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Mythical Mountains Of Garbage In My Backyard: India’s Waste Management Problem

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It could’ve been just another day at work for Mukesh, with his eagle-sharp eyes scavenging for something worth a day’s square meal near the mountain where all the rich men discarded the things they no longer needed. The mountain was growing higher every day as the rich people’s graves dug deeper on their road to development.

Mukesh had seen this mountain as a kid – it wasn’t so much of a mountain back then. Just about the size of a hill maybe. He used to come here with his father when it was his duty to win the bread for his household. Over the past three decades, he has seen the hill grow into a mountain alongside him, as he grew into a man himself. Calling him a man though would be a bit of a mistake – his kind were never considered worthy of that title by the society. They were lesser, always destined to be lesser. The impurest creation of ‘heavenly creatures’ that were given the opportunity to be put on this earth just to clean up after the rich were done defecating.

Something was different that day – he could sense it with every step he took. This was his playground, his hideout, and now his workplace (talk about being passionate about your job); he knew this mountain like the back of his hand. He saw something glittery – it was probably a discarded phone, and he knew what a fortune that could be! Those things could get him enough money to buy a week’s food for his family. But it was further up the steep slope, and he had never trekked up those altitudes before. In his community, they say a ghost eats up those who try to reach the top of the mountain – and anyone who tried to be ambitious and trek up, never returned. Mukesh wasn’t one with a faint heart – in fact, his mother always told everyone that he was the prophetical saviour for their community, and that one day, he would save all of them from misery.

So Mukesh started trekking up and got pretty close to his trophy, and then, just when it seemed like he could grab it, the earth below him broke and the mountain came tumbling down on him. This happened in a fraction of a second – and nobody saw him getting crushed under the weight of 2,5000 metric tonnes of waste. But there was another burden that caused his death by crushing him underneath – and sadly, nobody saw it happen probably because it transpired over centuries of exploitation.

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When the mountain further tumbled down on one of the vehicles of the wealthy, the authorities heard about it and put the disaster on priority. Then, by accident, they found Mukesh’s body while finding the rich person’s. They started investigating who exactly they needed to blame. Who had the time to investigate the real causes anyway?

Apparently, the mountain was deemed unsafe 15 years ago, but nobody bothered to warn Mukesh and his kind. Instead, they gave them more garbage to scavenge through – so much so that the mountain overshot its optimum height by four times! At 60 metres, it is only a little smaller than the Qutub Minar. This is a 21st-century monument indeed. This is what the civilisation will be remembered for – the garbage that we produced that consumed us in the end.

The world has already forgotten Mukesh. It never knew him in the first place. He and a lot of his friends from the community were collectively given one identity: “kachre wala” or the garbage people. The rich weren’t rich enough to give them more identities. Mukesh, the prophetic messiah that he was promised to be, had heard of a different world where workplaces didn’t stink of dead meat. He’d also come to know that in order to get to those workplaces, one must first go to another place called a school. So he sent his children to those places – and very recently, his daughter Munni told him that there is a certain place called ‘Swedesh’ or Sweden (she wasn’t sure about the name) – but they ran out of garbage, and so they import it now from other countries. She asked her father if he could send them some of the garbage from their mountain so that they could earn some money and he wouldn’t have to toil through the day.

What she probably didn’t know was that, in a country like Sweden, his father wouldn’t have a job because they seemingly don’t have the concepts of a ‘higher case’ or a ‘lower caste’. In Sweden, her father too could have demanded for his right to a humane workplace.

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The Ghazipur landfill site that collapsed under heavy rainfall on September 1, 2017,  is one of the three landfills where the National Capital Region’s garbage is dumped. These landfills, already functioning beyond their capacity, are a ticking time bomb under which the city’s development rests. They exist, not because there isn’t a better way to deal with our shit (literally), but because there is a structure that was made aeons ago that put the responsibility of cleanliness on the very people that they disregarded and termed impure. They found a way to put the blame on someone – a way to ensure that the responsibility did not fall on their backyard. It’s hard to believe that while we found a way to send 164 satellites up in space in a single launch, we still haven’t found a way to relieve the “kachre wala” of their job and make the process of waste disposal a sustainable one.

The Ghazipur mishap wasn’t a stand-alone incident – last year in January, Mumbai’s Deonar landfill caught fire owing to the poisonous gases emitted by the garbage rotting there for decades. And we clearly didn’t learn anything. We probably won’t, because one day, the mountain ghost won’t just eat up those who climb up too high. It will reach out to the silent spectators at the base and engulf them all in the mess they made.

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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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