as recently as last year.

And she’s not alone. Without safe toilets for trans people available in public spaces, lakhs are subject to abuse and harassment. This even makes many want to hold back the urge to pee, rather use a public toilet.

4. Domestic Workers Denied Right To Use The Toilets They Clean

“Domestic workers aren’t allowed to use the very toilets they clean, in most Indian households.” Image for representation only.

Another concern that SBA needs to focus on urgently is the fact that discrimination over toilets begins in our very homes. For many domestic workers, the right to use the toilets in the homes they clean is denied. Speaking to just 3 – 4 domestic workers in Delhi revealed that many of them prefer to defecate in the open rather than face the abuse that comes with using toilets in people’s homes.

When toilets at home itself are considered to be “too pure” for “maids” to use, how does building more toilets outside lead to a more equal, Swachh Bharat?

5. People With Disabilities In Most Public Spaces

YKA user Jolly Mohan.

Be it urban, rural, private or public setups, using toilets is near-impossible for people with disabilities. Just last year, YKA user Jolly Mohan published a story, on being forced to wear adult diapers, because she happens to be a wheelchair user and toilets are inaccessible for her.

And let’s face it. We still see a fair number of public toilets across urban landscapes in India, but how many are built keeping people with disabilities in mind? And how many disability-friendly toilets are kept in running condition on priority?

6. Menstruating Women Who Dare To Step Out Of Their Homes

“For many women, lack of hygiene and sanitation in public restrooms acts as a deterrent to travelling.” Image for representation only.

We belong to a society that has a significant history of stigmatising and discriminating women who are on their period. For several women, the lack of hygiene, lack of sanitary pad dispensers and unavailability of clean, running water in public toilets acts as a deterrent, with many being forced to pee on the road. And the question on their lips can’t be asked enough: Kab aayegi swachhta (when will cleanliness be a reality)?

7. People Living In Slums Who Aren’t On The SBA’s Radar

A child defecating in the open in in West Delhi’s Nangloi district.

For people living in slums in India, using public toilets is nothing short of a nightmare. For instance, in West Delhi’s Nangloi district, the only usable toilets in the area are covered in shit and hardly maintained. And in East Delhi’s Seelampur area, even the toilets in the local hospital lack cleanliness and maintenance to the extent that people defecate in the open in the healthcare centre itself, posing even more of a health risk.

The Swachh Bharat Mission’s ambition to clean India is in the right place. But more than halfway through, shouldn’t the government take stock and realise that its twin promise of cleanliness and equality is falling through, and at a massive scale? The high level publicity around the movement overshadows those who are suffering and will continue to suffer if the Abhiyan persists on being a movement for the privileged. And the only hope for the lakhs of people who are ignored is to call the government’s attention to their plight urgently.

If you believe that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan needs to shift its approach to a more inclusive one, Tweet your support!

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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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