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Why Every Indian Must Watch This Powerful Film On Tamil Nadu’s Manual Scavengers

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The grand mission of cleaning up India seems to contribute a lot in creating the illusion of ‘a cleaner and better India’. Photos of political leaders, celebrities with brooms in their hands tend to serve as boosters for the common people in believing in the narrative of ‘achche din’. However, the hypocrisy behind the great scheme of ‘Swachchhta Abhiyan’ has been unravelled by Divya Bharathi, a 28-year-old film director, in her documentary “Kakkoos” (“Toilet”). As opposed to the glorifying narrative of ‘Swachh Bharat Aviyan’, this documentary reveals the other side of the coin, where a completely different image of injustice emerges.

Director Divya Bharathi, who has been vocal regarding social issues since her school days, decided to make the documentary after the deaths of two sanitation workers due to inhalation of toxic gases inside a septic tank, in October 2015, in Kochadai, Madurai. In an interview, Divya stated that she had realised that the visual medium would be the most powerful in addressing an issue like manual scavenging, and therefore she resolved to make a documentary on the lives of sanitation workers.

The director has not only criticised the age-old tradition of assigning people from a particular section of society the task of cleaning tonnes of human waste generated by crores of people (even after manual scavenging was prohibited by the Supreme Court in 2013) but has also turned her critical lens towards the silence of people. This is why she has chosen to dedicate the film “To your conspiracy of silence on the septic tank deaths.

Based on the lives of the manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu, ‘Kakkoos’ shows how these people are exploited, compelled to work in extremely unhygienic conditions, and denied dignity as human beings. Though Article 17 of the Indian Constitution states that ‘untouchability’ is a criminal offence, these scavengers, who mostly belong to communities like Chakkiliyan and Arunthathiyar (under the category of ‘scheduled tribe’) are treated with extreme humiliation. These people are compelled to get into the job of scavenging, and remain trapped here across generations, as they are not allowed to work in any other field in the society.

As stated by the sanitary workers, in most cases they are not provided with necessary safety tools, instruments and garments. Out of sheer fear of losing their jobs, these hapless people cannot gather enough courage to complain about the lack of tools and safety gear and agree to work with their bare hands. As it has been documented, one of the scavengers states that she cannot eat for almost one or two day(s) after cleaning human waste. Another woman expresses with tears in her eyes how her own children have started treating her as ‘untouchable’.

“Kakkoos” has created a huge fuss regarding its ‘disturbing’ portrayal of the lives of the sanitary workers who work relentlessly in order to keep society clean, yet are debarred from their basic rights. This exploitative image of society undoubtedly goes against the ideals championed in the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’, through which the government aims to present a dirt-free India within a few years.

The contrasting images of the reality presented in “Kakkoos” seem to unravel the hollowness of schemes like  ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’. As a result, public screenings of the documentary were blocked several times by the police, and a number of cases have been filed against Divya Bharathi charging her with the crime of endangering the sovereignty and integrity of the country. Divya has also mentioned how the shooting of the film was hindered by higher authorities, who would snatch away the camera in order to stop the documentation from happening.

However the film has managed to gain immense popularity on YouTube as it has been watched by more than 3 lakh people. While stating her aim behind making this documentary, Divya has clearly stated that the film has not been made for the Dalits, but for non-Dalits. She has added that her aim with the film is to instil a deep-rooted sense of guilt amidst the non-Dalit communities, so that people can be ashamed of the kind of society they live in, and can feel horrible about the deaths which they silently encourage.

‘Kakkoos’ is definitely an eye-opener for every Indian. They might close their eyes while watching the documentary, but will feel guilty about being silent all these years, for at least a few minutes.

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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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