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How The Other Three-Quarters Live

In 1839, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote one of his most often quoted epigrams in his monthly journal Les Guêpes – “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – which in English, loosely translates to – the more something changes, the more it remains the same. This, unfortunately, seems to be the current state of affairs for an average person, to say nothing of more than 300 million (by the most recent Planning Commission’s estimate) living below the poverty line.

In 2014, as a result of a fiercely spirited campaign run by Narendra Modi, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had completed the most comprehensive electoral victories, securing 336 out of the total 543 Lok Sabha seats, essentially eliminating the competition. To be eligible to be the official Opposition, a political party needs 10% of the total seats, whereas Congress attained 8.1%.

This marked the first election since 1984, where a government had a mandate of this magnitude. The last 10 years with Indian National Congress at the helm, had ravaged the country from within, with high levels of inflation and unemployment accompanied by rampant corruption and woefully inadequate infrastructure plaguing the nation. This was a time when a candidate emphasized not on ‘identity politics’ which is almost a de facto norm in Indian politics since independence, but on issues that affect the daily lives of an average citizen.

So, naturally, when BJP won in a landslide victory, the masses looked upon Narendra Modi as their personal hero, one who had had beginnings as humble as a majority of the people who had voted him, and his party, into power.

On November 8, 2016, Narendra Modi unleashed what he and his Finance Minister, unapologetically consider one of their watershed moments. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his demonetization move from the pulpit – “From midnight November 8, 2016, today, ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes are no longer legal tender.”

This represented more than 86% of the money supply at the time. The central government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) outlined three key objectives of demonetization:

1. To curb ‘black money’ and corruption by preventing hoarding of cash
2. To prevent counterfeiting of currency notes and
3. To fight against terrorism by cutting off cash funding of terrorist groups operating in India.

It is now clear that the government has failed gloriously on all the three counts. By the RBI’s own admission, 98.8% of banned currency notes found a way back into the banking system, and with an approximately ₹5,000 crores additional burden on the exchequer to print the new ₹500 and ₹2,000 bills, the entire rhetoric around demonetization seems to be a ruse at best.

The hoarders of ‘black money’ used a variety of ingenious ways to game the system, one of them being allegedly depositing money into the accounts of poor and low-income individuals. This was especially convenient since they allegedly now had access to millions of new bank accounts opened during Narendra Modi’s supposedly financial inclusion scheme called the “Jan Dhan Yojana”. To that end, the demonetization worked for the hoarders of ‘black money’ and against people who couldn’t even afford two square meals a day.

RBI’s annual report also noted that in 2016-17, the fake Indian currency notes (FINs) represented ₹410 million of ₹500 and ₹1,000 denominations (of more than ₹15 trillion). The question that needs to be asked then is whether counterfeiting would have been better prevented by printing existing notes but with better security features that would be difficult to emulate, rather than disrupt the entire economy of more than 1.2 billion people.

Also, there has been little to no evidence to suggest that demonetization was successful in curtailing (even slightly) the terrorist activities in India. While all these costs have been punitive, they pale in comparison to the human costs that an average person was subjected to.

People whose lives were already filled with so many hardships did not need another ill-conceived move to make it even harder. But that is precisely what happened. I have had cab drivers, on an almost daily basis, tell me how their lives have worsened – by way of jobs getting dried up for them and how they are striving every day to make ends meet for them and their families.

The poor rely not only on one revenue source to make ends meet. They have these little ‘side businesses’ as they like to call them that they rely on to provide buffers, especially in the event of medical emergencies, not only for them and their families, but also for any member of the community that they are a part of. And these and almost exclusively cash-driven.

So is the entire agrarian economy, and so are countless local artisans who rely on selling their wares in a local village. Most of these people are not salaried or contracted workers and toil away the whole day to earn their wages in cash. It is almost farcical on the government’s part to think that people living in the remotest parts of India would have no problems switching to electronic methods of payment overnight.

It is not a surprise, therefore, that an average person feels let down by this administration, with jobs drying up and wages facing a constant downward pressure. There is a growing discontent amongst people and an unmistakable sense of betrayal, the kind you feel from a dear friend in whom you had reposed all your trust.

Even when Narendra Modi was declared the Prime Ministerial candidate for BJP led alliance, the NDA, there were a lot of sceptical voices, both within the party and without. And although he had been absolved of any complicity in the communal riots in 2002 by the Supreme Court, it did little to enhance his image as the far-right Hindu nationalist, who was more likely to advance Hindu nationalist agenda than focus on real issues.

But, because his entire campaign was a pro-governance campaign (his motto “minimum government, maximum governance” struck a chord with both Congress and BJP supporters alike), he had captured the imagination of the entire nation. Another prevailing sentiment was that once he was voted to power, he would come out in support of those ethnic minorities who were rightly feeling marginalized (that would be anyone who didn’t associate with the Hindutva ideology).

Well, the minorities’ worst nightmare was realized when he was voted into power. There were reports of violence perpetrated against people who were allegedly suspected of eating or buying beef.

There were reports of forced conversions by these ‘fringe groups’ who were now a part of the mainstream, emboldened by the tacit support of their dear leader. From the time BJP has come to power, there has been an almost theocratic encroachment on free speech (except when it is they who are spreading their bigoted ideas) – from appointing sycophants to institutions that are dedicated to the free exchange of information and ideas, such as the Film and Television Institute (FTI), to censor boards, there seems to be nothing that they would stop at.

They have been quick to blame while shouldering none of the responsibility for their actions, or for the resulting collateral damage. The attitudes of this administration are not dissimilar to the attitudes of the religious in the following quote from the late Christopher Hitchens. During one of the debates (Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris were debating a couple of rabbis on the existence of Afterlife), Hitchens said to the moderator: “People often ask me whether I get tired of debating the religious. And I say I absolutely do not, because I never know what they are going to say next.”

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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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